How to critique

I wrote a few short essays on critique for a writing forum where I like to hang out, but figured other people might be interested in some help in this area as well. It’s geared towards online critique groups, but works in person just as well with minor tweaking where reasonable. Bon appétit.

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“You are insufficiently white and fluffy!” you scream at a passing cloud. The cloud pays you no mind. It is secure in its cloudness and has no interest in your opinions, but more importantly, your critique was not a very good one.

“But Valerie,” you ask, “what should I do instead, I who am insecure in my critiquing abilities but eager to develop them further on my path to writing the BEST THING EVER?!”

The simplest method I’ve encountered so far came from an Odyssey workshop taught by CC Finlay. Behold, the four-part critique process.

1) Summarize what you read.
2) Say at least one thing it did well.
3) Say at least one thing it did poorly.
4) Offer at least one suggestion to fix it.

Step 1: Summarize what you read. A couple of sentences suffices, and ideally you want to touch on any theme or subtext you noticed.

Example: “This story is about a puppy who goes on an epic journey to find the Slipper of Superpowers, but his best friend finds the slipper instead and in a jealous rage he becomes a supervillain and vows revenge. It’s an allegory for the inherently self-destructive nature of capitalism, the literal representation of a dog eat dog world.”

Why do this: If the story you read and the story the writer thought they wrote don’t match up, then either the writer needs to figure out where they went wrong, or you didn’t do a great job of reading. Possibly both! But it’s important to know up front that something is amiss.

Step 2: Discuss at least one thing you thought the story did well. Maybe the characters were fully fleshed out, or the imagery was vibrant, or the language took your breath away. Think about stuff like character, plot, setting, language, etc.

Example: “I thought the dialogue was clever and felt true to the experience of puppyness. I laughed out loud at the jokes about eating cat poop.”

Why do this: It’s good for writers to know when they’ve done something right, so they can keep doing it. We all want to fix our flaws, but it’s important to maintain our strengths as well. It also helps cushion the blow for the next bit.

Step 3: Discuss at least one thing you thought the story didn’t do well.

Example: “I thought the setting of the story was poorly described. I wasn’t really sure where they were at any given time. A castle? A cave? They were just sort of walking through blank spaces. Where did all the cat poop even come from?”

Why do this: Regardless of whether you tell a writer HOW to fix something, it’s good for them to know that a reader stumbled over a certain part, or couldn’t suspend disbelief, or found a particular character excessively gross. Just because I can’t fix a car myself doesn’t mean I can’t identify that it’s making a weird noise and smoke is billowing out from under the hood PULL OVER WHAT ARE YOU DOING STOP THE CAR.

Step 4: Offer at least one suggestion for how to improve the work. Yes, I know what I said in step 3, but this is a different step, okay?

Example: “I would give more detail about the setting, maybe show us how they’re going through this maze of catacombs, which is why they keep finding cat poop (CATacombs, get it???).”

Why do this: While the writer is never under any obligation to use your suggestions, it can be helpful to see how other people would fix a problem. Maybe you have exactly the right solution. Maybe your solution helps point the writer in the direction of the right solution. And maybe your solution shows the writer what the obvious answer is, so they can go in an entirely different but still very satisfying direction.

So, one more time, the steps to a useful critique:

1) Summarize what you read.
2) Say at least one thing it did well.
3) Say at least one thing it did poorly.
4) Offer at least one suggestion to fix it.

While I tailored this to stories, it can apply to poetry just as easily. These are not required for any and all critiques offered here, but it’s a good template to start with.

Another simple method, reportedly proffered by Mary Robinette Kowal: the ABCD method.

Look for four things: Awesome, Bored, Confused, Disbelief. If something is great, say so. If there’s a place in the story where you find you’re getting bored, point it out. If something confuses you, ask about it. If some part strains credulity, note it.

The two methods mix and match together pretty well. Step 2 covers the awesome things, while step 3 lets you talk about the boring, confusing or unbelievable stuff.

Additionally, going further to describe WHY you feel bored, confused, etc. will help both the writer and you. The writer, because they can see into your thought process as you read, which gets them out of their own head to consider stuff from an alternate perspective. You, because the more you think about the how and why of other people’s work, the better you’re likely to be at doing the same for your own.

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