What Is A Critique? | Crackin’ The WIP

This is part one of a series I am writing for my friends over at Crackin’ The WIP. Hope you find it helpful.

On Critiquing: What Is A Critique?

by C. Theuner

I could not have been more thrilled when my good friend D.M. Gutierrez asked me to guest blog for November, though I must confess, I was more than a little confused about the subject matter. After weeks of research, writing, re-writing, and editing, I was informed this morning that this blog has nothing to do with literal whips, and my (very informative, I thought) article about dominatrix etiquette was rejected. So I suppose I’ll set aside the fuzzy pink handcuffs (though my corset will remain laced and secure around my torso, thank you very much) and instead will write about… well, writing.

Specifically, critiquing.

Like my fellow WIPers, I’m a member of Critique Circle, and have been active for about two years now. In fact, I’m coming up on my 300th critique. It’s been a tremendous experience, and my writing has improved immeasurably thanks to the wonderful friends I have made there. I decided to write a series on critiquing, because it’s been the single most helpful and rewarding part of my writing journey so far. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the topic, and critiquing is not one-size-fits-all. My intent isn’t to provide a definitive how-to, but just to talk about, in my own experience, what is helpful – both to the critiquer and the critiqued.

So without further ado… (sorry, didn’t have time to come up with a new banner)

Part I: What Is A Critique?

A critique is NOT a review!

That’s not to say there’s not some overlap. Reviews and critiques share some common goals. They both call attention to a work’s strengths and weaknesses. They both discuss how the reader reacts to the work, how they felt while reading, and what impact the characters and story had on them. The fundamental difference is this; a review is written for the benefit of a potential reader. A critique is written for the benefit of the author.

Remember, the author is not submitting this work to you as a completed product. It is still a work-in-progress, and should be treated as such. You know those brilliantly scathing reviews you sometimes come across, full of one-liners that make you cringe in sympathy and laugh all at once? Roger Ebert was the king of these – read some of his one-star reviews to see what I’m talking about:

“This movie doesn’t scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn’t below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels.” — Roger Ebert, on Freddy Got Fingered.

This type of brutal criticism, hilarious as it may be, does not belong in a critique.

I know of plenty out there who may disagree with me on this point. Yes, to be an author, one needs to develop a thick skin. And I sympathize with the argument that nasty critiques can prepare an author mentally for the eventual (and, sadly, inevitable) nasty reviews. But the fact remains, soliciting feedback on a WIP is not the same thing as asking someone to pay for the opportunity to read your work, and therefore, the approach should be different. When you critique, be honest. Sometimes, honesty is necessarily harsh, and that’s okay. But please, do not be mean for the sake of being mean. It doesn’t help anybody.

Kay, um, thanks for telling me what a critique isn’t, I guess. But you still haven’t told me what a critique IS.

If I may defer to my bro Mr. Webster for a moment:

“[A critique is] a careful judgment in which you give your opinion about the good and bad parts of something (such as a piece of writing or a work of art)”

That pretty much covers it. Vague, huh? In short, you read someone’s story, and you talk about it. That’s it. Sometimes the author may ask you specific questions, in which case you should answer them to the best of your ability. Sometimes, they may leave it to you to decide on what’s important.

In a future post, I’ll talk about some critiquing techniques you can use, but for now, here are six general questions to keep in mind as you read the story and prepare your critique. Even if you make no other comments, answer these six questions and you will likely have written a helpful critique.

  • Did you like the main characters? Why or why not?
  • Did anything confuse you?
  • Did anything surprise you? Why?
  • Were you ever bored or tempted to skim? (This one can get nasty, but please, try to answer it as nicely as you can)
  • What do you think will happen next?
  • What was your favorite/least favorite part of this story?

Critiquing is an art much like writing, and you will improve with practice and experience. I’ll talk more about critiquing next week. In the meantime, if you’ve never written a critique before, I’d encourage you to do the following: take whatever book you’re currently reading, read a chapter or two, and then answer the six questions I listed above. You can do it in your head if you’d like, but for best results, I’d recommend writing your responses down.

And, of course, please feel free to share any critiquing advice or experiences, good or bad, in the comments.

‘Til next time,
-C. Theuner

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