Critique for Beginners

Self-editing is one of those things that’s trickier than it sounds. As the writer, you’re too close to the story to see it from a reader’s point of view. You can still clean things up quite a bit and leave less work for your critique partner, beta readers, or a professional editor, though.

Critiquing other writers is one of the best ways you can boost your editing skills. I did a post about beta reading a few weeks ago, and a critique is similar to that. Read over it if you need a quick refresher on communicating with other writers. I want to get more detailed today, because a critique from another writer should go deeper than a beta read.

For our exercises this month, I thought I’d talk about different things you can do while you’re critiquing. I want to go over that in broad strokes today. Starting Friday, I’ll get into detail and show you some specific things you can do.

Finding Work to Critique

This part of it is basically like beta reading. Luckily it’s a lot easier to find authors looking for a beta reader than it is to be one. You can check out my list of places to find beta readers for links if you want. I’ve been using Scribophile lately, which is great because your critiques give you karma points that you can use to upload your own stories and receive critiques from others.

Start small and work your way up

It’s important to remember that it’s not your job to rewrite the story for the author. The only real corrections I make to a story are things like typos or spelling and punctuation errors. Other than that, I just make suggestions and leave the actual rewriting up to the author.

I like to start with just reading the story. I’ll correct any minor spelling or punctuation errors as I read, and make notes about anything that stands out, but initially I want to get a feel for what the author’s trying to show me. It’s really obvious when someone tries to skim their way through a critique, by the way. One person kept asking me what the main character’s gender was in the last piece I put on Scribophile, even though my character pointed out several times that she was female.

Once I finish reading, I go over my notes and double check to be sure I didn’t miss something. If I’m going to call an author’s attention to part of their story, I want to make sure that it’s due to an error on their part and not an error on mine. (Like my friend up above who couldn’t figure out that my female narrator was female).

Look for the why

Pointing out not just that something is wrong, but why it’s wrong, is what separates a beta read from a critique. A beta reader might tell an author “I don’t like this part,” and that could be it–but beta readers aren’t always writers. In a critique, you need to be more specific. “This section is too wordy and it slows down your pacing.” “You’re telling when you should be showing.” “I don’t feel like this is believable due to (previous story details, characterization, actual scientific or historical fact, etc).”

Be honest, but be nice about it

You might think somebody’s story is garbage, but that doesn’t mean you should come right out and say it. On the flip side, some readers will keep criticism to themselves because they don’t want to hurt the writer’s feelings, and that’s not helpful either. The whole point of asking for a critique is to gain advice and perspective that will help improve a story. When you’re doing a critique and you don’t point things out for fear of being mean, you’re shortchanging the author.

You shouldn’t be rude, but you don’t have to endlessly praise people or try to spare their feelings, either. “I” language is a good, neutral way to address difficult topics. “I feel like you could trim this section down a bit. Consider cutting some of these adverbs and maybe combining a few of the sentences together.” “I think this scene is slowing the story down. Nothing happens to further the plot, and it seems like an info dump to me.”

Point out the good as well as the bad

I think it’s important to mark what’s good about a story. This is partly so the author knows they’re not doing EVERYTHING wrong, and partly so they don’t decide it’s low-impact and cut it later.

Ultimately, you’ll have to create your own system

I have a few posts planned to go over macro and micro changes, and I’m going to try and show you helpful things to keep in mind as you critique, but I feel like this is probably enough for an introduction. I’ll see you on Friday for an exercise, and I’ll be back on Wednesday with a post about my experience to date with Twitter. As always, please leave a comment if you have any questions or anything you’d like to add. And if you enjoy my posts, please be sure to pin, tweet, and/or share them. Thanks!

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Image credit: Neven Krcmarek, Unsplash.

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