Weekly Writing Memo: Robin’s Guide to Critiquing

Weekly Writing MemoAs Kaye mentioned in her blogpost “The 2016 Writing to Be Read,” I am Robin, I’m a writer, and I run the Author the World blog. I will be doing a “Weekly Writing Memo” on Wednesdays each week on Writing to Be Read that will consist of writing tips, tricks, and Q&As. So feel free to post questions in the comment section, tweet me, or e-mail me at: AuthorTheWorld (at) Gmail (dot) Com.

This week’s memo will deal with one of my specialties, critiquing. I spend a lot of time working as either a Beta or Alpha reader for people’s fiction and screenwriting, and honestly if I’m not writing myself it’s my next favorite thing to do.

Over the years between working with other writers and being in workshop settings, I’ve found that many people really struggle with giving critiques. When looking at a manuscript of any kind, it can be overwhelming to figure out where to start with feedback, to decide what is and isn’t important, and what is and isn’t helpful. So here is the way I approach feedback that seems to have the most success in helping other writers improve their work.

What Makes a Good Critique?

Before you can write a good critique, you have to know what one is. A good critique usually involves these five things:

  1. It’s detailed and says more than just “I liked it” or “I didn’t.”
  2. It’s objective, and minimizes the criticisms based on personal preference. (i.e., “I hate horror, so I don’t like this story.”)
  3. It doesn’t try to write the story for the author.
  4. It’s honest, but not mean.
  5. It’s about the writing, not the writer.

These are my goals I keep in mind when I do a critique. As long as every comment I make about the story connects to all of these things it’s a good note to make. With that in mind, here is how I go about giving a critique from first being asked, to the sending it back to the writer.

Ask What the Writer Expects.

In my experience, every writer has different expectations when they ask for a critique. Some really just want line edits. Others want you to tear their story apart. So the first thing I do whenever I offer to read for someone, is to ask how detailed they want me to be and what they are looking for.

Ask What Stage the Project is in.

I also ask what draft the project is in so I can get a feel for what stage the writing is at. A project in the first few drafts usually doesn’t need line edits yet because a lot will change along the way, so I focus on larger story issues (plot, character, tone, setting, etc). If it’s toward the final stage, then I will do line edits as well as larger issues.

This saves myself the trouble of marking things that may not be in the story later on, but also helps prevent shocking the writer. Early drafts will most likely have a lot of larger notes, as well as line notes if you do both at once, which can dismay a writer and overwhelm them.

Read Like it’s a Whodunit.

When reading for critiquing, you have to read like it’s a puzzle, not like it is entertainment. If you let yourself get sucked into the story, you stop paying attention to the faults. When I was little I used read those 2-minute Mystery books. The key to them is that you have to pay attention to every little detail and not get distracted.

I find that when I approach someone’s writing the same way, it helps me catch the little things—character mannerisms, minor plot details, foreshadowing, etc. Being able to catch these things early, lets me know what to expect in the story to come so I can make notes as to whether the story is meeting the expectations it is setting up or not.

The hardest part of critiquing, in my opinion, is staying in the critical mindset. It’s easy to get sucked into the characters, and the story, and to stop analyzing what is and isn’t working. By approaching the writing with the mindset that there is a puzzle to solve within it, it helps me keep analyzing it. At worst, if you feel yourself reading a lot and not analyzing, take a short break.

What to Mark?

The goal of an Alpha or Beta reader is to help the author see how an audience is reading the story, and to find issues the writer might be blind to. But how do you show this in comments? If you’re commenting on the line level, then of course you’re pointing out typos, grammar issues, and the like. If you’re commenting on content, then you have to put more thought into it.

Generally, I leave a comment when:

  1. I am confused by something in the text.

I write HOW I’m confused. Is it because the character said one thing but did another? Is it because there was no foreshadowing? Is it because the language is confusing? Etc. The key is to EXPLAIN what it is that leads to the confusion and not to simply write that you’re confused.

  1. I don’t believe something in the text.

I will write it’s unbelievable, but I will also write a line or two about WHY I don’t feel it is believable. Then I go an extra step and I tell the author HOW I think they could make me believe it. That way, if they want to stick with the idea, they know what it would take for me as a reader to believe. If I just think it isn’t ever believable, then I will offer 1 or 2 suggestions of similar things that I think would be believable not for the author to necessarily use, but to point them in the right direction.

  1. I have a question.

Whenever a question pops into my head, I will usually make a comment to let the author know that, as a reader, this is what I’m wondering at this moment. That way if the text is leading me in a direction the author may not want, they are aware of it. For example, if the text mentions a brother and builds up suspense around him, I may mention this, that way if the brother is not a character that comes back the author can minimize the attention on him so I, as a reader, don’t have that question pop up.

  1. I pause or feel bored.

Whenever you feel like stopping reading, ask yourself WHY. Are you bored? Is the passage slow? Is the character uninteresting? Has the plot not started? Etc. Then put a comment marking the passage and explaining WHY you are feeling that way. I also usually try to go back and pinpoint the moment the story stopped being interesting so I can mark it as well, and then I try to figure out which thread line (character, plot, setting, etc) it is that dropped out of the text so the writer knows what it is specifically that is missing. At the very least, though, always mark WHERE you feel bored and try to explain WHY.

  1. Something is missing.

A character is forgotten, a plotline is not finished, a setting is not described, etc. Whenever I feel like something is missing, I explain WHAT, I explain WHY it matters, and I pinpoint WHERE it first begins to be missing.

Ask Questions.

The other big thing to consider when commenting is how you are interpreting things vs. how the writer intended them. Whenever I think something I am commenting on could be something that is not what the writer intended, I make a note about that says something along the lines of:

“I’m interpreting this part this way, but I think you mean it this way. Here’s why I interpreted it the way I did and here’s what you should change if you mean it the other way.”

That way the author can see what and where there is a mix up.

Final Notes.

The key to all of the above is basically SPECIFICITY. Feedback is only helpful if you can be specific about what it is that you think is wrong. Ask yourself WHY do I feel this is wrong, HOW it is wrong, and WHERE it is wrong. Now sometimes you don’t know what is wrong or just can’t figure it out, but you do know something is wrong.

It’s perfectly valid to just leave that as a comment, but still try to give some specifics about what FEELS wrong. Tell them it feels slow, or boring (in kinder words if possible), but describe something so the author has an idea of where to look for the problem. At the very least, it’ll give them a specific passage to get a second opinion on.

The important thing to remember is that all feedback is opinion. Everyone can read the same story and come up with a different idea of what is wrong and how to fix it. So when you’re giving notes, try to keep things as objective as you can. If you know something you’re commenting on is just your preference, I always explicitly say that in the feedback and then explain WHY I prefer it that way. Then the author can decide if your preference is one they want to use or not.

Lastly, when you give feedback always expect that the writer may not use any of it. It seems like a defeatist thing to say, but writers (myself included) have their own idea of what works and what doesn’t and what they want in their story. Just know that in going through the process of analyzing the work and forcing yourself to think critically to explain how you feel about it, you are helping your own writing. Every time I give feedback, I feel like I can approach my own work more analytically, and like I am more prone to finding my own errors.

You won’t catch everything, no one can, but be honest, be specific, and remember it’s not about the writer it’s about the writing. Everything you comment should be about making the story better and helping the writer tell the story THEY want to tell, not what YOU think the story should be about. If you can keep that in mind your feedback will be helpful, it’s just up to the writer on whether they want to use it or not.