The November 2019 issue of The Writer has an interesting article about “How to be a good Critique Partner.” I’ve been asked often enough to critique someone’s manuscript, both as a member of writing groups and individually, and one of the things that will always be at the top of my mind before I start is this: Focus only on the work. The second thing is: Stay positive, even when pointing out a negative by being constructive in criticism. I’ve heard horror stories about critiquing sessions that attacked the writer personally or shredded the writing. That kind of experience can be extremely traumatic. That kind of critique actually reveals more about the person critiquing rather than the writer or the writing and is far from helpful.
Anica Mrose Rissi, the author of The Writer’s article on critiquing has some good points I’d like to share here:
- “Be discerning about what you sign on to read” — From my personal experience, I know I’m not the person to critique (or edit) a military story, horror story, or western. I don’t like those kinds of stories and so I haven’t read many of them. A good critique comes from someone who loves the genre of the book, has read a lot in that genre, and enjoys it.
- “Ask questions first” — talk with the writer about the work and what stage it’s in. Find out what the writer’s expectations are, and what the writer wants to know about the book you’d critique for her.
- “React with your head, heart, and pen (or comment button)” — what every writer wants to know about their work is this: what’s it like to read it when you haven’t written it? Be kind. Be generous with feedback.
- “Don’t hold back on the compliments” — Noting what the writer has done well is just as important as what the problems might be with the writing.
- “Be kind but straightforward” — or in another word, be professional. Be honest in your assessment. Say what you mean and move on. And be respectful of the work.
- “Remember, it’s not your work” — I’ve found it helpful to remind myself of this when I start to think about how I’d change what I’m reading. That’s not my job. My job is to ask questions about what I don’t think works, point out problems, and help the writer see what I see. Then trust the writer to do what will be right for her characters and story and leave it.
Lately, I’ve been writing more book reviews than doing critiques. What’s the difference, you might ask? Well, there are some very big differences, starting with the fact that book reviews are done for finished and published books, and critiques are done on manuscripts that could go through several more drafts before they’re ready to publish. The approach for each is different: for a critique, I’m thinking about the writing and how to help the writer see its potential as well as its problems, while for a book review I’m trying to answer the question: would I recommend this book and why? Every time I finish a book and sit down to write a review, I’m thinking about the book’s strengths and weaknesses, what’s unusual about it, what I really disliked as well as loved about it. What was the experience of reading this book like? It’s rare that I find nothing to recommend about a book, actually (and I feel much the same about classical music), but there are two aspects that can make or break a book for me, i.e. the characters and the use of language, or just how easy is this writing to read?
Characters: I don’t have to adore all the characters. In fact, I expect not to like the antagonist, although I do hope to find him or her interesting in some way. I think of George Warleggan in the Poldark series, for example. I cannot stand this character but at the same time he fascinates me — I want to know why he does what he does, and I want to know how he’ll end up. He is not an evil person, just a selfish narcissist who has felt hurt and slighted in the past by the Poldark family. But what he does often turns out to be evil in its results. Characters need to be real to me, as if I could invite them for coffee and a chat some afternoon, with plausible motivations, thoughts, behavior, and reactions to the world of the story.
Language: Word choice, syntax, paragraph construction, and dialogue all affect the ease of reading and establish a writer’s “voice.” Right now, I’m reading a novel by Jennifer Lash entitled Blood Ties. Lash’s language is dense which makes for slow reading. In fact, her writing style reminds me a lot of Virginia Woolf. I continue to read because her word choice, her English usage, is so rich and colorful. It’s a literary novel. Such writing in a thriller would probably hurt the pace and suspense of the story that belong in a thriller. How a writer uses language can challenge a reader or make it a smooth, easy ride.
Book reviews are not the same as book critiques, even though both are about reading a book with a critical eye. Both can be valuable to a writer for improving the writing of future books. And doing either one can also be helpful in being a better writer.