A critique is an analysis of the weaknesses and strengths in a scene.
A critic should always remember that when she’s doing a critique, she’s a reader, NOT a writer.
Start a critique at the most basic level: the key conflict.
• Does the reader know who the protagonist is? Does the reader know what the protagonist wants (her goal)?
• Does the reader know who’s keeping the protagonist from that goal, who the antagonist is? Does she know what the antagonist wants?
• Is the outcome of the conflict clear? That is, does the reader know who won?
After that, the most helpful thing the reader can do is give reactions.
• What wasn’t working? What was confusing or annoying? Where did it slow down and start to bore her? Where did it go too fast and start to lose her? What is she missing in the story?
• What parts moved her, excited her, made her want to read more? What worked and must be kept in the rewrite?
• What expectations have been set up for the next scenes?
A critic should never cross out words and write in something that she thinks is better; that’s basically telling the writer that the critic can write her story better than she can. It’s not helpful because the chances are great that the critic’s voice is not the writer’s and that she doesn’t understand the story at the deep, unconscious level the writer does. At best, it’s insulting and at worst it can ruin a story for a uncertain writer who starts to follow the false leads the critic gives her.
Notice that nowhere in the critique does the critic try to solve the problems (“maybe change the curds and whey to chocolate ice cream”). The critic’s job is to point out the problems, the writer’s job is to solve them.
One last thing for writers reading critiques of their scenes: Don’t respond to your critique or discuss it with the critic until twenty-four hours after you’ve read it. You will automatically defend your choices and reject parts of the critique if you respond right away. Read the critique, consider it overnight, and then take a cold hard look at your scene. This is good advice for any kind of feedback including editorial letters and reviews. The only difference: You never, ever, ever respond to a review.
If you’re having trouble getting critics to give reader reaction instead of invasive writing advice, find readers who aren’t writers to critique your work. You’ll get purer feedback.
For other posts in this unit, see The Structure Unit main post.