All writers need beta-readers to critique their work. You as the writer will not catch all the errors in grammar or missed content as a fresh pair of eyes will. While there are software programs that will do the job of a copy editor and help you iron out typos and other grammatical errors, nothing replaces the human mind when it comes to content and readability.
The first time I experienced a writing critique group, my work was torn apart in a mean spirited, angry fashion. Women looked me in the eye and said that women characters did not act in the way that I portrayed them. That they were offended by the circumstances that I placed my characters into and what I wrote about made them uncomfortable. My writing seemed to evoke strong, negative emotions and I was crushed by the face to face, personal attacks of my work. I almost gave up writing altogether after this experience. Then I moved on to a new community of writers where the reviewers came from all over the world and offered up opinions based on many different cultural experiences and viewpoints. I was astonished to learn that my work, while still bringing up strong emotions, was acceptable to the readers and they wanted to see more. The same reasons that the first group hated my work were the reasons that this larger group of readers liked it and they explained to me WHY they liked it. This made all the difference to me.
Finding the right critique group for you as a writer is very important. Not only should you seek to find writers of an informed skill level who write in your own genre, but you should find writers that have experience in writing critiques. These writers will give you useful information about your work allowing you to improve it. In turn, you need to learn how to write constructive critiques that offers the same level of usefulness to others. It can be a fine line to walk, but if you follow these guidelines, you should be able to become a good critique writer and an asset to your writing group.
Four Guidelines to Great Critiques
Being honest with your fellow writers is important. By not telling your group member that something doesn’t ring true to you as a reader, you may be sparing their feelings, but you are not helping them hone their craft. You need to let your group member know your true thoughts and to explain the reasons behind your opinions. This ties in with being encouraging. When I do a review of a story, I always try and find at least one positive thing to say before I cover any negative aspects. I don’t want to be someone that crushes the emotions of another so that they stop writing, as was done to me in that first writer’s group. By incorporating both positive and negative points in my critiques, I give a more well-rounded opinion of the work. When I make a point about something that I feel may need to be corrected, I make sure that I state it in a way that shows that I respect the other person. We are all here to grow as writers and no matter what your level, there is always someone better and more accomplished than you in the world. It is good to remember that and to be humble.
When I write critiques, I first read the story or chapter without taking any notes. I experience the story as any reader would. Then I go back through it a second time, using a template of topics that I use as an outline for my critique. My template covers the following topics:
For each of these bullet points, I try and write my opinion as related to the story. What I write for each section can be either negative or positive. For instance, if I feel that a writer has a gift for dialog, I will note that in the proper section of my critique and then explain WHY I feel it is superior. If the author has used an abundance of adverbs, I will note it in the Grammar/Mechanics section and explain that most of them need to be removed and why this should be done. Sometimes, a story will not have dialog or characters, such as in an essay. In that case, I remove that section from the review and go on to the next one that applies to that particular work. Grammar and typos I write onto the story itself, making sure that it is clearly marked in a bright color of ink that will not be missed.
A critique is all opinion. It is important to let the author know how you felt about the piece. What questions you have about the characters and how they make you feel. Did the plot interest you? Does the dialog flow naturally? What did you like best about the story and what you liked the least. Is the story memorable? Is there anything that you would change within the content of the story? As you write your critique, try and keep ideas like this in your mind. You don’t want your critique to merely be about typos and grammar mistakes. You want it to be about the content of the story, its pacing, and what it invokes inside you as a reader.
I hope that this has given you a starting point for writing better critiques in your writing group. Remember, critiques are more an art than a science. Allow yourself time to gain a good understanding of how to write a good critique. By helping other authors improve their stories, you will gain new analytical skills with your own writing. It may seem like a great deal of busy work to critique others, but in the end, it will help you master the skill of writing. Go and find a critique group, or start one of your own. You will be glad you did.