Before using this critiquing cheat sheet, you must ensure that you have thick skin. It doesn’t matter if someone starts off with something encouraging (which, by the way, you should do) having your work critiqued is tough.
But thick skins are a necessity if you want to be a writer, and tough critiquing is the first step in a journey of rejection, self-flaggelation and heaps of crying sessions. But the goal is so wonderful (my book in a bookstore, yay!) that if you can survive all that, it’s so worthwhile.
1. Look at the Big Picture
Having a weekly group who can read your novel right from the beginning makes a huge difference. They will be able to look at the big picture and ensure that not only do you have an inciting incident that propels your protagonist on his/her path, but they will also be able to get a sense of what is at stake. In my classes, I enjoy people jumping in and having a meaningful discussion by sharing viewpoints, versus each person pontificating about a point and then moving on to the next person.
2. What NOT to Concentrate On
Critiquing is not about niggling at someone’s work. It’s about seeing the whole picture. Forget about a grammar or spelling mistake here or there. Correct it, and move on. The person will see it and note it for the next time. Instead, concentrate on the points that matter.
3. Showing vs. Telling
Most early drafts tell when they should be showing, and quite often the writer has not picked up on this because they’re so bent on getting their story out. A small nudge in the right direction helps.
4. Character Development
Are the characters flat or uni-dimensional. Do they have flaws?
Does the piece make sense? How does it flow well – what is the pacing like? Does the opening/ending of the chapter capture your attention? Have you moved sentences around? Does the piece need to be tightened – too much verbiage? These are the types of questions you should be asking yourself when critiquing someone’s work.
- Is the dialogue stilted? Dialogue should sound like conversation, but it’s not. It’s a way to further the plot, but should never be an info dump.
- Inner talk is good, so long as it seems natural. Not many of us go around delivering massive monologues to ourselves. Make sure the inner thought sounds natural.
Tension and conflict is what makes a novel interesting. Is there any in the scene?
8. Passive vs. Active Voice
Passive voice is extremely common and many writers don’t notice it in their work. Look for weak phrases that begin with ‘it was’ – they’re easy to spot and are usually passive.
9. Point of View
This is something else that a fresh eye can detect. Very often, the writer will slip into an omniscient voice. Make sure the point of view is correct.
10. Voice and Tone
Slipping from the voice and tone of the main character can often happen, and pointing out that the character doesn’t sound like he/she should is something worth pointing out.