Yesterday I waxed poetic about why writing critiques are so important to growing and developing writing craft. But how do you actually give a creative writing critique? What is the difference between a good crit and a bad one?
Today I’m going to share some of the things I’ve learned while stumbling through online writer’s groups over the last couple of years. These tips are applicable whether you are providing feedback for a high school English course, helping out a friend, a university paper, or the aforementioned online writing circles. I am going to focus on short stories.
What is a Creative Writing Critique?
A creative writing critique is feedback on a piece of writing–short story, novel, memoir, article, etc.–that is designed to help the writer improve their writing craft.
What is writing craft? Writing craft refers to the the linguistic tools and techniques an author uses to convey a message or tell a story. The two broadest categories within writing craft are Narrative Elements (Big Picture): Setting, Foreshadowing, Characterization, and Theme; and Literary Devices: Imagery, Diction, Metaphor, Allegory, etc. and Sentence Structure (The Nitty Gritty). It does not refer to grammar, punctuation, or spelling except where these things affect the writer’s stylistic choices.
The Big Picture
When critiquing a piece of creative writing, you should have three main macro-objectives:
Identify the writer’s goal. In a research paper, this is the hypothesis. In a short story, this will be the goal of the main character. Depending on the piece, there may be a secondary goal like the writer’s theme or moral.
Evaluate the evidence. Do the characters’ motivations add up? Are their actions believable? Does the plot evolve in a natural, believable way? When you are reading the story, write down any questions that occur to you. If they remain unresolved at the end of the story, point them out in your critique. Unresolved questions in the story are often referred to as “plot holes.”
Describe the impact. How did you feel upon finishing the piece? Did the writer achieve his or her goal? Stories don’t have to finish on a positive note in order to feel complete. All loose ends do not necessarily need to be tied up. But there should be a sense that the story is finished. The emotional impact of the ending will have a lot to do with how the writer handled the Narrative Elements of Setting, Foreshadowing, and Characterization. If the story does not feel resolved or complete, try to identify what is missing. But if you can’t, just provide the writer with how you felt at the end and let them identify how to solve the problem.
The Nitty Gritty
After you’ve assessed the Big Picture stuff, it’s time to dig into the micro-elements. This includes, but is not limited to:
Imagery: Great imagery is what makes a story come alive for the reader, whether it is description of characters or settings. Metaphor and simile are the most used literary devices that affect imagery. Does the author mix metaphors, use too many similes to describe one thing, contradict themselves with their descriptions? This is the kind of thing you want to be on the lookout for. The best imagery plays into a bigger theme, and can be used to demonstrate shifts in the character as they move through the plot. Make sure to point out images you love as well as the ones that have you scratching your head so that the author has a chance to replicate their successes in the future.
Dialogue: This is one of the aspects of creating writing even the best story tellers often struggle with. Does the dialogue flow naturally? Are the characters’ voices as individual as they are? Does the dialogue reveal too much or too little? Realistic dialogue and effective dialogue are not the same thing! In real life, we blather on to one another endlessly about things that don’t matter. We don’t need to read that in fiction. Dialogue must serve a purpose. It should show the reader something about a character, reveal something about the plot (but not so much that it acts as an info dump), it should create tension. Straight-forward, Q&A style dialogue is boring. Interesting, effective dialogue reveals more through what isn’t being said than what is being said. This is where you should look at the writer’s choice of dialogue tags and action beats. Do the action beats reveal something to the reader or are they simply stage-direction? Too many descriptive tags, or tags modified by adjectives are usually signs of “lazy” writing, telling vs showing. Point out what works for you and what doesn’t.
Point of View: How close does the writer allow you to get to the main character? The more intimate the POV the more emotional investment from the reader. Is the writer holding the reader at a distance via “to be” verbs, filler words, and filter words? Is there “head-hopping” between characters? Is the POV consistent throughout the piece, or does an omniscient narrator sometimes drop in and reveal things that the POV character wouldn’t know? Identify the writer’s choice of POV, and evaluate whether or not that choice serves the goals of the story.
Showing and Telling: Despite the rule being “show don’t tell,” good stories need both. Showing is used to slow the pacing, allow the reader to linger on important imagery and details, and add sensory detail to the scenes that increase the reader’s ability to identify with the characters and imagine themselves in the story world. Telling is used to pick up the pace, propel the plot forward, blast through action sequences, and leave the reader gasping for breath. How much of each the piece needs will depend on the story. Help the writer to identify areas that fall flat (and could use more showing) or that meander (and could use more telling).
Vocabulary and Sentence Structure: Identify weak verbs that could be strengthened, adverbs that could be described in more detail [“He said angrily.” vs “His face purpled and spittle exploded from his mouth.”], redundancy “she climbed upward,” etc. This is one area where a writer’s individual style can vary. Faster paced narratives, like action/drama, allow for more “telling” which in turn allows for more descriptive shortcuts, like adverbs. Your goal as critique partner is to point out areas that can be made stronger and areas that the style is interfering with pacing. Sentence Structure, likewise, has stylistic implications. Some writers prefer short, succinct sentences. Some like long, flowing, poetic prose. Your goal is not to impose your own personal preferences on your critique partner, but to ensure they remain true to their own style, and are using the right type of sentences in the right situations. Like showing and telling, short sentences move quickly, longer sentences linger. They should be used purposefully!
Okay, I’ll stop there. You have a lot of options when it comes to what you can critique. You do not, by any means, have to address all of this. Usually, I focus on whatever aspects of the craft I have been studying recently and which are fresh in my brain. I also point out the things that are weaknesses in my own writing, because that’s what I’m primed to pay attention to. Focus on the aspects that stand out to you, and don’t go trying to pick the whole thing apart piece by piece. That’s what line edits are for!
What is a Creative Writing Critique NOT?
There are a few things you should avoid when providing a creative writing critique. A critique is not:
Personal. You are critiquing the writing not the writer. Address the aspects of the story directly, without referring to the writer themselves. Be careful with your language so that you don’t come across as condescending, rude, or insulting. There is a big different between “Your writing is derivative and boring” and “This is a cliche, is there a way to make this image more original and specific to your character?”
An Invitation to Re-Write. It is never okay to rewrite another writer’s work. This is a major faux-pas! Sometimes it is necessary to provide an example of what you are talking about, but this should be presented as an example and not a prescription. Use the “comments” feature and never directly edit within the document, even for typos.
A Grammar lesson. If you notice a particular grammatical error that is repeated throughout the piece, mention it briefly but don’t point out every instance. Spelling and grammar are the business of copy editors. Some grammatical “errors” may be used to achieve a specific tone or style, and are not necessarily wrong just because the are ungrammatical.
An Award Ceremony. Glowing praises are nice. But a critique that is only positive will not help the writer to grow and improve. If you really can’t find anything wrong with the piece, at least ask the writer some probing questions that might get them thinking about their story on a deeper level.
When should you critique?
Not everyone who shares their work with you actually wants a critique. It is good writerly etiquette to wait until you are asked to provide any kind of critical commentary on a piece of writing. Some people are just writing for themselves and don’t care what you think about it. Don’t waste you time and energy on writers who are not actively trying to improve their craft. That said, if you belong to a writer’s group or critique group, it is probably safe to assume that critique is welcome. If you are unsure, ask the writer what kind of feedback they are looking for and cater to their requests.
Practice Makes PROGRESS
Critiques writing, like any kind of writing, is an art. It requires practice. You will make mistakes at first! I still make mistakes. It is helpful if you can practice with someone who will not have their feelings hurt if you fumble a delivery. Newer writers in particular, who haven’t grown the calloused hides of us veterans, should be handled gently. Speaking of calloused hides, why don’t you practice in my Story Laboratory? I’d love to have the feedback, and you really can’t hurt my feelings. It’s a critique practice safe zone!
When in doubt, follow the golden rule: provide critique in the way you would like to receive critique.
In the event that you do hurt someone’s feelings, apologize, clarify, and move on. You will have plenty of opportunities to be on the other side of the fence. In my next Critique Mystique article, I’ll tell you How to Receive a Creative Writing Critique with all your grace and dignity intact. Well, on the surface, at least.
What do you think of my critique articles so far? Is there anything that you would like me to clarify or maybe expand upon in the future? Hit me with your questions and suggestions in the comments.