Criticism is part and parcel of the writing process. Without it we will never know if our work is any good, but to benefit the writer the comments must rise above the personal – those kindly responses that don’t offend but don’t offer anything useful either – and address the problems with the writing itself, rather than with the writer.
My mother always used to say, If you can’t think of something pleasant to say, don’t say anything. This might be useful advice in some areas of my life, but it’s completely useless when critiquing another’s work. Writers, particularly beginners, want to know if their work hangs together, makes a thumping good read, has believable characters and plot. Some even want to know if they’ve got the spelling and punctuation right, too. Hearing that the result of sleepless nights, tortuous plotting sessions and numerous rewrites is ‘quite a nice read’ is more likely to send us into a slough of depression than any amount of constructive criticism.
A writing group can deliver this heady mix of opinion and advice, but bear in mind that members will often be your peers, on a similar writing quest. No one knows any more than the next person and criticism will always be subjective. So it’s always valuable to have a checklist handy. The list of criteria is long, and I’m not suggesting that every point is addressed for every piece of work from every person in every class – you’d never get anything else done. But you can cherry-pick. If you choose different elements to comment on, each critique can be tailored and you’ll never sound as if you’re saying the same thing to everyone.
By organising your critique into a menu, with starters, mains and desserts, you can arrange your comments into categories of similar weight. You might begin, for example, with a general remark about the time frame, or use of vocabulary. You could go on to discuss a couple of punctuation issues, the tenses that don’t agree and the point of view that slips. You might also mention the use of dialogue and how well it fitted with the characters. Finally, you could comment about the overall structure and whether everything hangs together and the loose ends are neatly tied up. If there was a brief, does the piece fulfil it?
You will undoubtedly read stuff that is not your cup of tea, but always strive to end on a positive note. In our group, when someone is reduced to being pernickety about a spelling mistake that’s obviously a typo, it’s a sure sign that there’s nothing derogatory to say. Critiquing isn’t all about negatives; say something encouraging.
This is not a definitive list and there are some points that overlap, but it’s 20-point basis for constructive critiquing. In no particular order:
Structure: Is the piece balanced? Does it have a beginning, a middle and an end? Is the type of story proportionate to the length of the piece?
Narrative Voice: Is it consistent? Is it reliable and believable? Is it suited to the genre of the piece? Does the author intrude?
Character: Are the characters engaging? How do they influence the story? Can the reader differentiate between them? How well do the characters interact with each other?
Beginning: Does it grab the reader? Is there a sense of where the story is going?
Dialogue: Is it realistic? Does it drive the story along and provide information about the plot or the characters, or is it largely chat that tells the reader nothing? Are adverbs used when speech could express a sentiment better?
Description: Is it relevant? What does it add to the story? Does it set the scene? Do the metaphors and similes work? Is the language appropriate?
Vocabulary: Is the choice of words successful? Do they suit the piece and the characters? Are there any clichés? Are there too many adjectives? How can repetition be avoided?
Punctuation: Does the amount of punctuation fit the style of the piece? Is it consistent? Is it used correctly to manage rhythm and meaning?
Pace: Does the piece move along or does it flag in places? What could be done to improve it? Does the length of sentences have any influence on the pace?
Point of View: Is there more than one? Is it consistent throughout? Does the point of view change within paragraphs? Does this omniscient approach work in this piece or would a single point of view work better?
Key Scene: Does the piece have a key scene? What is it? Is it savoured or skipped over?
Show / Tell: Is there too much telling and not enough showing? Is the use of non-verbal communication effective in showing emotions? Does the dialogue contain clear indicators about feelings and attitudes?
Time Frame: Is it suitable for the length and type of story? Does the family saga spread over a hundred years fit comfortably into 500 words?
Backstory: Is it relevant or necessary? Does it expand the reader’s knowledge and understanding? Does it hinder the pace?
Tense: Is it consistent? Is attention paid to past tenses and are they used correctly?
Number of characters: Is it suitable for the story length? Does a large cast list confuse a short piece?
Mood: How is the mood conveyed and captured? Does the dialogue or description help?
Emotional Impact: Does the piece have any impact on the reader? Is it too sentimental and clichéd or devoid of any feeling? Does the story fulfil its promise? Is it entertaining?
Plot: Is there a discernible storyline or does the piece ramble? Is the plot convincing? Is it strong enough to carry the story and the characters? Are there any unexplained holes in the story? Does the piece feel complete?
Spelling & Grammar: Is attention paid to correct spelling and sentence structure? Is the meaning of the piece altered by incorrect usage?