I suddenly became very popular last week. Out of the blue, two writers I know contacted me to critique their writing. Critiquing is tough enough for strangers but when it’s for a friend you have to teeter on that tightrope between being helpful and having someone take it personally (yes, people always say they take won’t take it personally but deep down you know they do). Chances are you have your popular weeks too, so I thought I’d share my seven tips for critiquing.
Regular Read – First, read like a regular reader. Don’t think about the technical aspects of writing we all agonize over. Instead, just enjoy. And once you hit the end jot down your general thoughts on what you liked and didn’t like about the story. Then it’s time to slow down, re-read and get serious.
Blah, blah, blah – Do you find yourself speeding through any sections, not even reading them because they go on too long, the author is repeating themselves or it just seems unnecessary? This can be a section of dialogue or description, even an entire scene. I usually mark these sections with “Is this slowing down the story?”
He said, she said – Focus on dialogue. Reading it aloud is helpful. Does it sound like a real conversation? Can you tell different speakers apart even without tags (he said, she said)? Are there unrelenting tags? Are characters making long speeches to impart information that might be shown another way?
Lights, Camera, Action – Is there enough action to keep you interested? Do the verbs bring the sentences to life or are they passive?
Surprise – Are there any surprises? If you find yourself correctly predicting what will happen or feeling like you read this story or some version of it before maybe it needs a revamp. Have any tired clichés snuck into the story?
Be specific -- “The dialogue isn’t great” could make even the toughest writer want to toss their computer out the window while “This speech on page two seems a little stilted” is a lot easier to accept and improve.
Confess – If you’re reading a genre you aren’t familiar with or don’t particularly like let the writer know. One genre’s unbelievable is another genre’s reality. One genre’s predictable is another genre’s expected. If you’re reading a genre you aren’t familiar with you might not “get it”. When reading dismiss the genre expectations and focus on basics like dialogue, suspense and three dimensional characters.
Be Gentle – Remember how you would feel if you were the one being critiqued. Of course it goes without saying to start with what you do like (there’s always something to like). I find that asking leading questions instead of boldly stating what you feel could be changed makes accepting criticism a little easier. Instead of getting defensive (we all do it), when faced with a question the writer can think about it on their own and maybe come to the same conclusion you did.
And don't forget...now they have to critique something of yours!
What tips do you have about critiquing other's work?