As writers, especially in this world of so many new indie and self publishing options, we take on many tasks. From writing and editing our books, to illustrating, creating trailers, and also marketing platforms. One must have many talents to succeed -- or else know people with many talents.
We should add another important task to our list: helping other writers. Because in this competitive world, there is no other industry where you will see so many people selflessly helping the competition to succeed. And I think the single most important thing we can do to help other writers is read their work, and then offer up a good critique.
Now "good" in this case is a bit of a misnomer. I think, perhaps, "effective" is likely a better word, as what you're going to have to say about a work is not always positive. In many cases, a critique is going to be a method of delivering criticism, opinions, and advice. The process of writing an effective critique is difficult, often even more-so than writing the stories we love so much. Not everybody takes criticism well, and few people like to hear that there is something wrong, or not working in their work.
Structure of a Critique
When I write up a critique for somebody, I break it down into sections. An opening to introduce my overall thoughts about the work and to show that I read and understood it. Then a paragraph on basic plot elements and general pros and cons about the work. A section on specific elements that are either good or bad, and finally a conclusion to let them know how close they are to a finished product, as well as any final thoughts on it.
The opening is the most important part of a critique. It shows the writer that you read and understood their work, and sets the stage, mood and tone for the rest of the critique. Depending on how you word things, a writer on the receiving end of your critique might decide to stop reading here. The important thing to keep in mind is that this is a mechanism to help the writer, not to criticize or deride his or her work. Simply put, this isn't a review, where the discussion is one-sided. I think it's important to open with some positive overall impressions of the work. Let's face it, not every story that you are asked to read is going to be a work of art. Some are going to need a little work, and some, a lot of work. But remain objective, respectful, and constructive when writing about somebody's work.
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
The second section is where we really get down to work. Often when writing a critique, I will read through the entire work before writing down a single thing, possibly keeping some basic margin notes to collect my thoughts. When it comes to writing this section, you want to stick to broad elements of the work. Does the plot make sense? Are the characters acting in an appropriate way? Do they have consistent personalities? What did you like about the work, is there anything that stood out about the work to you? In this section we should see both positives and negatives, and in the case of negatives, they should be constructive. Don't just give them a list of things that are wrong with it. Tell them how they can improve the work in your eyes. This is where the author of the work is going to get the most value from your critique.
With the third section, we dig deeper into the basic elements of the work. Did the author do something that you particularly liked? Perhaps a character that struck a nerve with you, or to whom you were able to relate. Pick something good to focus on, even if it is the only good thing that you found in the work. Often these critiques are written about unpolished works that have had very little or no editing. They can be rough, but there is a story there that the author wanted to tell, and you need to find that story. At the same time, this is a critique, and so the author of the work should be prepared to hear your honest impressions of the work. If you didn't "get" the story, tell them so, but tell them why. We're not here to stroke egos, we're here to help each other improve our writing right?
Wrap up your critique with a word about how close you think the work is to complete. Again, be respectful, as we are dealing with a writer who has already spent a great many hours writing, so they almost certainly don't want to hear that they aren't at least close to complete. But be honest as well. Writing an effective critique is a balancing act between positive reinforcement and advice on how to improve the work.
There is no such thing as a perfect story. Even the greatest authors don't get it right the first time. Many of the books you pick up in the brick and mortar stores have been through multiple edits and/or rewrites, sometimes numbering into the double-digits. It's unrealistic to think that the first words that are picked for a story will be the final words. At the same time, be selective about who you offer your critiquing skills to, as not every writer is going to be receptive to the advice that you offer. Writing effective critiques can be time consuming, but if done properly, it can be one of the most rewarding things you can do for your fellow writers.
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