How to Critique Fiction

If you’ve read any of my previous articles, you know that I’m not a big fan of online critique groups. But why, you ask? I’ll tell you why.

It’s all about the quality.

When you join a critique group, you’re doing it for one reason: to improve your writing. If the feedback you get doesn’t push you toward this goal, it’s not worth it.

Critique groups can be a valuable tool if they’re managed correctly, if the members are devoted to providing substantial, beneficial feedback, and if everyone works together and leaves their pride at the door.

This is not always the case.

Oftentimes, the critiques are hardly critiques at all, amounting to nothing more than a pat on the back or a kick in the face. Nothing of value. Some people are overly harsh, others are too afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings.

But critiques aren’t about praise or condemnation; they’re about analysis and reasonable criticism.

So how do we accomplish that?

The Philosophy Of A Great Critique

In my opinion, there are three pillars of a great critique:

  1. you must first read the work in its entirety
  2. you must not gloss over your criticism
  3. you must be positive.

These three points are so important, we’re going to look over each one in detail You might want to bring a sack lunch, ’cause this might take a while.

1. Read it! You’d be surprised how often people in critique groups don’t fully read what they’re supposed to be critiquing. How exactly is that helpful?

Regardless of whether or not it’s a chore to read, you, as a member of the group, are morally obligated to give it your best shot. If you had a hard time getting through it, if the content or writing was miserable, say so in your critique. But read the whole thing!

If you’re having trouble finding the time, perhaps joining a critique group was a bad decision.

2. Don’t gloss over your criticism. If you didn’t like something, be as direct as possible — don’t sugar-coat, don’t be afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings. Be substantial: saying “It’s fine” or “I thought it was great except for a few things, good job!” is never helpful. Never. Provide reasons, back up your claims, or go home.

3. Be positive. You always want to be encouraging. Don’t break spirits, but help your group members improve their writing by not hesitating to point out what is wrong while at the same time urging them to continue. People respond well to positive stimulation, not ridicule.

There’s more to providing a valuable critique, however, so…

Be sure to consider the following:

State your biases. This is not mentioned often enough within the circles. What are your likes and dislikes? Do you prefer certain genres over others? What is your style? Stating your particular biases will allow the other members of the group to know where you’re coming from.

Likewise, state your experience. What makes you qualified to provide a critique? Remember, experience goes far beyond professional experience — how long have you been writing? Have you ever been published? Do you read a lot? Do you at least have a good grasp of the language?

It is true that some critics and criticisms hold more weight than others. But whether you’re a hobbyist or a professional, let it be known.

Don’t focus on the technical (at first). While it’s important to be grammatically correct and to use proper punctuation, telling someone they’ve misplaced a comma isn’t going to help them very much. In fact, in the very early stages, it’s asinine.

Your critique should focus on the larger issues — first impressions, structure, story elements, glaring errors. If you feel the need to point out the small stuff, tack it to the end of your critique. It’ll probably be fixed during revision, anyway.

Be clear and detailed. Don’t say “Hey, that was great!” or “It was alright, but…” or “I hate it and I hate you.” State your reasons. Quote from the text. Dig deep and provide as much information and insight as you possibly can. Anything less is a waste of time.

Don’t get personal. Never attack the author. If you dislike his or her writing, state why and analyze the reasons. I’m not even telling you to be polite — if you’re a mean-spirited person, then go ahead and be mean-spirited. Just try to be useful, too (Disclaimer: of course, if you have too much of an attitude, you won’t be in the group for long).

Don’t “show” them how it’s done. I frequent a couple graphic design forums, and I often see designers post a work for critique only to have someone reply with: “That’s okay, but try it this way,” and then upload their own version.

That is not helpful, and it does nothing for the original creator. Go ahead and make suggestions, but don’t implement them for the author.

Critiquing isn’t easy. It takes a lot of time and motivation to critique properly, and sometimes it can be a real drag. But if you give great critiques, you will receive great critiques in return.

If you’re interested in reading more, be sure to check out my other post on criticism: How to take criticism (before it takes you!).