Critiques and Reviews Workshop

Critique/Reviews Workshop Outline and Notes 

 (Based on and expanded from ideas for a workshop in an online writing group from several years ago, with thanks and a hat tip to my friend, author Rob Read)

The intent of reviews/critiques is to benefit the writing, characters, plot – and thereby all of us as writers – not to criticize authors or their writing. The story/poem/essay/etc., is the focus, NOT the person who has done the writing. There’s a reason ‘critique’ is not spelled ‘criticism.’

Following are some thoughts on what makes for a good review experience, from and for both writers and reviewers. Of course correct spelling, grammar/syntax, and punctuation are givens!

Notes for authors who request reviews of their work:

1) Post work in manageable sections. If the work is longer than, say, 1000 words, split into multiple posts. Some sites allow for ‘Read more’ breaks, too, which can be inserted at any point.

2) Add links, if possible, at bottom for next / previous entries on multiple posts.

3) Thank reviewers who take the time to read and review your work.

4) Plan ahead to try not to take offence. The review is only the opinion of the reviewer, but even supposedly negative feedback – warranted or not – can be helpful.

5) State any areas you want reviewers to pay attention to, or to ignore.

6) State the intended audience and the genre, especially if those could be unclear.

7) A personal peeve here: I suggest writers NOT post their pieces in color or in fancy or tiny font. This is particularly true for longer pieces. My own aging eyes find it hard to read such posts when, for instance, red, blue, or purple typeface is placed against a black background, especially if the font is smaller than 12-point size, and I know I’m not the only one for whom this is true.  Keep to the tried and true black-on-white.

Notes for reviewers:

1) Make sure the author of the work is aware that the review is your opinion only.

2) Critique must be constructive, not criticism or critical. In other words …

3) Review the writing, not the author.

4) Be diplomatic and respectful.  Replace statements like ‘You must …’, ‘You cannot …’, ‘You should …’ with ‘I feel it might be better to say …’, or ‘Do you think it might be worded better if …’, or ‘What if you tried …’.  ‘I statements’ and the equivalent are always better – ‘The descriptive paragraph at the top of page 28 makes me feel … because …’

5) Give the good points of the review. Critiques are intended to be positive and to address the positive fully as much as the areas that need work. This is what I call a critique sandwich: insert the suggestions of what can be improved between two layers of what already works.

6) Review as you would like to be reviewed. Give reasons for your suggestions and comments.  ‘I love this poem!’ isn’t a review, nor is ‘Such and such might work better’ without saying why.

7) Read carefully, making notes of your first impression.  For an in-depth review, read more than once before responding.

8) Write your review before reading other reviews.

9) Consider who the author is writing for, the readership of the finished work.  How does s/he succeed (or not)?


Guidelines for what to review and what authors should pay attention to as they write

Most of these are for fiction but can be applied to other genres as well:

1) Does the opening hook work, and did the writing hold your attention?

2) Are the characters alive, believable? This is just as important in creative non-fiction, especially memoir.

3) If fiction, do the storyline, plot and sub-plots flow in logical sequence? Are they believable?

4) If fiction, is the description of locale detailed enough, depending whether work is short story or chapter from a novel? How to discern ‘detailed enough’ and too much detail? Think about the pacing: does the story move along? Are there parts that get sluggish? If so, why? How does the character development help or hinder?

5) Does the dialogue between and among characters sound natural yet give the reader necessary information? Is there enough dialogue? Too much? Keep in mind that dialogue is one technique to ‘show, not tell.’ When done well, it’s quite effective and helps with pacing.

6) Is the point of view (POV) clear as to who is speaking? If not, what can help?

7) Do the tenses correspond throughout? Active voice is one of the best ways to keep up a good pace in any writing, fiction and nonfiction. This doesn’t mean you can’t use past tense – past tense and passive voice are not the same thing. Almost all ‘ing’ words are passive and slow the reader. Sometimes it’s called for, but it should be used sparingly.

8) If the piece is fiction and calls for readers’ ‘willing suspension of belief’ for an effective plot, does the author succeed? How so?

9) In fiction, do the characters ‘earn’ their places and points in the story for a right/effective conclusion? In other words, does the author speed things up to get over a difficult time period or plot inconvenience, or does s/he take the time to let the characters live their own stories without such contrivances as ‘A few months later …’ that move things along too fast by telling rather than showing? Let readers ‘live’ with the characters. What have we missed in those ‘few months’? If there are hurdles or timeframes that need to be navigated, show us how the characters do it, and what they think and feel as they do so.

© ERR 7/16/2015, with thanks and acknowledgment as noted above

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