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The Mystique of a Good Critique


I belong to a critique group of nine writers, some of us are published authors and some of us would like to be, but we all bring to the group different degrees of expertise.  Some of us have a good sense of story, some of us have a good eye for mechanics and grammar, some of us have a good command of human dynamics.  We have been together for several years, so we keep each other focused on critiques of our work and not on criticisms.  If that should happen, we delve deeper into what caused the emotion.  Only then can we offer suggestions to the writer.  

“This chapter went nowhere.”

“Your lack of commas confused me.”

“I didn’t like the character.”

A criticism is a judgment, a disapproval, based on an emotion.  Stated in such a vague or negative manner, it comes across as a personal attack of the writer instead of focusing on what the person has written.  It faults the person and zooms in on flaws and weaknesses.  It condemns what is lacking on the page and it is a painful censure of the person’s skill. Its offensiveness puts the writer on the defensive, and both parties gain nothing from the “critique,” other than ill will. 

How does one turn a criticism into a critique?

First of all, neither is painless. 

A good critique is an evaluation, an analysis, based on evidence.  Stated in thoughtful and detailed concrete examples, it looks at things the author has done well and at those that might need to be clarified or revised. A good critique looks at structure, trends, patterns, strengths. It focuses on the written page and how the author crafted it.  It is not all sugar and sweetness; it is specific and helpful.  If something is awry with the story or the structure or the semantics, then a good critique partner can help the author to find a solution and allow for improvement.

Secondly, it takes practice.  Learn how to turn a criticism into a critique.

“This chapter went nowhere.”

Ask for clarification.  “What were you trying to do with this chapter?  Is this chapter or scene necessary?  What other way could you say that?  Does it help to look at the scene before this or the scene that comes after?”

“Your lack of commas confused me.”

“I helped you here with a few examples but you need to double check a good manual and learn their use.” Recommend a good grammar manual.  “From now on, double check your commas before handing out critique pages.”    No one likes to work with someone who continues to do the same proofreading mistakes over and over again, and depends on the critique partner or group to edit and proofread for them every week.  After one or two reminders, I stop proofreading mistakes that the person has refused to fix or learn to fix.

“I didn’t like the character.”

Question the author about this character.  “Is this character integral to your story?  I didn’t like this character; is that how you wanted me to feel? If not, then what was I supposed to feel for him or her?  How could you delve into their character more to soften/change/depict them differently?”  


          There is no mystique about critiquing well.  It takes practice and a dose of kindness. 

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