Basics of Critiquing

If you’ve never done a critique — crit for short — rather than immediately plunging into the five dozen things you need to watch for, it will give you a frame into which to plug this information if we discuss the crit itself.

Crits are usually best structured by what we call “the ‘oreo’ approach”:

Start off saying what you liked, even if it is only a sentence. Then rip the thing to shreds. Then finish with a paragraph saying that, despite the fact that the writing sucked, you enjoyed reading it and are looking forward to more.

When you’re through gasping, realize that is somewhat tongue in cheek — but not much. Others on board here have described the critting process as bringing your sick puppy to a bunch of vets and handing out a boxful of scalpels. If your ego is very tied to your work and very fragile, any workshop may be more pain than help for you.

You may want to double-think at this point if the workshop experience will help you. Many of us have been inculcated with the nineteenth-century Romantic ideal that the work is a piece of the artist, a very chunk of the soul, the heart, the being. As a result, any but the most positive response to such a work feels like an attack on one’s self, one’s personality, and can be a nasty, crushing experience.

The problem is in the writer here, not the workshop. This dreadful myth is promulgated by artistes who want to hold their personal sanctity of artistic expression above vulgar criticism — in short, poseurs who don’t want to be judged — amateurs of the rawest sort. The sooner you get over it, the more fun you will have as a writer and the sooner you will probably become publishable other than by accident.

A story is not “a part of you.” It’s a toy, something you created with your imagination and words to give to others so it will amuse them, impress them, change them, if only for the time they are playing with it (reading it). It is an external object, and can be judged completely separately from the creator. Rotten people you would never want to have dinner with have written great fiction, and some wonderful people write stinkers. There’s no connection. If you feel you can reach that realization, workshopping can be extremely helpful.

Still, it reassures any writer to first hear that he or she is doing something right. It also helps to have something positive to put at the end so you leave on an upbeat. A kind word never hurts, and don’t stint on deserved praise.

In between, you can analyze the submitted work in one of several ways, or mix the methods. A method for a work very near finished is the line edit, one of the last things the editor at a publisher does to a book. This is going down the work line by line, looking for grammatical or spelling mistakes. We are supposed to use our spell-checkers before subbing work, but sometimes those fail us, as when it okays pear for pair or pare. This is real nit-picking, but some work is so polished that nits are all that’s left.

On the other end, you can address general problems of plot, plausibility, and overall writing. It’s silly to line edit sentences that may not exist in the next draft, when whole scenes may be dropped. For example, let’s say the person has gotten the concept of the Fitzgerald contraction all wrong, so that the description of the starship accidentally going hyper-light is going to have to be utterly rewritten. When you point that out, nit-picking the nine hundred words that need to be replaced would be pointless. If the person is confused on the concepts of feudal inheritance in the historical fantasy (or any piece that uses feudal terms in such a way that the reader expects them to work as normal) so that the plot just cannot happen this way — the wicked stepfather can’t marry off the heiress so as to continue to control her lands — then discussing sub-plots becomes an exercise only in showing the person how they should be more rigorously logical in constructing a plot.

But you are a fellow workshopper, not an editor or English teacher. It is not enough for you to say, “This is wrong.” If you know enough to know it is wrong, you should be able to tell the person what goes in its place, in stuff as cut-and-dried as grammar or sentence structure. Even when the problem is one of characterization, world-building, or plotting, you should help by suggesting fixes. These may be as sweeping as, “You need to set up a whole new system of inheritance to save this plot, so you had better use new titles for people too, or else you need to start over on the storyline,” or “This guy is too creepy for me or most readers to take as a protagonist. Do you want to change his actions, or make it clearer that someone else is the hero?” Sometimes all you can say is, “This is a fatal flaw at the heart of the plot. I don’t know which way you might want to take that major a rewrite. But I’ll be happy to crit it anew.”

Discussing crits and getting everyone to help figure a way around the problem is the reason for the DISC heading. In our experience, most of the actual learning about writing does not take place in the writing or rewriting, or even the critting: it takes place in discussing criticisms so that people who read the discussion can learn the principles involved. This is why, unlike many lists, we encourage rather than suppress open discussion of them.

One thing you must learn to do is to crit the story, not the genre; crit the writing, not the writer. Your job is to help the subber write his or her story, not the story you would write given the same pieces.

For examples of critting the genre, many hard-core SF’rs are very xenophobic and feel it is their duty to try and prevent anything outside their genre from wasting a workshop’s time (don’t ask why this particular group: they just are, even though many of the great names in SF write full-bore heroic fantasy as well). Some people hate anything that smacks in the least of the romance genre, and will tell you to get those mushy thoughts right out of some character’s head. Never mind that romance has always been part of the genres, they don’t like it. That’s critting the genre, and it is not helping the writer get anywhere: it’s just expressing the critter’s personal tastes. This can be extended to matters of style, as when someone from a journalistic background crits something literary as being “purple prose.” Flat and boring is bad, whether fancy or spare; interesting and descriptive is good, whether Asimov or Le Guin.

Critting the writer, or the philosophy the critter believes to have perceived behind the story, is also unhelpful. Accusing someone of having a bad attitude towards some group may be totally unjustified, and if it isn’t, it probably isn’t going to change a thing. Let’s say I write a story about a woman who, rather than buck the odds in a restrictive male-dominated society, becomes a male impersonator. Some people would then tell me I’m 1) lesbian, 2) saying people shouldn’t fight for the right to be what they are without being punished for it, 3) a transvestite, 4) a reactionary showing that one must be housewifey female or pseudo-male but nothing in between. I’m none of those: but I had this idea for a story and stepping into the skin of someone who felt that was the right choice. It’s not that I have a bad attitude, it’s that I’m exploring bad attitudes. On the other hand, if I were a transvestite, lesbian, reactionary and/or chicken, someone telling me that is not going to change me. The only purpose this sort of phony crit serves is to label the person, to highlight them for group social action, to use social pressure to force them to change, or at least change what they write about. That’s not the purpose of this workshop: try the KKK, NOW, or some other coercive political club on the wing you like.

This is not a magazine, this is a workshop. Not everyone is going to write things you enjoy in the sense of wanting to go to that world. As critters, our job is to work with the writing, not the subject.

Another point to remember is that this workshop contains writers of beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels. A beginner, by definition, is typing by the seat of their pants and knows very few of the rules. There are certain habits of writing and structure they should acquire in order to learn how to structure a publishable story; at that point, they are intermediates.

But one thing many intermediates are not told is that the advanced writers have a different set of rules, basically, knowing which of the “rules” that can be broken purposely and for specific effects. You cannot just take “The Rools” as a list and say anything that doesn’t fit them is wrong. You have to read a piece and say, “What doesn’t work?” not “What doesn’t fit The Rools?”

We know this is confusing for the beginners and intermediates. That’s why Writer’s Digest stuff is always so comfortingly simple and easy to absorb: it’s all for beginners and lower intermediates.

Let’s liken it to frogs. Beginners, frog’s eggs, sit there glistening, and don’t know how to get around the pond. The have to grow eyes and tails and become tadpoles, that is, learn The Rools. Then they’re intermediates. But as long as they keep their tails and stay in the water, they are never going to leap around on land. There is another stage of advancement, and an advanced writer can’t explain the dangerous fuzziness of their usages any more than a frog can explain lungs and croaking to a tadpole.

So while you can invoke The Rools against something that isn’t working, don’t try to beat everyone into submission with it, or into line with it. You may just make yourself look silly because you didn’t recognize the name (or lack of pseudonym) of someone who’s a working writer, not an intermediate.

What Do I Crit?

If you’ve gone through the Six Keys: any topic covered in them. Nyaaah!

Otherwise, you should pay attention to grammar (we know some people hate this and if they ask “no grammar crits, please” you should honor this; if you can’t stand it, don’t crit the thing); we all slip, or our computer use creates slips by slightly sloppy pastes and deletes. Grammar checkers, so called, are pathetically useless to fiction writers. They are geared to business letters, and often can’t find their way through a dependent clause. Look for all the basics of tense and number agreement. A big one is pronoun reference: was it immediately obvious, or did you have to stop to puzzle it out? A reader should never have to do the latter: let the author know.

Spelling you should not have to check: subs should be spell-checked, but sometimes those programs don’t have the words we use. Do be careful that the author isn’t using a purposeful misspelling to either say something about the narrator, or else to “evolve” a familiar word for specific use in the new setting. Then there’s Britishisms vs. Americanisms, both sides being incurable.

As for Brit vs. Yank slang, you might let people know if it’s so thick that a foreigner can’t follow it. Slang can be very thick and still be picked up if it’s repeated in the right contexts — Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is a classic of that, as many people only discovered the glossary when they were finished. Another would be M. T. Anderson’s Feed.

In critting dialogue, make sure you’re up to speed and not critting from the preferred style of the 1930s pulp fiction. Read The Turkey City Lexicon with our annotations to find some of the worst leftovers from the pulp classics. Make sure that dialogue is doing its work, moving information along, and not just filling space or doing unnecessary recapitulation.

You can crit down to the basics: does this world work? This does not mean, “I think a space-faring civilization with hidden vampires is silly.” That’s critting the idea. What we’re looking for is more like, “How does a world that small with that slow a rotation keep atmosphere?” or “Why are there vampires in the space crews? Devil at work or is this a human mutation? How do they pass the physicals?”

A danger point in our genres is the half-steal of cultures. You can sit down and do a variation on samurai society. You can borrow a few of their traits, change others, and go off in original directions. But taking samurai and giving them and their gear cat-on-the-keyboard names is the half-steal, and it smells. It’s like the author didn’t think the reader was bright enough to catch on. The other half-steal, distracting but not fatal, is when you change the culture but keep terminology. The Kel of C. J. Cherryh’s Faded Sun trilogy suffer from this: she kept Tuareg dress and Tuareg words like their very name, but then gave them a very non-Tuareg culture. They can’t be Tuareg-descended — they are complete aliens. If she had only ditched those words they wouldn’t grate on the knowledgeable reader with completely irrelevant echoes.

Does this plot work? is a very germane question. Let the writer know if there were hackneyed bits that made you say bad words in sheer disappointment because it had been rolling along fine until then. The writer may not know that this clever bit they read once has actually been used at least five times a year on screen and in print since Amazing Stories first hit the racks, and we are all sick of it. The poor subber may actually have reinvented the thing all on his or her own and was feeling so proud of it, so try to be nice about calling it a hoary chestnut.

More especially, do events proceed one from another, or are there irrelevant bits that are atmospheric but unnecessary? Editors prefer tight stories at all lengths. If the protag wanders two chapters with the flittery Emphos who then have nothing to do with the resolution and don’t even provide the necessary clue to move things forward, it doesn’t matter how charming they are, the Emphos gotta go. Do things happen at random, or does one step by the protag cause the next by the antag, and back and forth in a fast volley? Did the background set up for the protags make each reaction either the most likely, or else the one they realistically fight their background and change their personality to achieve?

Openings can be life and death. A snappy one is a big plus. A slow one is often slow death. Many people start writing, and only get to the story that matters around chapter three. The rest could really be put in as twenty words of backstory where it’s needed. Better critters should tell you this than an editor. How is pacing and tension? Long stories require breathers as well as cliffhangers. Were the flashbacks better drama than summing it up in twenty words? Is the ending some sort of real conclusion or does it leave too much hanging? Readers and editors do prefer resolution. Is the resolution proportional to the story? Did we wade through 50,000 words for something banal, or are we suddenly scratching our head at a major change in the universe after 1500 words of rather unimpressive action?

Are the emotions real? Is the writing honest? Is the writer being sentimental, using pushbutton words and scenes, or dealing in real sentiment? Is what the characters laugh at uproariously really funny, or at least revealing of their characters? Humor is beastly hard work. Is the Dark Moment truly sad or life-threatening, or slipping into bathos?

Remember, always tell the author why something is not working. If you can’t put your finger on it, say so, and register it as a feeling rather than knowledge: “I can’t see just why, but this conversation leaves me feeling this was put here by an author for a plot reason rather than occurring naturally.”

One of the greatest flaws is letting the reader see or feel the manipulation of the author. We are supposed to be the invisible relators of “true stories” — true at least while the reader wants to sink into them. Anything that breaks the “willing suspension of disbelief” especially in this genre is a disaster.

So it’s just those simple little things, and anything else you spot that jars, that a good crit should cover. Not everyone will catch everything, which is why more than one critter is wanted. Too manycritters usually just repeat themselves. Three is a minimum, six is good, and over ten is too many. If you see someone has already gotten a pile of crits, go crit someone who is being neglected. Odds are they really need the help, and will appreciate it.