Friday, May 06, 2011

You Know What Your Problem Is? How to Critique

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I know a lot of writers and I've been involved in a lot of critique groups. I've been pretty lucky, and just about all my experiences have been positive and helpful, which isn't always the case.

We've all seen the great articles about how to be a good critiquer and how to say things in the most diplomatic and helpful way, but if you're new to critiquing, it can be tough knowing what to look for when you read.

Before I start a critique, I like to know what kind of crit the writer is looking for and what stage the piece is in. Understanding what the writer needs goes a long way to being helpful. A rough first draft will get a different read than a polished "about to be sent out" draft.

Everyone has their own way, but this is mine:

For a Rough or Early Draft

One of my crit groups is a first draft "write as you go group." We submit chapters as we write them and they're all right out of our brain first drafts. I ignore things like typos and adverbs and all the polish edits you'd give a final draft, because I know the writer is going to edit a lot before she's done. Right now, she just wants to know if the story is working. I look at macro issues at this stage.
  • Do I like the POV character(s)? (or do I find them interesting enough to read more about them)
  • Are their goals clear so there's narrative drive in the story?
  • Do the characters feel real?
  • Are there good stakes to keep me interested?
  • Is there too much back story, exposition or description?
  • Is the overall structure holding together?
  • Does the opening grab me?
  • Does the ending want me to read more? (either a scene or chapter)
  • Is the premise working for me?
  • Is the pacing good?
  • Does the plot make sense?
  • Are the plot, stakes and goals believable?
  • Have I ever seen this plot or these characters before? (are they fresh, or have they been done)
  • Was is predictable or did it surprise me?
  • Are all the pieces in the right places?
  • Did I spot any recurring themes?
  • Does it grab me, does it hold my attention, do I want to read on?
At this stage it's about the basic storytelling skills, not writing skills. I'm trying to catch the big issues and problems that would be a pain (if not impossible) to fix in a final draft. Not so much the "this could be better" but the "this has to be fixed to make it work." (not in those words though)

For a First or Second Draft

This is when we know there are problems and the work will need revising, but it's been through several author edits and reads. I'll look at all the same things from the rough draft stage, plus get a little closer to the actual text.
  • Does it read well?
  • Do the sentences flow seamlessly or do any stick out or are awkward
  • Are the dialog tags clear?
  • Are there any slow spots?
  • Does the world feel real and fleshed out?
  • Am I confused anywhere?
  • Are there any repetitions? Words, phrases, scenes, information, etc.
  • Do I see any passive issues, too many adverbs, overused adjectives?
  • Is there anything that jumps out at me that would stop me from reading or jar me out of the story?
Now I'm looking for technical skill and word craft. The book should hold together on it's own plot wise, and even though it will have bumps and messy spots along the way, the story should read similarly to a published book. It's not yet publishable, but you can see a book there after some polish. I'm trying to catch the things that would stop someone from reading and smooth out all the rough edges.

For a Final Draft

My other crit group is my professional group. We don't look at anything (usually) until we have a final draft. Then we toss it out there and let the others find all the things we missed. These are the folks who take it from "this is a good story" to "this story rocks." I look for everything from rough and first drafts, plus I read it with a fine-toothed comb. Nothing is too small to mention here, and there are certain professional requirements it has to have.
  • Does the first line intrigue me?
  • Does the first paragraph hook me?
  • Does the first page make me want to read more?
  • Does the first scene grab me?
  • Are there any typos?
  • Are there any unnecessary words or scenes?
  • Does every scene want to make me read the next scene?
  • Is there a reason to keep reading on every page?
  • Does my mind ever start to wander?
  • Is the voice consistent throughout?
  • Are the characters consistent throughout?
  • Do the stakes keep escalating?
  • Is the resolution satisfying?
The book has to stand up to any published book out there. Anything that isn't pro-level quality gets mentioned. I'm trying to catch anything I think might turn an agent (and reader) off. Sometimes I'll find nothing wrong, but a story just won't grab me and I say that. Because sometimes it's just not my kind of story, even though it reads well and does everything a good story should. I don't try to second-guess what the author meant, I just say what I feel and think and they can decide what to do -- if anything -- about it. I try to be the reader they'd get if someone picked the book up off the shelf.

No matter the critique, I focus on the story a lot, because that's what's important in the end. The best-polished writing won't sell squat if the story sucks, and a great story will rise above a few typos or clunky sentences.

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Awesome post. A friend referred your post to me. I'm currently having my story beta read for the first time but I already have an agent waiting for the full, so the pressure is on! Thanks for the great tips. :)

  2. Thanks, and welcome :) Big grats on the full! I'll keep my fingers crossed for you.

  3. Janice,

    Thanks for this! It was perfect :) Also helpful in terms of things to remember when reading my own work and published work. And I really loved how you broke down the crits for different phases. THANK YOU!

  4. A wonderful post and great points. You hit on everything I look for and try to do, and it's an excellent reminder.

  5. Great post. These are also things we can look for in our OWN writing! Thanks.

  6. Looking through your archives and found this. Great post. Printed it out and will definitely use it as a reference. Thank you.

  7. This is a great reference. Thanks very much.

  8. I've only got 1 crit group, and we do most of what you've described here. Sometimes we want brainstorm plot ideas, sometimes we need the nit-picking. The side effect is that our own writing improves as we focus on someone else's work.

  9. great entry. you summed this all up quite nicely.

  10. These are fantastic lists! I'm saving this and pinting out copies for my critpartners/betas.

    I hate how I'll give one of them a first draft to just check out the major elements like plot, characteraization, etc as you outlines. Then I get a list of all my typos...Grrr I know there are typos and awkward sentences but I don't care at this point!

  11. I've been involved in critique groups and partnerships for a while now and I agree it is important to recognise at what stage the MS you're critiquing is. There is little point in giving feedback on the voice or the flow if there are major flaws in the plot or the characters' motivations.

    On a smilar note: what do you do if the writer sepcifically asks you to provide feedback on 'more advanced' options (e.g. the voice, characters' development) and the piece has major problems with too much back story, description or POV? Would you still comment on the 'advanced options'?

  12. Fantastic post! :D This is why I have multiple beta readers.

  13. Kate,

    Yea, as a critiquer, if somebody is asking me for a final draft reading of their work, and it lacks something that should have been taken care of earlier, I would contact the author and talk to them before moving forward. No sense in me telling them that they have a comma out of place when the whole scene should probably be deleted. But if they do like the scene, I'll keep going for them...

  14. Michael: Thanks! If all I got was a list of typos, yep, I'd be mad too. But if it came with real feedback I'd just chalk it up to extra :) Sometimes you can't help it and point out what you see.

    Kate: Absolutely. If someone asks me specifically for something I give it to them. It's my job to provide the feedback requested. I'll also mention the other things. Quite often, it's fixing those fundamental things that will help with the more advanced things. If they fix their POV and cut out the backstory that helps character development, etc.

    Carradee: Love the betas. We should make a Beta Appreciation Day.

    Michael: Plus, sometimes things just get missed. I've had stuff that made it past two crit groups, my agent and two rounds of editing by my editor and we catch it during galley proofs. We all shake our heads and wonder how we missed it, but we did. It's hard to get everything.

  15. Great and interesting article. Will tweet to our followers, think they will find it useful. Best regards. Adam

  16. Hi Janice. I came upon your site from a Twitter mention. This is a great post. I have a book review blog where I review debut authors. The tips here will help me in what to look for while I'm reading. Thank you!

  17. Rebecca, welcome to the blog! So cool that it can help you with your reviews. An unexpected bonus :)