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Critiquing Step 2: Be a Reader First, Writer Second

Monday, September 11, 2006

Back in June, at my last grad school residency, I heard something from several first term students that really started to bother me. “I had to go back and re-read this several times looking for mistakes to mark.” I didn’t make the comment then that was running through my head, but will now take the opportunity to do so: critiquing is not “looking for mistakes.” Yes, mistakes are found during the critiquing process (hopefully!), but that should not be our attitude when we sit down to critique something.

When describing what I do for a living to someone the other day, I explained it as: I get paid to point out other people’s mistakes. As a copy editor, my job is to look for mistakes; and with great glee, I obliterate comma splices, unnecessary capitalizations, and grammatical errors of all flavors. However, this is not a good approach to take when critiquing.


For several reasons, but primarily because if we set out to find mistakes, we are going to overlook the positive by becoming mired down in the negative. No, you’re not always going to be able to find something positive to say about everyone’s writing all the time. And sometimes, when there is just nothing else you can say about someone’s work and you must give a critique, suggesting ways to improve the grammar or sentence structure may be the way to go (be positive and encouraging, don’t berate the person).

I know there are some critique groups that bring their work to group, read it there, and critique on the fly, but these are usually groups that have been together for quite some time and the members are familiar with each other’s stories and writing styles. Because my experience with critiquing has always been where I have time—days or weeks—to read something before having to give my critique (either via e-mail or in person in a workshop), that’s the style of critiquing I’m going to focus on.

The First Read-Through
When you sit down to read the latest novel from your favorite published author, do you do it with red pen in hand just waiting to start marking up the pages? Of course not. The first time you sit down with your crit partners’ work, do so as if you were reading a published novel. Just read it.

Because you do want to comment on things that strike you as a reader, keep a notepad or a pad of Post-it notes or, if you’re reading it on your computer (not suggested for the first read-through, but understandable because paper and toner are expensive), start a new document where you can write down your initial thoughts and reactions to the piece. Okay, if you’re like me, you probably feel like you must mark the manuscript for punctuation/grammar the first time through, but try to refrain.

On the first read-through, read for clarity and flow, story and characters:

  • Does the story (chapter, excerpt) hold your interest to the end?
  • Do the scenes flow smoothly, transitioning well from one to another?
  • Were you at any point confused about details, about dialogue (who was speaking), or about the story?
  • Are the characters interesting?
  • Do you get a sense of the plot or major conflict that will be the driving force of the entire novel?
  • If this were a published novel, would you want to read the entire thing based on the excerpt you’ve critiqued?

The Second Read-Through
Now is your chance to put everything you know about writing into practice. With your notes from the first reading at hand, read through the manuscript again, this time, marking/commenting on the details:

  • Identify the Point of View. Is it consistent? Does the writer have a good grasp of it? Are changes in POV smooth and logical?
  • Are sensory details present? Does the author use all five senses? Are there places where sensory detail could be added to enhance the story?
  • What is the setting? Do you get a real sense of place through the author’s description? Does the author give too much description and detract from the story?
  • Is there a good balance between showing and telling? Are verbs active (climbed) rather than passive (was climbing)? Signpost “telling” words to watch for: she felt, she saw, she heard, she thought, she wondered, etc.
  • Look for a balance between narrative and dialogue. Does the author indicate who is speaking without using a “he said” type dialogue tag after each quote? Does the author use narrative to indicate the tone of voice/attitude rather than “embellished” dialogue tags such as she huffed, he bellowed, she remarked slyly.
  • Do the main characters have believable flaws/virtues? Do secondary characters add to the story without stealing the spotlight? Do all characters show believable emotions?
  • Do the main characters have a clear motive powerful enough to create/sustain conflict? What do you (as the reader) feel are the characters’ goals/motives?
  • Is there a distinctiveness in the characters’ “speaking voices” and internal/POV thoughts or does everyone “sound” the same?
  • Is the language of the narrative and dialogue appropriate for the time and place of the setting?
  • Does the author avoid clichéd or dog-eared language? Is the author’s voice/style appropriate for the genre?

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list, nor do you have to answer every question to provide good feedback.

Now you’ve got a good start on a critique—but you aren’t yet ready to send it back to your partner. Stay tuned for Step 3 . . .

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