How to critique a work of fiction

I’m doing a lot of critiquing these days. Here is a critique format I learned from Maureen F. McHugh in the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, which I attended in 1996. We used it throughout the six-week workshop, and I continue to use it to this day — one of the many invaluable lessons I learned at Clarion.

There are many other formats, but I recommend this one because it’s easy to use and especially helpful for the author. It has four parts:

1. What the story or work is or does, in one or two sentences.
2. The successes of the work.
3. The weakest parts.
4. One or two ideas for the fastest and biggest improvements.

This kind of critique is meant to help the author improve the story before publication — something quite different from an academic or literary analysis, which helps readers understand the story after publication.

Each part of the critique tries to accomplish something different to help the author — and often helps the critiquer as well. The best way to learn to write is to write a lot, and I think the second-best way is to analyze other written works. It’s even better to do it as part of a critique group. This lets you see other viewpoints and get even more ideas about how to improve your writing.

1. What the story or work is or does, in one or two sentences.

This way the author can see if you read the story the author tried to write. For example: “This is a story about racism.” “A couple pauses during a trip and talks about everything but her pregnancy. It becomes clear they’ll break up after the abortion.” “A poet faces constant challenges to his art until he decides to defy authority.”

A unique understanding of the story can spur the author toward a new thematic development. On the other hand, the summary may also show the author that the critiquer wanted to read a different story, and the critiquer’s comments should be interpreted in that light.

It’s okay to say you didn’t understand the story.

2. The successes of the work.

This tells the author what not to change, which is important. It also gives the author some sense of accomplishment. We wouldn’t want the author to make a mistake out of despair and eliminate the good parts.

3. The weakest parts.

This way the author knows what should be changed. This is not the place for typos, quibbles over word choice, and stylistic changes such as how to handle dialog, which should be noted on the manuscript. This is for observations like “There’s no foreshadowing of the murder” or “I didn’t realize for too long that the setting was a hotel” or “I don’t think the main characters are three-dimensional.”

Critiquers might not agree on the successes and weaknesses.

4. One or two ideas for the fastest and biggest improvements.

This way the author and you can focus on the big picture. This can be a learning experience for both of you, since there’s always a lot that could be changed.

Again, there may be disagreements that can help both the author and critiquer evaluate other stories better by observing what different eyes saw in this particular work.

When should you seek a critique?

I suggest: when you don’t know how to improve the work further. Or when you have questions you can’t answer yourself. Don’t waste the critiquer’s time with works that you will revise before you receive the critique. Likewise, critiquers should have the courtesy to return the critique promptly, and should offer constructive rather than destructive criticism.

What should you do as a critiquer?

For me, as a rule, it’s best to read the work through once to get an overall sense, and then read it again to begin critiquing.

How should you conduct a group critique?

Here are the usual rules for feedback:

The author does not speak, since readers will not have the author on hand to explain the work after it is published. The author should be scribbling notes, though.

The critiquers speak in a circle, one after another. If someone else has already said what you found, you can just say “I agree with Miriam about the lack of foreshadowing.”

After every critiquer has spoken, they can continue to discuss, even argue. The author remains silent, taking notes.

Finally, the author may speak if they choose to do so, and more discussion can ensue. Then the author collects the annotated manuscripts and thanks everyone sincerely, and if necessary concealing their anguish.

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