Despatches from KSP – Day 14: How to Commit Critique
Well, this will be my last Despatch from KSP! Tomorrow I head home to Brisneyland and my normal life. I’m looking forward to catching up with family and friends, sleeping in my own bed, cuddles with the Tech Badger, and snuggling up to my newly arrived Vigil banner (don’t judge me!).
I’ve had a fantastic time at KSP – the quiet and the lack of distractions here at Katharine’s Place have been fantastic. I have achieved so much more than I would have at home where all my obligations and books live (not that I don’t love them, but the break has been nice). I thought for my last despatch I would give my Top Ten Tips for Committing a Critique.
So, if you’re part of a writers group (and you probably should be, at least in the early part of your writing journey), you’re going to have to critique other people’s creative endeavours. The first principle you need to keep in mind is respect for the work you’re considering. It might not be in your preferred genre, it might not be the story you’d have written, but you owe it to the person who wrote it to give it your best attention. This doesn’t mean you have to be nice, i.e. avoid saying anything critical, but it does mean you don’t denigrate either the writing or its author.
It’s never acceptable to give a critique that is simply “I JUST DIDN’T LIKE IT” because that’s not helpful. Why didn’t you like it? What didn’t work for you? You say “This characterisation didn’t work for me because I found John unconvincing/his motivation unlikely; perhaps you might consider how the character might work with/as a different gender/age group/racial group/attitude to life/motivation/etc.” Direct the comments to the work, not the writer – this is not personal.
You need to think carefully about the story you’ve read and the points below will hopefully help you to focus your critique in a manner than is meaningful and useful for the author – and they should also help you when you’re writing and editing your own work, because critiquing isn’t simply an exercise for others to learn from.
- If you expect other people in the group to critique your work, then you must critique theirs in return. Few things are worse in a writers group than that one person who takes and never gives. Don’t be that person.
- When you read the work, acknowledge your genre biases and assess the work without falling back on them. Assess the story based on its strengths and weaknesses, don’t judge it because you personally don’t like science fiction or crime or romance fiction, etc. The point of the exercise is to improve the story and make it the best it can be.
- Are the characters convincing? Are they well-rounded or stereotypical? Are motivations and relationships clear? Do we know enough about a character’s past and present to understand the story action? Or too we get too much information about a character, info that is not at all relevant to our understanding of the story? Are there too many characters? Can a couple of them be spliced together to cut down the cast?
- Does the setting work? Does the secondary world remain intact all the way through? Can you as a reader envisage where the story is taking place, not just the house or room it’s in, but the greater world of the town/city/state/country/world? Are there obvious location talismans that show a reader where they are? For instance, the Eiffel Tower is emblematic of a Paris setting, Big Ben of a London setting. Houses with red tiled roofs and steep cobbled streets suggest a Mediterranean setting, a snowy tundra suggests a northern one. Are these talismans there for a reader and are they effectively deployed?
- Are the descriptions effective or are they over-written – or even under-written? If it’s a short story, then are the descriptions pithy, using just the right number of words? Or are they overdone, heavy, filled with irrelevant details that don’t contribute to the reader’s enjoyment and understanding of the story? If it’s a longer work, is there enough detail or does it feel a little sparse, under-developed? Or is there a evidence of an info-dump: All Of The Information given at one time in a very long paragraph, instead of scattered throughout the rest of the narrative? Are there a lot of lazy repetitions of word, act and deed?
- Do the voice and point of view remain consistent and believable throughout? Or does it feel as though your narrator has changed mid-way through the tale?
- Does the plot proceed logically from beginning to ending so the story makes sense? Does the tale reach a conclusion that’s logical within the story world? Does the story’s structure support this? Has the writer missed out an important step, e.g. if the house blows up at the end of the story, someone must have purchased dynamite earlier on, and someone must light the fuse. Are all the causal link boxes ticked?
- Does the writer give the reader everything they need to understand the story or do they digress to possibly interesting but irrelevant information? Can that info (if it’s interesting) be cut back and integrated into the story to make it relevant? Or should it simply be deleted?
- Does the dialogue move the story along, speak to character and give the reader the information s/he needs? Does it tell the reader about the characters’ hearts? Does it subtly foreshadow things to come? Does it help set the mood of the tale? Is a character’s dialogue consistent with their background; i.e. do the post-apocalyptic warriors sound like they belong in Downton Abbey? Is there a good reason for this or is it a misstep?
- Is there a discernible theme to the tale? If it’s a short story, then is there evidence of Poe’s “single effect” so that it’s not overrun with too many ideas that don’t work together but rather draw the attention in a hundred different directions? Do all elements of the story contribute to this theme?
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it is a good place to start! As you proceed on your writing journey, you’ll add other things to the list and become more able to recognise problems in your own and other people’s work, and to offer useful suggestions for remedying said problems. Good luck!