Just to be clear, this isn’t a history of the critique, so I’m sorry if you were expecting that.
Critiquing takes different forms depending on how rough or polished the draft is, so I want to walk through the critique and its evolution as the draft moves from rough to polished.
First Draft Critique
The first draft critique is the most macro. In this session, as a critiquer, you want to be looking at the overall story. While I’m not very good at doing this, it’s a good idea to read the story once before offering critiques (or chapter or whatever) so that you know where it’s going. I’ve certainly offered points early on in the story and then find myself going back and deleting comments that weren’t necessary because they were addressed later on.
Of course, it’s not the end of the world to have too many comments, but it certainly makes your job critiquing easier to understand the scope first.
This is not the draft to be pointing out punctuation errors, in case you were wondering.
Also, unless you’re QUITE versed in punctuation, I’d actually recommend against punctuation critiques at all. I have a few regulars whose punctuation suggestions I know are correct every time and the rest, well, I have to do some research and discerning myself. The best part is that I’m learning punctuation rules as I go. Those are good to read up on and know anyway and your average search engine should be able to find you simple punctuation rules to use and remember.
Second Draft Critiques
Now the writer has been through at least once editing. In theory, major plot holes should be filled in and most of the confusing jumble that is a first draft should be gone.
This is the phase where I recommend really looking at word usage and choice closely. Are there lots of filler words like “just”, “that”, or “had” that can be eliminated? Are there throwaway details that pop in once but no further explanation is given? Are there interesting details that don’t seem to do much for the plot?
It’s hard to cut out those little pieces you like, but if they don’t move the story forward, especially in a short story, they have to go OR you need to extend your story to make the detail worth it.
For example, in a recent story I wrote, in the opening paragraphs I reference two things that were handmade by Father for both Mother and my MC, Aliya. However, the father appears NOWHERE in the story. In fact, no other villagers appear in the story. So while I loved the tiny detail, I ultimately took them out because it served no purpose in the story.
This is also the time to start asking questions about each character and their role. As the author receiving a critique, you should know a good chunk of backstory on each character. Most of what YOU know about your characters will never make it into the story, but you need to know it so that your story can stay consistent and make sense.
Again, the story I referenced above, the other characters were sleepwalkers and a magical being called a Seamstress. As the author, I need to know who the sleepwalkers are, what their purpose is, why they sleep underground, what wakes them, and so many other things. I also need to know the purpose of the Seamstress, where she comes from, how she is summoned, what power she has, her relationship with the sleepwalkers, how she can defeat them, and how they can defeat her.
MOST of those details weren’t revealed in the story, but because I knew them, other details could be made correct because I knew the back story. Like, when the sleepwalkers and Seamstress meet, I knew how the interaction should unfold because I knew the relationship between them, the power differentials, cognitive differences, and so on.
I find the second and third draft critiques offer the most feedback because
- If you’re using the same people, they are already familiar with the story and the plot and can look beyond the initial read through for things that don’t make sense.
- Major first draft errors are already cleared up (or should be)
- Editing strengthens the strong spots, more clearly revealing the weak spots
You can continue to follow 2nd draft advice for further drafts. I think a good story needs at least 3 rounds of critique. For my NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge piece, I probably had four rounds of critiques by 4 people (the SAME 4 people) plus extras by 2 others when I needed fresh eyes to determine the first read suspense factor. So, in all, I probably had 20 critiques (or more) of the one story over the course of a week (thank you SO MUCH to the generous people!!! I seriously can’t thank them enough).
The final critiques are where you want to start looking at words and specific word choice, punctuation errors, and ways to tighten up the story even more.
As writers, we can tend to be overly verbose and want to have TONS of descriptors and all that in our stories, but I’ve found that there has to be a balance (as a general rule, we’re not all Hemingway, okay?). There needs to be description, but each sentence shouldn’t need to be deconstructed to understand the piece. Each sentence doesn’t need to be the same length.
You can use sentence length to your advantage to build the mood you want. Short, choppy sentences work well to create a jumpy mood. Longer sentences work to generate flow. Look for flowery language that slows down the movement of the story. This is the place to be SUPER nitpicky about nearly everything because, by this point, the draft should be SO GOOD that major spots don’t need to be pointed out. It’s OKAY to be nitpicky. It’s OKAY to feel like you’re poking at a splinter in a giant’s hand. That’s partly how we know the draft has progressed. You should probably feel a tiny bit ridiculous about the things you point out in the final drafts.
One final point.
Don’t forget to point out the stuff you LOVE, too. A little positivity goes a LONG way.
So, there you have it. A moderately brief overview of the evolution of the critique throughout story development.
Do you enjoy critiquing? Do you enjoy being critiqued? Do you agree or disagree with this overview? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Other posts on critiquing: