For workshops, the opportunity to critique a student manuscript should improve the reviewer’s skills as a literary fiction writer as well as provide feedback to the author. Here are suggestions for learning and making maximum use of time spent. You are not a teacher grading a student assignment, and you are not expected to be an expert in creative writing (you wouldn’t be taking the course). Many critiques by fellow students are never read, or at least taken seriously, by authors. So critique primarily for your learning experience.
Multiple readings are necessary. The first should be a straight through reading for effectiveness of story and prose style. Only on subsequent readings should analysis begin. Consider marking a copy of the manuscript for your use. Then as the final stage of critique, mark the manuscript that will be returned to the author only with carefully selected comments.
First: HOW WOULD YOU CHANGE THE STRUCTURE FOR BETTER STORYTELLING
- Can you summarize the story in one or two sentences. If not, why not? With a good story there should be no struggle.
- Is there a clear beginning, middle and end? Does the story start in the right place, both for the time line and for delivery of story content in the most effective way? Does the story end so that the conflict essential to every story is resolved satisfactorily. Is the middle focused and well paced?
- List characters. Identify protagonist and antagonist (antagonist does not have to be another character and may be environment, conscience, fate, etc.). Identify major conflicts and resultant actions. Are they reasonable and interesting?
- Are, at least the major, characters easily visualized and are their actions based on a strong core desire (essential for meaning)?
- What is the ratio of in-scene, dramatic development, and narrative telling, and are these elements in proper balance?
- Is there drama–that is conflict, action, and resolution–or is the story static?
Second: HOW WOULD YOU IMPROVE THE WRITING?
- Evaluate improvements in: word choice, syntax, sentence and paragraph structure.
- Could you use metaphor and simile more effectively?
- How would you speed up or slow down the pacing?
- Could you write key narrative passages in-scene, or in the moment?
- How would you improve a representative sample of dialog?
Third: PROVIDE COMMENTS FOR THE AUTHOR.
Things to avoid in critique for the author.
- Don’t comment on spelling and grammar errors (just note them).
- Don’t give subjective opinions about characters (any comment that might come from a dislike of men, for example, or revulsion at the indulgences of alcoholism as a nondisease.)
- Don’t allow comments that, because of sloppy wording, seem catty or mean.
- Don’t allow comments based on lack of knowledge (common in narration and POV observations).
- Provide positive comments about something that pleases you, but don’t be dishonest.
- Don’t micromanage the author’s effort. If you are prone to this, as most of us are, force yourself to stay away from fastidiousness. Detailing your minutia has little chance of helping the author to higher levels of writing.
- Do not make suggestions that imply restructuring story unless supported by solid, reasonable changes. And do not restructure a story you wish were on the page; limit your comments to story on the page.
- Avoid the temptation to line edit.
- Don’t gush. Nothing is more demeaning than insincerity.
- Be prudent but don’t provide insufficient feedback for the author. And revealing the effects of story on you is better than uneducated criticism.
- Provide more observations rather than corrective actions, although both can be helpful.
- Temper harsh wording on draft to be returned to the author.
- Be specific. Avoid “This works” comments, which are abstract. Better would be “For me, dialog contributed to characterization here. Neat!”
DON’T FEEL GUILTY IF YOU CAN’T COME UP WITH APPROPRIATE COMMENTS.
You are not the teacher, and the whole current concept of requiring student feedback on fellow students’ writings borders on unfair, and is presumptuous, at least. Use your reading time for your own learning but don’t feel a need for a competitive performance for best critique is essential. No one cares, for the most part. And some stories simply are not well enough written to be critiqued by amateurs, even on the this-works-for-me level. Let the workshop leaders, who are paid and hopefully experienced, do their job. Make comments on manuscripts when it feels comfortable, but don’t strain.