Avoiding the Dreaded Shortcrit

Other Worlds is not like other workshops. We don’t allow just anything to count as an actual critique, or set a minimum word count and assume that it will encompass something useful to the writer. “Postcard crits” will be put through to the workshop as a “shortcrit,” one which presents your thoughts to the author but will not count for participation credit.

What constitutes a shortcrit? It’s good to ask, because many people have been rudely surprised to have their critiques downgraded from what they were accustomed to posting on other workshops. We do NOT want to see:

Flames disguised as “honest opinions.” Included in this category are self-indulgent zingers disguised as humor. Comparing the main character to a Martian in drag is neither witty nor helpful, since it tells the author nothing about what a Martian in drag looks or acts like, nor how to avoid this deadly and heretofore undiscovered characterization trap. If you thought the hero was too stupid to live, you are obliged to tell the author why you thought that, and specifically how he let this guy wander around in a daze when it doubtless looked to the writer like the hero was doing all kinds of neat and to-the-plot-point stuff.

“Rah rah” loved-it crits without explanation of what you actually liked. Was it the character interaction, the scene-setting, the snappy dialogue?

“Hated it” crits with no explanation of what you thought did not work. Authors do not need their egos busted with some version of “This thing is just like (plug in author of your choice) but not as well written. It just didn’t cut it for me. Sorry.”

“Clean up the [voice, pacing, dialogue, whatever] and you’ll have a winner” crits with no explanation of how the writer should go about “cleaning up” that aspect of the writing. If the person knew how to do it, odds are they would have done it already.

Straight line-crits that look more like an exercise in proofing/grading an English paper.

Endless “suggestions” on how to bring the story’s grammar into line with “accepted” practice. Such crits totally overlook the issue of style in writing, and completely hamstring an author trying to break outside the box of technically perfect, English-paper writing. Unless one of the following is true, these crits are probably not helpful:

You, the critter, are a big-name author, a successful agent, or a professional editor with a proven track record in the publishing world
The story is full of misspellings and egregiously bad grammar that clearly is not part of the story’s voice.
Mere summaries of the plot. In our experience, too many critters skim the story, miss many important details, and then present a confused summary at odds with the actual plot, scaring the poor author into thinking he should sell his typewriter.

We DO want to see crits that address the critical aspects of any story, long or short:

Hook: does the story grab you from the first line?

Pacing: is there so much worldbuilding or unnecessary description/action that you find your mind wandering? Did one thing happen and now they’ve done nothing but discussed it with different people for half the word count? Do events never give a breather for the reader?
Tension: is there something needing to be resolved that’s important enough to keep the reader reading? Is the opening too long?

Dialogue: is it stilted or “as you know, Bob” or anachronistic slang or otherwise dull, stupid, or inappropriate for the characters? Define “stilted” for the author, because it may be natural to the character to never use contractions.

Characterization: are the characters well-rounded, believable, and human (or alien), or are they acting stupid on demand or unbelievably smart, debonair, and perfect?

Plot: will someone notice if you forget to upload a chapter? Is every single scene necessary to drive the plot forward, or is it meandering like an oxbow river going nowhere in tortuous fashion?

Foreshadowing: is the conclusion supported by the rest of the story, or did you pull a deus ex machina and gift your hero with sudden superpowers at the very end to pull him out of the mess you threw him in?

Denouement: is the climax of your tale really the climax, or does it go by unnoticed by the reader and dribble to an unsatisfactory conclusion, or end abruptly leaving you thinking “Huh? Where’s the rest?”

Quality of writing: this encompasses the story as well as the actual prose. Beautiful style cannot disguise absence of story. Look beyond the clever turns of phrase. Is there a story hiding in there with a distinct beginning, middle, and end? On the other hand, is it all Tell and no Show? If so, good crits suggest better ways to engage the reader than simply baldly stating, “The writing is passive throughout.” The objective is to help the writer learn how NOT to fall into these writing traps.

Thoughtful line crits: these explain the change you’re suggesting and don’t merely cut words because they ring oddly on your ear or violate some “rule” you think should be followed. They also point out overuse of certain words or phrases (we all have pets), clich├ęs, and inappropriate slang or anachronisms such as using “okay” or umbrellas in a medieval fantasy world.

Overall impression: Leave this alone if you are unable to avoid value judgments. There is no such thing as an unrevisable story. There is such a thing as writers who don’t want to do the work to revise it. But the best way to convince them to do so is to communicate your comments in a way that they’ll accept. A crit is the communication, not dictation, of suggestions for revision. As a reader you are entitled to an opinion as to whether you liked or will remember this story. Your job is to try and help the writer polish the story to the best possible version of his/her vision for it. It does not mean that the story “would be great if you just did this.”

Publishability: this is a subjective criterion, but you can give your honest opinion as to:

Is this story original in its take on the subject/plot? If it isn’t, then do say what it is exactly like, though the similarities may arise from the obvious mix of ingredients (the writer having never read the piece) or of cryptomnesia. It is sufficient to say, “This is tired by now, and needs freshening. Some of the things you could change to freshen it are…”
Is there a particular market you think might take it?
Does this story seem to outright rip off characters or plots from somewhere else? Sometimes pieces are obviously fan-fic with the names changed.
Is the writing crude, unpolished, amateurish, or overly flowery, purple, or long-winded?
Shortcrits have nothing at all to do with word count and everything to do with content. A pithy, to-the-point crit is far more helpful to most writers than an extended line crit, unless the writer is a true beginner or writing in English as a second language. We despise writers who will not do even a rudimentary spell check before subbing, but the honest typo is always fair game. Before you waste time and energy polishing the prose, the story has to work as a story first. There’s no way for an author to know that without a big picture crit of the whole thing.