Online critique groups, both free and fee-based, abound in every fiction genre. From spontaneous email critique groups that arise from casual chatting between writers to organized critiquing exchange networks that have elaborate rules and point systems, authors of fantasy, romance, science fiction, mystery, horror, and children’s fiction have a wide variety of choices when it comes to getting their manuscripts evaluated. They quickly learn, however, that in order to get their own work critiqued, they must return the favor in kind. Learn how to write critiques that are insightful, impersonal, as objective as possible, and most of all helpful to the writer.
What is a Fiction Writing Critique?
A fiction writing critique is an analysis of a whole or partial manuscript of a novel or short story. A fiction critique points out how marketable the work is, how successful it is at telling the story it’s telling, how good a manuscript it is, how well-written it is, or any other realms of doubt that concern the author. Though in some critique groups the agenda can be more social than functional, the ultimate aim of a critique is to help the writer improve the manuscript.
Critiques are often written in answer to a critiquing request that specifies what kind of help the writer is seeking. Usually, a critique is comprised of general observations, opinions, and analysis, and sometimes, but not necessarily, suggestions for improvement. Most critiques do not include line-by-line edits and proofreading, simply because most manuscripts offered for critique are not yet at the polishing stage; if line-by-line edits are wanted, they will be specified.
The length of a critique is not usually important. Fiction critiques can be as short as a paragraph, as long as several pages, or, more typically, a couple of pages long. They can focus on one part of the manuscript, such as just the hook, or the entire section that was submitted for critiquing. They can be inserted as comments into the text, written in standalone paragraphs, or both.
Who Gives the Critiques?
Critiques are written by other writers and occasionally by editors; rarely are they written by people who are simply readers or fans of the genre. Both professional writers and amateurs participate in critique groups. Often the members of a critique group are all fans of the same genre: science fiction, fantasy, romance, mystery, juvenile fiction, erotica, or literary.
The quality of the critique is linked more to the critiquer’s ability to edit text, analyze story structure, and communicate problems with both clarity and tact than to how well or badly he or she writes fiction. In other words, she may be a good writer, but that doesn’t make her a good critiquer.
The Basic Elements of a Critique
Depending on the rules of the critique group, the critique format can be very rigid or very loose. For those groups allowing unstructured critiques, as long as the critiquer offers insights of value, the writers are happy. Most critiques include:
- An introduction with the critiquer’s overall impressions and evaluation of the manuscript
- An analysis of one or more parts of the manuscript. The analysis can be very general – for example, a discussion of the development of the plot – or very detailed – for example, putting a single passage under a microscope and examining every element of it.
The best fiction writing critiques will avoid the common problems of critique writing and:
- Demonstrate that the critiquer read the manuscript, or a portion of it, closely and attentively.
- Point out both the good and bad parts of the manuscript – in other words, the parts that work and that need work.
- Itself be written in clear, easy to understand language.
- Itself be error-free, so that the author does not dismiss the critiquer’s opinions as amateurish or inattentive.
- Evaluate the manuscript based on what the writer is attempting to accomplish, rather than based on the personal tastes of the critiquer – in other words, it should not criticize the manuscript for being a romance if the critiquer doesn’t happen to like romance stories.
- Make it clear when the critiquer’s bias is coming into play.
- Offer constructive as well as destructive comments. For example, if one points out a character is unlikable, then suggesting different ways to make the character likable can help the author solve, and even more easily identify, the problem.
- Customize the critique to the writer’s level. If the writer is a beginner, focus on basic techniques rather than advanced techniques, and vice versa.
- Customize the critique to the stage of the manuscript. If the manuscript is a first draft, focus on the viability of the story and the characters, rather than finer points of style, unless the writer asks about that specifically.
Focus the Critique on Problem Areas
Critiquers have a wealth of choices when it comes to what parts of the writing and manuscript to ignore, what parts to touch on briefly, and what parts to really focus on. Ideally, they would spend the most time analyzing the areas that need the most work or that others have not focused on. They can examine under a microscope any of the following:
- Grammar and punctuation
- Finer points of writing techniques, such as diction, descriptions, speech tags, and other stylistic choices
Online Critique Groups Are Valuable to Everyone
Writing a critique of a novel or a short story is educational for the writer as well as the manuscript’s author. By analyzing the elements of a manuscript, both beginning and advanced writers can learn how to pinpoint problem areas. By thinking of possible solutions, writers can exercise their creativity and anticipate scenarios that they might encounter in their own work. Learning to write a well-crafted, thoughtful writing critique is valuable for learning to write – period.