How to Critique

One of the wonderful things about the writing community is that we get to make writing friends. We get the opportunity to get advice from others who have succeeded (or not) in something we are trying. There is a comradery to this life. And this life of solitude, is made less lonely by having writing groups, writing friends, and writing partnerships.

However, with all the good our community does, there is one undertaking that is both terrifying and heartbreaking: The Critique Request.

Why does the critique request send so many of us into tizzies? There is a long list of reasons, but I believe that it comes down to two things: imposter’s syndrome and not wanting to squash someone.

So, here’s why I say okay and how I go about my critique.

I critique because I understand that the person who asked me feels that I will have insight that can help them. I know that I am not all that, but if they want to know what I am thinking, who am I to say no?

I also understand that finding meaningful critique can be difficult. Often this is because people confuse critique, alpha reading, beta reading, advance release copy reading, and all the various editing types with one another. Those around me know my definitions of each of the above. Some of the definitions are contentious but they are all commonly used in the publication field.

My definitions:

Alpha Reading: This is a read through done by a reader (a writer can be a reader, but this needs to be done with your reader hat on). The reader takes a first look at your draft. They let the writer what worked and didn’t work for them. They might point out the elephant in the room or the plot hole. Their real role is to be your sanity read. Did they like the story at all? Or is this something that needs to be fully rewritten before you continue?

Beta Reading: Again, these are readers (see above). They do a similar thing to the alpha reader only with a bit more vigour. You will be giving them your unedited manuscript (see editing below). They should be pointing out any issues they see – names…why do the names always change? – particular focus is the plot holes and pacing issues.

Editors: These are professionals who are paid to do certain types of manuscript editing. In most cases, I would say that your manuscript should go through alpha readers (if you are going to use them) and then beta readers (and/or story flow editors… I will do a blog on editors and who does what later). After you have rewritten the manuscript and are happy with what you have, your line editor is next. It’s important to understand that a good editor will cost you money. It’s important to understand that these professionals are not readers; they are editors. And your readers are not editors.

Advanced Release Readers (or Advance Copy Readers) are trusted people who have some sort of presence (either by blogging or are a known writer in your genre or are a person you respect). They are going to be your reviewers. They may generate quotes for your cover. Their job is to help with your promotion and to give you that one more check over before you go live. The ultimate hope is that they won’t have a lot of comments for you but are, rather, the people who will say that your book baby is perfect and pink.

Critique: this leaves just one more category – the critique or the critique partner. This is generally one or two trusted writers who can give you good, solid advice in times of trouble. They may only be reading one chapter of your work, or only a few sentences. But they are helping you to hone your craft. Pick your critique partners by finding someone who is better at things you find difficult than yourself.

“Thanks for the long-winded definition outline, NJ,” I hear you say. Well, you are welcome. I do like to be on the same page with people when I am in a conversation (although, in those where we aren’t, I can often find fodder for my writing).

Below I have outlined my critique method. It is not the only way to go about this. But I offer it as a way to help those who have been asked to critique but don’t know where to start.

I firstly will ascertain what my critique partner needs. It is pointless for me to look at the overall flow of the chapter when they are struggling with the interaction between two characters. Let’s say that Nixie has sent me a chapter of her next work. It’s a fairy love story about a mortal falling for a fairy princess. She just says, “hey, NJ, can you please have a look at this. Somethings not working.”

I will reply with something along the lines of, “Sure, Nixie. What do you think could be the issue? Is there anything that I need to know so that it will make more sense as I read?”

“Oh, sure. Bumman has fallen for princess Tiry. She’s playing with him.”

Now I know what the probable issue is, Nixie needs to get away from revamping Shakespeare.

My next step is to read the chapter. I will do this without making any decision about anything (if possible). I am just reading it.

Then I will read it again. Only this time I will have my pens in hand (as I print out my copy), and I will note issues that I see with the chapter in red and good flow/things that I like in green.

After this, I give Nixie my critique. Just like when I am beta reading, I will make this a positive, negative, positive arrangement.

“Hey, Nixie. I had a read of ‘chapter 12: I summer’s night’. Generally, this seems to be a good, well-paced story. I do see what you might be concerned with. When I was reading, I was wondering why Bumman didn’t wise up to what Tiry was doing. Do you think that he is blind with love? I know that it’s an old trope, but it seems that he is and yet, I have no indication as to why he would be like that. Oh, and Tiry seems to change motivations about half-way through. She goes from being besotted by Bumman’s physicality to loathing the human for no reason. I am looking forward to reading this in full when you are ready. I think that this has great promise of doing well with your readers.”

I would hope to get a message back from her saying that she knows now where she went wrong. “I forgot to add in Pink. He’s this mischievous pixie that makes it all messed up. Thanks for having a look.”

The most important thing to remember when giving critique is that you are not the author, so asking questions to get the writer to think about things is helpful. Telling them, “OMG guys, so copying Shakespeare”, only crushes spirits.

I hope that you found this helpful. Do you have a different take on critique? If so, please let me know below. I would love to hear other’s ideas that I might be able to incorporate the next time Nixie emails.

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