What’s Not Helpful in a Critique

Last time I wrote briefly about how to give and take critique. To go a little deeper, we have to understand that the role of critique partner is different from the role of editor.

A developmental editor often will help a writer shape the theme or concept of a manuscript. As a critique partner, your job is to help your critique partner realize the vision they have for their book; trying to convince them to change that vision is not helpful. However, if a critique partner asks for help in shaping their theme or vision, you can chime in.

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A substantive editor helps writers by re-writing clunky passages. In a critique, you want to keep rewrites to a minimum. Why? Because the way we get to be better writers is by writing. If you do the rewrite for your critique partner, you’re the one getting practice writing instead of them. Usually all you need to do is flag a sentence as “awkward” or “unclear” and leave the rewrite to the writer.

For example: “I’ve drawn a bracket in the margin around this passage because it struck me as _____ (awkward, unclear, implausible). You might want to consider rewriting it to _____ (smooth, clarify, plausify).”

The biggest risk in re-writing someone else’s sentences is overpowering their voice. Often in novice manuscripts we find the voice is a little off—reaching beyond itself for a high, lofty feel the author can’t sustain. This usually comes across as inconsistent, stilted, full of purple prose, or even unnatural. Your job as a critique partner is not rewriting to “improve” the voice. That’s only allowed in the news business. If you do that, you’re just imposing your voice over the writer’s. Your job as a critique partner is to help your partner find their voice. For example: “Your voice is a little flat; work on bringing more of your own personality in.”

Remember that word choices are part of voice. When you change words just because you don’t like them or don’t know them, you are changing the voice. The only time it’s appropriate to change a word is when you believe the writer has used the wrong one.

For example: “I’m not familiar with this word. Is it something this character would really have in his vocabulary?” Or, “You put ‘ameliorate,’ which means to make better, but the context seems to imply it’s getting worse. Did you mean ‘exacerbate?’”

What is helpful in a critique

  • Make sure the main characters are empathetic and not Too Stupid To Live.
  • Flag infodumps, especially if they are full of backstory.
  • If multiple viewpoints are used, check that transitions are clear. If you ever feel you don’t know which character holds the viewpoint in any given scene, say so.
  • Before flagging head-hopping or authorial intrusion, determine whether the author intended to write in omniscient POV. Only flag these—plus thinker tags and other artifacts of omniscient POV—as errors if Deep POV was intended.
  • If the narrator voice is too generic, say so. In Deep POV, the narrative voice should reflect the education, culture, and personality of the character.
  • Mark missed opportunities to add sensory detail.
  • Flag scenes that lack tension or fail to move the plot forward.
  • Flashbacks are not an error, but call them out if they seem unnecessary.
  • Point out errors or inconsistencies in historical or scientific details.
  • If you’re working on a ms that’s final or near final, correct punctuation, usage, grammar, and spelling errors if you notice them, but don’t knock yourself out unless you’ve specifically been asked to proofread.

 

About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

2 thoughts on “What’s Not Helpful in a Critique

  1. Excellent insights into the art of critiquing. I work with a lot of critique groups and their leaders. This information will help clarify a lot of what I’ve been working with them on.
    Thanks for the great resource.

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