Critiquing Fiction

I like to receive the critique piece as a MS Word doc several days in advance of the critique meeting. It should be no greater than approximately 15 pages, double spaced. Then I read it at least twice. I first read for storyline. Who, what, where and why. I need to assimilate all of this before I have any opinions or do any commenting. However, before I read this first time, I enable the tracking function in MS Word so I can easily document the minutia I hit along the way: tense or number errors, misspellings, incorrect word choices, even some copy editing. I see these minor errors on the first read and often miss them the second time around. I do this first read and correct minor problems without interrupting the dream state, the mental scenes created by the author as I read the manuscript. If there are places that stop me or take me out of the story, I identify them and note them.


Depending on the pressure of time, I take a break and think about the characters and the flow of the piece.  Sometimes I’ll come to a conclusion in general and note it, but most of the time I let the piece gestate—but not for long. About fifteen minutes works for me. I have an internal checklist: Did the logistics make sense? Were the characters consistent? Were they developed? Was the voice of the character(s) authentic? Was Point of View (POV) consistent? Was the back story, narrative and dialogue equally distributed? What about the pacing of the story elements? Did the piece conform to an arc of problem/conflict, rising tension to resolution, climax, then anti-climax. If any of these questions get a ‘no,’ then I list my concerns in a separate place to discuss later, in person, if possible.


When I sit down to read the second time, I already know the story so I’m not distracted by the dream state associated with fiction, I can focus fully on the details: scenes, description, dialogue, sentence structure, voice. And since I now know the end of the piece, I can determine whether the earlier parts support it.


As I work through the piece a second time, I comment two ways. First, I highlight a word, a sentence or a paragraph and insert a comment that does not interfere with the original manuscript text. I can use this technique to suggest changes, ask questions or indicate whether or not something should be removed. Second, I actually edit the manuscript. With tracking enabled, additions are colored (I choose green) and subtractions are strike-through and colored (I choose red). The transparency of these changes is important so the author knows exactly what has been suggested. The author always has the option of accepting or rejecting my change. This may seem intrusive, but it is the simplest way to communicate an area that may need work with a constructive suggestion for change.


All of the above occurs before actually meeting to do the critique. At the meeting, it isn’t necessary to go over the minutia unless it’s important to explain some detail. It’s a lot more important to discuss the more general issues you have already noted in a separate place (I use a list on a separate Word.doc). Since the discussion will not usually cover the minutia, you can email the marked up manuscript back to the author in advance.


One advantage of an in-person critique meeting is communication. You can cover a lot of territory face-to-face that would take reams of writing time. Second, everyone can benefit from a shared critique. It’s an educational process. Third, consensus on a problem in your manuscript by others means it very probably needs work. Fourth, diametrically opposed opinions can point out an interesting piece of writing, but it basically means the author has the option.


Since a critique is essentially adversarial, it’s really important to choose to work with members who are compatible, thoughtful and still open to criticism. There is seldom a lot of time for praise and that’s okay, because the point of the process is to make the manuscript clean and effective. To achieve that, the author must know were the problems are.


Finally, what’s amazing to me is that, even after I work through someone’s piece carefully, I still miss major issues. That’s why it’s so important to have a group of four or five people doing the critique. What you miss, they find and vice versa.


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1 thought on “Critiquing Fiction

  1. Excellent post Charles.

    The RW critique group I belong to follows a similar process, exchanging material electronically a week before we actually meet. Each member of our group prints the material received and we also read each piece twice, making notations on the hard copies. I appreciate the opportunity to also share comments when we meet.

    Feedback from my critique group has been very helpful to me in polishing my writing.

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