Or, “How to Make Yourself a Valuable Critique Partner”
Or, I guess, “Critiquing fiction 201” because I feel like most advice is usually at the 101 level.
What does that mean, you ask? I’ll get into that.
I have… too much, I think, experience in various writing communities online. I have a brain wired to trends and patterns and boy there are some trends and patterns people rehash when they give out critique. My goal here is to help you break away from that, to teach you how to read critically and write critically about a work without resorting to prescriptive advice.
Why not prescriptive writing advice? I mean, the short answer is that it’s bad. The long answer is that when you give out the same advice, based off arbitrary “rules” that were established by watering down more nuanced theory and repeated ad nauseum in quick soundbites, you get a lot of same-y writing and further encourage that same-y writing that is generally catered to the traditions of white, western storytelling traditions.
Still following me? Okay. Just repeat after me: prescriptive writing advice is bad.
This does, unfortunately, mean that whatever I’m about to tell you is work. Giving out good writing advice, that will benefit the writer, shouldn’t be as simple as finding things on a checklist and repeating them back. I just hope that if you’re seeking this out, you’re in for the work. Let’s get started, then:
Look at the work as a whole.
Maybe critiquing a chapter in the middle of a novel without reading the rest of it is a bad idea after all.
Aside from the obvious reasons (maybe certain things mentioned in the beginning chapters are addressed later on, or character development occurs), looking at the work as a whole means acknowledging authorial intention, the execution of themes, and being able to see where the author frequently makes the same decisions, to greater or lesser effect. It means that, if the bulk of your critique is nitpicking things like sentence structure or really anything a copy or line editor could be doing, you’re probably not going to be too helpful with the grand scheme of things. Look at how a story works, how the author uses tools and characters and events to tell the story.
Understanding intent vs execution and how to bridge the two.
Ask the author questions: What were they trying to get across? What was their reasoning behind the decisions they made?
And, once you have those answers, ask yourself some questions: Do you feel they succeeded? Why or why not?
The goal here is to evaluate the work as it stands while also trying to understand where the author was coming from and how you can help them bridge their intent and their execution. Sometimes you know, in your mind, what you want to do but what you got down on paper isn’t exactly what you were aiming for.
Consider in art: when you’re starting out and doing studies on realism, you might find that your execution does not match your intention, which was realism. Eventually, you can learn to break things. You no longer want to lovingly render every single detail, and you’ve developed the skills to imply detail with a few brush strokes or pencil lines. The execution might not be what you were “taught” when you were learning realism, but it was nonetheless effective and succeeded in executing your intent.
(for some art examples of this, I tend to think of the Baroque masters for instance as compared to say, John Singer Sargent)
But this is all sort of training for the next thing:
Put aside your personal biases.
Consider that not everything you’re going to read will please you. It won’t always be exactly to your tastes. But understanding what the author is intending to do and being able to look at the execution of those ideas, you can still evaluate the work. This isn’t to say to ignore your gut if something feels off; instead, consider potential readings and help the author see them. Pointing out the different ways that you can see a work being read can be incredibly helpful feedback for a writer. It means that they can take your impressions and evaluate what direction they want to take.
But don’t dismiss every gut reaction as “I hated this because I don’t like [certain trope/technique/POV/??????]”. Writers can break rules well all the time and reacting and providing feedback to a gut reaction isn’t always productive. It helps, a lot, to build a library to draw from. So,
Read, read a lot. Read widely and read critically.
I had an art professor who, to help us improve our craft, would look at our work and pull up other artists who were tackling similar content, materials, or themes. She would then give us that list in order to help us build a visual library of how other artists have problem solved the same or similar issues we were running into. The goal wasn’t to copy but to learn, to understand how these artists faced this content or used the materials and media so that we could then apply it to our own work.
For writers, obviously you should be reading. Being able to pull from various authors, understanding how they handled certain problems, and not just enjoying those readings but also understanding why you enjoyed them will also benefit how you critically read work, both for critiquing and for your own development. Did a book engross you to the point that you reread it, over and over again? Great! Sometimes it’s worth doing that rereading with the lingering question of “why does this work so well?”
Look at techniques as tools in a writer’s arsenal, rather than hard and fast rules.
Everything ties back to execution.
We can get into specifics here, but let’s talk in the broad instead. A lot of prescriptive writing advice talks in absolutes. Second person POV is always bad. First person POV is inherently more personal. High fantasy always uses third person omniscient. Never use [grammar convention], [grammar convention], [grammar convention]. Fill in the blanks, I’m sure you can think of some.
Now take all of that and think of them less as rules and more as tools that have different purposes for different contexts. Does an author’s use of a certain convention feel jarring to you? Consider what they’re intending to do and evaluate it based off that. Sometimes a tool, as unusual or even hailed as “bad”, is used to great effect, and learning to identify that is very important.
If you made it this far, thank you for reading. I hope you found it helpful. That said, if you find there are other things I didn’t touch on, or would like to ask me any questions on the above, please comment down below. I’d hate to hide any commentary from those who might benefit from it too.