Sunday, November 20, 2011

How to Deliver a Thoughtful Critique

Think trip. Foray. Fun. Your destination is CCC, a meeting place reserved for Competent, Confident Critics. Since you're traveling with others, and groups vary, be ready to tailor these tips to fit your organization's arrangements.
Inexperienced? Don't let that deter you. You are a reader, right? You don't need to drive the bus to move along the road. Get on board and join the conversation. Your comments count.
Essentials on Your Packing List
Like the toothbrush and clean underwear in your bag, you need to pack your mind with a few essentials before starting out.
  • Respect. When you regard each person in your group with professional dignity, it will be easier for you to criticize fellow members' writing. You will make purposeful comments even when a genre is one you don't normally read, or an author's opinions differ from yours.
  • Friendliness. When you are a team player, you'll find a place to draw a happy face on each manuscript, and be compelled to compliment each writer when it's your turn to speak.
  • Flexibility. When you understand the author's target audience, and what kind of critique s/he wants, your notations will be more appropriate and concise than they would be otherwise. (To save time, the author should provide a brief note stating background to the piece, audience, and the degree of thoroughness wanted in the critiques. It may be anything from an overall impression to as detailed a critique as time allows. If you need clarification of the term "audience" do the exercise below. It illustrates audience differences.
Stuffy Nose Stuff
 Instructions: draw lines to match the words to their owners
1. Exudates                 a. A six-year-old
2. Mucous                   b. A Medical professional in formal writing
3. Snot                         c. An adult in polite company

A Time to Be Picky
If a manuscript's next stop is an editor's desk, mark anything you think could hamper its sale. Look for errors that discredit the writer, such as improper agreement between subject and verb, an extra space between words, a comma accidentally left in when a sentence was changed. Watch for what a computer's spell-check may not catch: peer/pier, foreword/ forward, and so forth. Your careful inspection might give the manuscript the extra horsepower to beat traffic on Publication's super highway.

Pick Three
Try to make three comments about each manuscript you read. Do you need ideas? Below are a baker's dozen. Need more help? Use the "Comments" space below the blog to request it.
  1. Awkward construction. If you read a section more than once, sentence construction may need improvement. If you can't think of how to fix the problem, indicate how many times you read it. "read 2x, 3x," etc.
  2. Cliches. These are fun. For your own writing practice, make a list of cliches and your original substitutes. Be ready to replace the nondescript tires with the best on the road.
  3. Descriptive phrases. Did you find one you liked? Give it a diamond.
  4. Dialog. Comment on the dialog. Does it reveal character? Is it easy to follow? Where, if at all, do you think dialog would improve sections of narrative?
  5. Echoes. Is a word or phrase repeated several times? Circle them.
  6. Flow. If the piece read smoothly, say so. If not, can you spot what interrupted your reading flow? Remember to mention it in your verbal critique.
  7. Hook. Do the opening sentences grab the reader? If not can you suggest a better hook?
  8. Inconsistencies. Look for characters out of voice, time discrepancies, illogical elements or even contradictions to known facts.
  9. Interest. Mention specifics that made the reading interesting to you.
  10. Purpose. Does a piece fulfill its purpose? For example, does it instruct, entertain, provoke thought, or soothe your soul?
  11. Setting. Does a scene lack (and need) a stronger sense of place? Comment on details that enliven the setting.
  12. Verbs. Applaud the superlative. Check your thesaurus for active, expressive verbs to replace the passive or nondescript.
  13. Zingers. Hopefully your group members are closing chapters with zingers. Give them a "Like" in fancy letters.
During the oral critique, direct your comments, prefaced with a positive word of two, to the writer. In a well-attended meeting, limit your observations to three points so others can have a turn. Be honest. Be compassionate. But remember the session's purpose: writing improvement. You should not, by your omissions, steer a writer down Rejection Road.
*Answers to Stuffy Nose Stuff: 1. b, 2. c, 3. a.

Excerpt from an unpublished book, CRAFT: Create, Rewrite, And Fine Tune

(c) 2011, Bernice Simpson


  1. B, I found an error. It's at the bottom of the article: Excerpt fronm. Then under pick 3 #6,I need an explanation as to how the word read is used.

  2. Thanks for catching the typo, Suzi. I'll fix it when I check in tomorrow.

    I've had a problem responding to comments, so I'm going to try again here.

    Under Pick 3, the word "read" sounds like "red," and is the past tense of the verb read (pronounced reed). Little wonder students learning English as a second language have problems. The sentence could be worded like this: "If, when you read the material, it sounds smooth, that means it has a good flow. If you like the way a piece sounds, say so."