There are many opinions as to the proper way to do a critique of someone’s written work. For me, the most important guideline is to give an honest, constructive, and polite assessment of the writing. My goal is to be encouraging, not hurtful, and to help the person improve what they’ve written. This applies whether I’m evaluating fiction or nonfiction.
Here are the steps I believe should be followed when doing a thorough critique of fiction:
1. Overall Impressions: Evaluate the work as a reader.
a. Plot: Does it open with something that captures your attention and makes you want to keep reading? Can you identify the protagonist’s main conflict within the first couple of chapters, or the first pages of a short story? Does the pace seem appropriate for the genre? Do flashbacks, backstory, and descriptions of the setting or characters clarify or obscure what the story is about? Is the ending satisfying, or does it leave lose ends that need to be resolved? Are all subplots also resolved?
b. Setting: Can you visualize where and when the story takes place? Are descriptions of events, the people, culture, and dialog consistent with the setting and time period? Is there too much or too little description, or is it “just right?”
c. Characters: Does each one fulfill a purpose in the story? Can you identify the main characters within the first few pages or chapters? Do they each have their own personality and voice, or do they all feel very similar? Are their names easy to recall and distinctive enough not to be confused with other characters? Do their actions seem consistent with their personality, or do they behave in ways that feel unnatural based on what you’ve read about them? Does the protagonist evolve in some way by the end of the story?
2. The Mechanics: Evaluate the work for structural strengths and weaknesses.
a. Point of View: When the POV changes, is it clear who the new viewpoint character is? Would it strengthen the story to present it from more than one viewpoint, or does using too many viewpoints make the story confusing?
b. Show and Tell: Is there too much description, or too little? Do the characters’ actions and dialog reveal what is going on, or is the author simply telling the reader what he/she needs to know in order to move the plot along?
c. Structure: Were paragraphs and sentences appropriate in length for the scene? Would varying their length add interest or adjust the pace more effectively? Does the choice of words feel appropriate?
d. Grammar: Are there obvious mistakes in grammar and spelling? Are there too many clichés in the narrative or dialog?
I follow a similar process when critiquing nonfiction. Next week I’ll post the specific steps I use.
If you’re interested in having me critique something you wrote, leave a comment on the Critique Contest post.
Have I overlooked any important topics to be covered in a critique? Do you think getting someone else’s opinion on a story before submitting it is helpful or harmful? What are you most interested in when someone critiques your writing?