Writing is a solitary act for most of us. And usually we are too close to what we’ve written to see what is working and what isn’t. This is where a critique can be powerful. My favorite critiques are from other writers. (This is all separate from an editorial letter from an agent or editor, which would be after critiques.)
I’ve been in a number of critique groups as I moved around the country. Critiques of my work have caught typos, pointed out awkward or confusing sentences, asked for more depth, inspired me, taught me, and corrected me. My critique partners have suggested where to tighten, brainstormed when someone is struggling with a particular issue, shared marketing news, cheered successes, discussed possible comp titles, and become faithful friends.
So, what elements have I seen that make a good critique?
First, encouragement. It can be as simple as “Nice title” or “I like this character” or a smiley face. It could be: “I know you’ll figure this problem out.”
Second, kindness. A lot depends on how something is said. E.g. “I’m not getting this.” versus “This doesn’t make sense.”
Third, honesty. I’d much rather hear something isn’t working than be told polite lies that will become evident when others see my manuscript. E.g. “This is really good,” when it’s not.
Fourth, basic writing knowledge. Most of us don’t know everything about grammar and spelling, but critiquers need to have some basics to catch others’ mistakes.
Fifth, current readers. Those who read in the category and genre you write will have a better understanding of what is working in the current market.
Sixth, questions. Sometimes I learn more from questions than anything else. “Why is your character doing this?” “Where or when is this happening?” “What is your character’s motivation?” Oh, I haven’t made that clear, I realize. Or, I hadn’t thought about that. One of my critiquers often asks, “What’s the heart of the story?” Such a good question. Audrey Chin says, “Critiquing has taught me that the best stories are still the ones that move hearts.”
Seventh, time. It takes time to give a critique, whether it is in person or written. My favorite critique groups are face-to-face and have the writer read the material aloud. Each listener writes comments (positive and negative) on the manuscript, then the comments are shared aloud (unless someone else has already mentioned an issue). Time consuming, but so helpful, especially when one person’s comments prompt confirmation, disagreement, or suggestions from others.
Am I missing anything? Your thoughts are welcome in the comment section.
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.