When I was fortunate enough to find the South Carolina Writer’s Workshop, be accepted as a member, and joined the Surfside chapter, I was of course thrilled. I remember discussing how the meetings work. You know, the usual stuff like dates to meet, how to submit my work, how to accept critiques of my work. And then the first meeting came. I remained thrilled and naturally went through all the normal emotions — excitement, anticipation, nervousness — all the feelings anyone might experience when they’re about to have their work looked at and yes, scrutinized.
I knew I needed to be open-minded about the critique. I knew not to take the feedback personally and to leave my ego at the door after all, I was in this to learn and to improve.
Then they told me I would also critique others in my group. Huh? Really? Didn’t they know I like to be liked? What would I say to others? I don’t have a PhD in English Lit. I screw up tenses and make the age old mistake with its versus it’s all the time.
Okay. I can do this and so can you. Remember, the person whose work you are reading wants feedback. They want to improve. They wanted to present their work and be scrutinized because it’s a tough, competitive world out there. They are like me. Tired of the family/friend who says, “This is good.” They can’t say why it’s good or bring themselves to point out weaknesses instead, they say, “No. It’s really good. I liked it.” You try to help them along with questions like, “Was the conflict believable? Did the story move along? What about how the protagonist fought the giant ants and then came face-to-face with Bambi’s mother? Did it make sense?” And they respond, “I liked it. It was all good.” Bull. Nothing is all good. Hence the need to find a writer’s group and seek feedback.
So you’re like me and want to be liked. Okay. Just critique the way you would like to be critiqued – honesty with encouragement and give examples of what you mean. Help to focus the writer on the main issues. There are two objectives to a critique. 1) To identify weaknesses; and, 2) Offer constructive advice. That doesn’t mean you have to destroy the author. Be objective and honor the writer’s voice but help them learn so it isn‘t a waste of their time or your own.
I checked out some web sites to assist me in the art of critiquing. I also tried to come up with a checklist to help me. The checklist isn’t all-inclusive but it’s a start that keeps me on track.
Before I give the list, I want to say that you should always let the author know if the type of story you’re asked to read isn’t really your thing. Let’s say it’s a fantasy about animalistic-like aliens who come to earth and take over dog mills so they can conquer the world. Well, fantasy might not be of interest to you so tell the author. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t offer feedback. You recognize a good story when you see one so provide comment on the areas that matter in any good story telling.
1. Opening – was it captivating? Did you find it interesting? Did it grab your attention?
2. Conflict – is there action? Struggle? Emotional conflict? Something that keeps your interest and makes you want to turn the page?
3. Setting – does the author paint a picture of where the story takes place? Is it consistent to the era? Is there too much detail that drags the story down? Two pages on how the hotel room looked right down to a complete description of bedbugs will probably not help the story plot or keep the reader’s interest.
4. Point of View – is that consistent? Through whose eyes are we seeing the story? Whose emotions are in play? Is there a lot of head hopping?
5. Show Versus Tell – how much is the author telling us and how much does the reader simply know because of how the story is shown? Is the POV consistent with the character? Does it represent how he/she would think, feel, react?
There are other elements as well to a critique. Pacing is important. Does the story move along or slow to a snail in parts? Does it flow well in a logical order? If the story involves flashbacks, is it confusing? Does the reader get lost in to much background information? Does the plot make sense or does it get lost along the way? Is too much time spent on details that get too technical while the main action is left flapping in the wind? Are the characters believable even if they are aliens who bark and quote Hemingway? Is the dialogue consistent to their personality? Can you sense who is speaking without being told? And finally, the mechanics of grammar, spelling, choice of words all play a part. Writer’s know what they want to say, what they intended to say, and when they read back their own words, that’s what they see…even if it isn’t there. I no of what I spoke.
As much as possible, give examples on how to fix the weakness. Offer suggestions without taking over the style and let the author come to their own conclusions on how to improve.
Above all else – praise. That is so important. Add positive comments on where the author did something really good. It might be a funny line or a description, or the story itself that has good potential, but there is always something good that can be found. “We all need to be told where we are very good as well as where we are very, very bad. We cannot grow, otherwise.” – Pete Murphy.
For more resources check out: http://www.crayne.com. Also see: shortstorygroup.com; and suite101.com.
Hope to see you at the SCWW Conference October 19-21.
Linda Cookingham (aka. L. Thomas-Cook)
Writer, Photographer, Member of the BOD SCWW, Mother, Wife, Beach Walker, Dog Lover, and all around dreamer.