Nuts And Bolts of Critiquing
In a previous article, Making Your
Workshop Work for You, I discussed being diplomatic in
your critiques. In Attack of the
Killer Critique I covered how to handle a less than tactful
critique. Now let's cover the nuts and bolts of writing a
You know you should be polite and not attack the writer.
Most workshops give you an option on which stories to
critique. Exercise that option and the golden rule: If
you can't say some thing nice, don't say anything at all.
When you read a story for critique, here are the things
you should look at:
1. Is there a clear, believable main plot?
2. Did the story start too soon and give you too much
background information or did it throw you into the
middle of the conflict where you're scrambling to catch
3. Did the main character resolve the problem in the end
or merely resolve to live with it?
4. Do the subplots advance the story or are they simply
window dressing to stall on ending the piece?
1. Did the plot move fast enough to maintain the reader's
2. Did the plot move so fast you're still trying to catch
3. Does the pacing match the style and genre of the story?
i.e.: A melodrama should not be moving at the same pace
an action/adventure story.
1. Did the description of the setting transport you to 'that
time and place' or are you still sitting in your chair/on
the bus bored to tears?
2. Do the descriptions run on for pages or are they
interspersed throughout the story?
3. Do the characters, their actions and the time period
agree/conflict? A millennium American attitude won't work
for a Chinese woman in the Ming dynasty. Nor will current
slang work for an 1800's western.
4. Does the order of events remain consistent throughout
the story? Was the main character's hair dyed blue the
night before only to have her wake up in the morning with
her brown hair miraculously restored? Did the action hero
cut his arm to the bone only to be using it the next day
without any pain or loss of motion?
1. Are the characters 'real'? Do they feel like
stereotypes of all the books you've read? Are they
complex enough to hold your interest or are you yawning
by page two?
2. Were the characters consistent? This is where research
can be so critical. A character that has a disability
cannot suddenly 'lose' that disability half way through
the story or perform feats of strength/intelligence that
are beyond the character's innate abilities. Small
details matter as well. Having a character's eye/hair
color change half way through the story can be very
3. Does the protagonist undergo some sort of change in
the story? If not, what is the purpose of the story? The
change does not have to be a good one. If the story is
dark, it is acceptable for the character to undergo a
4. Is the character's background given in one large lump
or small manageable piece? Was there too much information?
1. Did the dialogue match the time frame?
2. Did the dialogue include unnecessary profanity, too
many sentence fragments, clichés, or too heavy of a
3. Does each character have their own manner of speaking,
like real people do?
4. The dialogue should match the conflict that is
happening between the characters, where it's sexual,
social, physical or political
1. Did the short story stay in one character's point of
view? Did each chapter of a longer work stay with one
character or did it jump around, causing confusion?
2. The story should stay in one POV (point of view). If
it starts in first person (I), or third person (he/she)
it should stay that way throughout.
3. POV shifts should identify the character leading the
scene quickly and easily.
4. In a third person POV the story should stay with
either omniscient point of view (all knowing) or limited
point of view (no head jumping, all clues to other
character's motives are through their actions and
dialogue). If the writer does change the switch should be
seamless and natural. If it's jarring, that is something
that should be noted.
A story should grab your interest from the very first
paragraph. Not all stories need to be spine-tinglers that
have you clutching the pages with a white-knuckle death
grip. If you prefer something more sedate, admit that up
front in your critique. If you prefer more action, make
sure you note that as well. Tell the writer, 'This is my
opinion'. Don't assume that you know how to write the
Keep in mind that writing a short story is far different
than a full novel. If you are critiquing a novel chapter,
you will not be able to see the entire conflict in those
few pages. A novel gives the writer time to create more
complex plots and characters. Each chapter does not have
to resolve even one minor conflict in the story. A short
story does not have time for more than 1 or 2 subplots or
pov's. Every word in a short story should count.
Some writers have a stronger grasp of grammar than others.
Some create vivid worlds, while others create characters
that have you wishing they were real people you could
know in life. Every writer has his or her own unique
style. The objective is to try and help each individual
find ways of strengthening their style and prose.
Also keep in mind that if you go on the attack with your
critiques you are likely to receive the same in return.
The same goes for short meaningless critiques. If you
never write more than a paragraph for other workshop
members, don't expect them to spend their precious spare
time helping you with your writing. Not everyone is going
to return the favor of a critique. That's all right. By
critiquing other stories, you learn how to spot the
problems in your own writing.
Remember that on the other side of the computer screen is
a person who has put a lot of personal effort into the
story you're reading. Treat them as you wish to be
treated. The purpose of a critique is to find fault in a
story, but it is not to destroy the person behind the
writing. Be kind, be professional and have fun.
Copyright 2001 Tina Morgan. All rights reserved