A Few Thoughts on Critiquing or One Size Doesn’t Fit All

One of the difficulties in trying to establish some guidelines for critiquing manuscripts in a creative writing class or feedback group is the vast array of differences we see from piece to piece.  One piece may be whole and nearly perfect as it is presented to us (whether from a lot of revision or because it sprang fully formed the first time) whereas another may be just struggling into existence, a virtual embryo compared to the full term birth above. Obviously we cannot approach these two manuscripts in the same way. Likewise, what a piece may need is a macro approach, where we talk about large issues such as themes or the overall structure; or it may need a micro-approach, attention to the language in the first paragraph, say, which establishes a certain voice and tone–or doesn’t.  It may be a combination of these two.  There is also our sense of the writer, whether she wants and need a lot of criticism or needs basically affirmation in order to proceed, or permission to engage in a lot more process as opposed to rushing a product.  And of course there’s the possibility that we feel either blank in terms of our own response or overwhelmed and disorganized about how to address the issues.  In other words, one size does not fit all.  We have to be sensitive and adjustable regarding every piece of writing.  At the same time, we need some general ideas and approaches to guide us.

What follows are my suggestions for how to go about critiquing:

1.  Read the piece through the first time as a pure consumer, for interest and hopefully enjoyment.  Try to give yourself over to the piece.  See what is there.  After finishing the piece note how you feel about it.  What is your overall feeling or impression?  What are the first things that come to your mind about the piece?  Write these first general impressions at the end of the piece for the writer.

2.  Now consciously read the piece through more critically.  Even though you may have been very enthusiastic about the piece initially, that doesn’t mean that now on the second pass, you can’t see some ways to improve it.  This second effort really requires critical thinking.  Some people take the word “critical” to mean something negative.  But it really just means that you’re applying a different way of thinking about the piece.  This way of thinking is still based in your feelings and responses, but now instead of simply consuming the piece, you’re actively looking for things which, now that you think about it, didn’t work so well for you.  Or it may be that your initial reading left you feeling very unsatisfied with the piece.  Now, on this second reading you try to figure out why.

Some people combine these two stages or steps, and process their response to a piece very quickly.  This certainly may be appropriate in some cases.  The danger it is that you may stop at the first stage and not want to do the harder work of actually critiquing a piece.  It may be that you don’t feel trained or qualified as a critic.  But you’re not being asked to be the final word on a piece or to write it for the writer.  You’re only being asked to be what you already are, a good reader.  The writer has reached the point where he or she can no longer “see” the piece, and so needs your eyes and ears and heart and mind to know what is really there.

One thing I always ask myself in responding to a piece of writing is What are the terms of this piece?  In other words, what is the writer trying to do?  What is the writer’s intent here?  It’s nearly impossible to have a helpful response if you don’t understand the terms of the piece.  For example, let’s say someone is writing a short story which tries to capture a character who is very analytical, very cold, someone who intellectualizes everything in his life.  The writer writes a first person story in this character’s voice using very abstract, intellectualized language throughout.  Unfortunately, because the language is so abstract and distanced, the story never engages you.  To critique this story, you go through step No. 1, noting your initial reactions, and then you move to step 2, in which you try to grapple with why the story doesn’t engage you and what might be helpful to the writer.  You have figured out what the writer’s intentions were, and determined that the technique didn’t work.  But because you know what the writer is after, you might have some useful ideas that go beyond simply saying It didn’t work for me.  In this case, the writer might need to try a different approach to the material, such as trying it in third person, rather than simply revise here and there.  In another case, you see, for example, that the writer is attempting to be humorous or lighthearted.  Those of the terms of the piece.  You need to address the piece in light of its terms.

So the questions become, What are the terms of this piece?  Does the writer meet them?  It’s not why not, or are the terms themselves off in some way?

Here are some useful questions to ask yourself as a reader:

1.  Did this engage me?  Why or why not?

2.  Did this hold my attention throughout?  Where was I most engaged and why?

3.  Are any things confusing to me?  Could I follow the piece, or were there gaps, or need for more information?  What else did I need to know?

4.   What about the opening?  Did the piece draw me in?  How effective is the first sentence and first paragraph and why or why not?  Did I want to keep reading?

5.  Do things move along?  What is the pace of the piece, and why?  Again, come back to the terms of the piece-what is it trying to do and how well does it succeed, and do you question the terms?

6.  What about language?  How would you describe it?  How does it function in terms of what you feel the writer is trying to do?

7.  What are you “getting” from the piece?  This could be any number of things, but it’s really helpful for you to feed back to the writer what is coming across for you, story or meaning or themes or emotional impact or enjoyment or whatever-wise.  The writer is really hungry to hear what is coming across.

This raises the question of how to receive criticism.  Let it be said that we all want to hear, “I loved it!”  That would be nice every time, wouldn’t it?  But sometimes, often in my case, I sense that my piece is not all it could be, but I’ve reached a point where I don’t know what to do to make it better.  At this point I ask for criticism.  I’ll probably be a little defensive, whether I want to or not.  I’ll certainly want to explain what I was trying to do, and maybe even what everyone is missing!  But I do better if I simply listen, at first, before I “pollute” the conversation about my piece with my explanations, apologies, defenses.  After I’ve heard some initial responses, I may want to enter into the dialogue about the piece.  I try keeping an open mind, and also not to react too strongly to things that are said.  I recognize that the dynamic of the workshop is oblique, mysterious, indirect, and I’m not to take suggestions too literally, at least a first.  I know from my own experience as a critiquer that I can’t really tell another person how to write his story or memoir. I have to trust my own feelings and authority ultimately, but I also recognize that other people can “unstick me” sometimes, give me new energy, open my eyes to something I’m blind to, or look at the piece much more objectively.  Usually it takes some time before the value of the criticisms sink in.  David Huddle puts it this way: “stories yearn towards a state of perfection. It is up to an author to give the story what it wants or needs, and it is up to a critic to help the author discern the story’s desires.”