How do you critique?

I was asked to read a friend’s manuscript the other day – something I was thrilled to do.  Her story had always seemed interesting to me, so I was glad to get a chance to be able to read it.  As I was beginning to go through the first few chapters, I had a thought – what kind of crit is she looking for from me?  I mean, she and I had never exchanged mss before.  She wasn’t one of my regular betas or crit partners…so what was it that I could do for her to help make sure her ms was the best it could be.

I decided to just email and ask her.  Her response was along the lines to what I was thinking – a general overview of thoughts regarding the story, plus anything extra I felt compelled to tell her.

And this got me thinking – what kind of critic am I?  What do I look for?

For me the answer is simple – emotional storyline.  I don’t know if it is because of what I do for a living, or a result of my life experiences, or just the way I am bent (probably a little bit of all of it), but I am always examining the emotional content of stories.  And life.

When I read someone’s ms, I want to be emotionally hooked to the characters and their personal stories.  As a result, I tend to bring that same lens to my critiques.

With my weekly crit group, I do thorough line-by-line crits.  I try to evaluate each and every word – see if I understand why the author is writing in the way they are.  See the hidden messages woven, albeit subconsciously, into the storyline and point them out to the author – just in case it shouldn’t be there.  Sometimes, my crits are intense (though not harsh, according to my crit mates), as I bleed every single page.  And my crit mates do the same for me…bleeding it dry so I can reassemble an improved version of the original.

With the things I Beta, my approach is a little different.  No longer in need of a thorough line-by-line, I tend to be more gestalt – looking at the overall themes, the emotional back story, the subplots.  Does everything fit?  Were things introduced in the beginning chapters developed throughout?  What’s the overall arc of the story.  That kind of thing.

The pages don’t usually bleed red – sometimes there are no marks at all (except the occasion “nice” or “brilliant”).  I generally save all of my comments for the ends of chapters, sections or the book itself.  That is where I list my comments and, if appropriate, concerns.

I take the job of critiquing very seriously – I want to provide feedback that will help the author craft the best possible story.  And I learn – both from the crits I give and those I receive.

How do you crit?  What kinds of things do you look for?

10 thoughts on “How do you critique?

  1. I do a lot of line-editing because that’s what I do for a living, and it helps me to read it when I know those things are corrected. (This is seriously my one OCD trait.)

    Other than that, I look for what’s missing–whether that’s word flow or believable dialogue, or if it’s an emotional tether, pacing, strength, characterization, etc.

    It’s very specific to the writer, usually. Although, there are several things that new writers usually do wrong all the time, such as quote style, info dump, etc.

  2. I try to focus mostly on big-picture things. I think I do much better on the overall story structure than on line-by-line critiques…and I think that’s mostly what I look for, too. In the past, I wanted more detailed crits, but now I’ve kind of honed in on what I need the most help on: the big picture.

  3. I can’t help but line edit. I look at word choice and sentence structure and all that jazz. When I’m beta-ing a whole MS, I leave comments at the end of each chapter (usually).

    My biggest problem? Remembering to say nice things. I just figure that if I didn’t slash it, then the author will know I liked it. Right? Um, wrong.

    I realized as I was reading through a crit I’d gotten back that I LIKED it when someone said they liked a line or something. It made the other stuff easier to swallow. I’m still working on getting these nice things in my crits. It’s hard when I’ve got my beta hat on to pull back the sharp teeth!

  4. Nisa

    It sounds like you are excellent at it. My friend, Mercedes and I were actually just discussing this. I’m new to the critiquing world and I’m pretty sure punctuation is not what anyone would want me to be checking for them… I see the big picture. I can find the glaring holes in plot. I also am good at finding misspelled words or sentences that aren’t smooth, but little details? I think I miss those both in writing and critiquing. I know I miss them in writing… What was the character wearing, where was s/he standing? I tend to gloss over those things because, for the most part, I find them unimportant. But like adding a few decorative touches to a room, those little details can really make a novel feel complete.

  5. We aren’t line editors. I’ll catch the occasional typo or awkward phrase, but mostly I’m reading like a reader. I try to tell the writer whether or not the story works at a wholistic level, where it gets confusing or boring and where they really shine.

  6. Depends if I’m the first or last person in my crit group to read something. First: then it’s story line and character growth. Last: line editing. Though I might pick up stuff the other members didn’t point out (or did but the writer hadn’t changed it the first time).

    One of my crit friends is like Lisa (thank God!). She’s not afraid to tell you if something’s boring. I have a hard time telling someone that because it is, after all, subjective.

  7. I wanted to answer this question yesterday, but I couldn’t get my dumb Internet to work right.

    I look for a lot of things. The consistency and pacing of the story is first and foremost. Are the characters believable? Does the story make sense? Are my emotions sufficiently moved by the story/scene? I also pay attention to voice. Voice is big.

    Line editing is something I will do to some extent. If I’m reading an ms, and I see an error repeated over and over (incorrect hyphenation of modifiers drives me crazy!) I will point it out a couple of times, and then let the writer fix it from there. If it’s a misspelling or a typo, I’ll point it out.

  8. I inline for the most part (comment on everything that hits me as I read, then offer overall comments in the end), unless I am reading a first draft for an overall impression, or a ‘final read’ draft. Then I look carefully at all the wide angle stuff to determine if all the plot points line up, if the motivations are clear and the characters are optimized.

  9. I thought I had this all figured out. But yesterday I realized something while doing research for a new novel. Now I’m huge on research, and it pains me to read a novel when it’s obvious the writer hasn’t bothered to do any. It hurts the authenticity of her book.

    I recently read the novel of one of the girls in my crit group but couldn’t figure out what was off about it. Okay, that’s not entirely true, and I did tell her. But yesterday, it dawned on me what the problem was. It was obvious she had made it all up without doing even a smidgen of research. Sorry, if you’re going to write about eating disorders, cutting, suicide, and depression, you have to do the research first . No cheating allowed. Her character and story sounded, to me, unauthentic. After some nail biting, I decided to tell her the truth. But that is, after all, why she’s in the group. Besides, she can always ignore my comments in the end.😉

  10. My ears are burning, I think😉.

    I always feel presumptuous asking folks for a certain kind of critique, because I feel almost like I’m telling them how much effort I want them to expend… while they’re doing me a favor. Eek!

    I love whatever kind of critique I can get, but work best with a mixture of “this was my reading experience” and “dude, you repeat this word a billion times, and it’s killing me.”

    I also do that kind of mixed critique. If someone wants me to line edit, I’m happy to (I can’t leave commas alone as it is!), but I also try to give them my reading experience as I go, telling them what parts worked for me emotionally, what parts fell flat, etc.

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