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?
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?
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?
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.