Pulling out an oldie but goodie, below lists the criterion for critiquing colleague’s work or revising your own. In Rosemary Graham’s fiction workshop at Saint Mary’s College, we were also required to give “a *description* of the work, an attempt to neutrally (without evaluation) say what the thing before us is and how it is structured” before diving into the critique. This helped both the reader and the writer see whether they were on the same page with the project, or not.
- What is the story about?
- What kind of format/structure is it in? Is the story supported by strong organization and structure?
- Which characters are grounding the story or leading it? Are they consistent? If they’re not consistent does it work?
- Is a vivid sense of time and place evoked?
- Is the story told from the best point of view?
- Does the narrator have a commanding voice?
- How does narration work in the story?
- Is there any weak spots in the point of view? Strong points?
- Does the story open and close with power and grace?
- What is the mood of the story? Does it stay consistent and if not does it work?
- What is the plot? What are the subplots? How well do they work together?
- Do all the characters sound distinct from one another?
- How does dialogue add or work in the story?
- Is the story presented in the right sequence of events?
- Are characters well developed? Sufficient complexities, desires, obstacles, weaknesses and strengths?
- Does the reader understand sufficiently the motivation, fears and actions of the characters?
- Does the setting work in synergy with the story/plot/characters? How does it lend to the characterization? The plot?
- Does the story start at the right moment? Too early? Too late?
- Does it end at the right moment?
- How does time work in the story? Is the pacing right for the theme/story/character?
- Is the dialogue complex enough?
- Are the right scenes dramatized and the right ones summarized?
- Is there too much going on in the story?
- What questions are raised in the story? How are they answered or left unanswered?
- Is there a sense of unity, everything well married, a single pulse?
- Are the right questions answered?
- Do all the pieces gel together?
- Is the author’s hand too visible? Does it stick out?
- Do you lose the character in the story?
On the Role of the Critic
In the wake of the “Ipocalypse” as Sam Anderson puts it in his “Translating the Code into Everyday Language,” The New York Times has serviced itself in the name of servicing us with coverage on “Why Criticism Matters” published January 1, 2011. Five accomplished literary critics, Katie Roiphe, Sam Anderson, Adam Kirsch, Elif Bautman, Pankaj Mishra, and Steven Burns each weigh in, arguing why we read, what we should read, how we should read and most importantly how essential critics are to our literary experience. The Times also includes an audio conversation from three of the writers, and, either by happy accident or design, The Guardian also recently posted John Sutherland’s top ten books on books, which includes titles from Aristotle to Susan Sontag.
Critics helps “create the audience” as Roiphe explains, which is a half truth. The critics bemoan Amazon reviews, blogs, tweets, Facebook, calling it “noise,” yet there’s no admission that never before has there been so much shared fervor over the written word. Whether pressed in ink or typed into pixels, there is a public readership who cares enough to post their responses, which is something in and of itself. The professional critic may lead the conversation but they don’t own it–they never did. The conversation rests solely with the reader who gives a damn.
So everyone can be a critic? Not necessarily. What does it take to be a good critic, aside from years of scholarship and professional readership? Here’s some principles gleaned and inspired from the NY Times’ special:
- Write well. Readers need to give a damn, and critics need to explain why with laser-like precision.
- Stay attuned to the pulse of the times, keep entrenched in our shared histories, and trek the current landscape of the times, stopping every now and again to survey the trail. A critic needs to be able to scramble to vista points. This requires agility, open and acute perspective, as well as balance, a keen sense of equilibrium so as not to fall susceptible to vertigo, which is a danger when dealing with Literature, Humanity, Politics, Society, Art, Culture, War, and the list goes on…
- Make it personal and relevant.
- Understand that the compulsion to create poetry, to tell stories, to write essays, and to read literary works is borne from what Sam Andersen calls a “healthy sense of urgency.” Many writers have literally killed themselves to create their work. Many readers have sacrificed time and a part of their lives to experience the work. This is no idle passion we share. Our lives depend on reading and writing, so we should read and write as such.
- Facilitate and fuel informed and engaged discussion.
A New Year’s Resolution Every Writer Must Make: Beyond the Handshake – The Necessary Third, Fourth and Even Fifth Read
So very important in constructing a writer’s own work is the deconstruction of another. For a writer to really know her craft backwards and forward, she is expected to read, read, and re-read. At some point in a writer’s maturation, she’ll have to understand the necessity and ritual practice of repeat reads. If she wants to study her craft structurally, track pacing, closely observe scene construction, and chart the constant shuffling between narration and exposition, she has to read a work more than once, and, for serious study, at least three times.
Our first read, generally, allows for a sweeping vista of the forest, when we read again, only then do we start to perceive the trees. Repeat reads are critical for surveying the machinations of a story. When we revisit a story, we’re able to really break down a text scene by scene and understand not what each scene, chapter, and part means but how they all work in concert.
Of course, re-reading for the novice may seem bothersome. There’s so many other books out there, and we have so little time on this watery globe, but the most seasoned writers are the most dedicated readers, and dedicated readers don’t fight or fuss. They love their favorites and will return to them like a good friend, a wise mentor, and a ray of light for what is most often a dark and lonely path.
While re-reading, we chase the following aims:
- How do scenes and chapters build?
- How many scenes are in a chapter?
- Which chapters are short and why?
- Which chapters are long and why?
- How many chapters in a novel?
- Where does the plot climax?
- Where is the character’s arc?
- How do the scenes and chapters shift between slow action and fast action?
- Note the word count and count pages, to follow the writer’s pacing. (Generally a manuscript page is 500-700 words, depending on dialogue)
- How does the author release tension only to introduce a new form of tension or rekindle an old conflict that might have been abandoned five chapters ago?
- Where are the minor transitions in the story? Why are they placed there? Do they work for the story as a whole?
- Where are the major transitions in the story? Why are they placed there?
- How and where do the characters evolve or devolve in the story? Make a time-line of word count and track the progress or digress.
- What gets narrated? Why? How much narration?
- Where does the author detract from the original story? How does the meandering work in context to the plot?
- What’s left to exposition? Why? How long?
- What details are added to the exposition? How do they work for the main action?
Surveying the careful scaffolding on the author’s part requires a completely different kind of reading than we’ve been taught in an undergraduate lit class. Usually we tend to focus on characterization, understanding text and author under a socio-economic and philosophical lens. Why did they write this? Under what context? What does this scene mean? On second and third reads, we need to see a story as a film director would, implementing the means and ways of a story-boarder, a composer, and a surgeon. This kind of detection takes training as a reader, a lot of training. You have to know what you’re looking for, which means asking the right questions. The answers certainly won’t be discovered on the first read, and you’re probably just scratching the surface with the second read. A dedicated craft-worker will plow through her work dozens if not hundreds of time before sending out a manuscript. Why would we not apply the same practice to our most favorite novels? Rosemary Graham, in her fiction workshops at Saint Mary’s College of California requires that each student, before beginning their written critique, include a summary of the story, so that students learn to investigate the architecture of a text. So how do we begin to uncover the scaffolding of a work?
- How does the author conceive their work structurally?
- Is the structure sound enough to withstand the story and characters its trying to support and house?
- Where does the story need more foundation?
- More buttressing?
- Is it too tight or not tight enough its construction?
Character and plot, that’s all our gray matter can manage on a first read. We’re basically shaking hands with the author and getting a preliminary glance at her universe, but looking at a text anatomically, seeing its skeletal makeup, getting under the skin to follow the framework, that’s a surgeon’s work, and surgery takes practice. Before we can even pick up a scalpel and cut into the skin, we have to know what we’re looking for.
Considering Your Critiques
An excellent rubric saved from graduate school at Saint Mary’s College of California’s Fiction, Creative Writing Program, originally distributed in either Julie Orringer or Rosemary Graham’s workshop. (Please forgive me dear mentors. It was at least five years ago when I received this. Any MFA’ers who are reading this who might remember, please correct me.)
- Consider the author’s intentions (dramatic, thematic, etc.) for the piece. In what ways did the author succeed in fulfilling this project?
- Specify which areas need to further developed or reconsidered in order to accomplish the author’s goals.
- Discuss how the elements of craft function in the piece. Is point of view effectively used? Does the plot provide the drama necessary to sustain the story?
- What are the external and internal dramas of the story? How do they work together in the story?
- What were the strongest points/aspects of the story, the areas that helped you understand and appreciate the author’s project?
- What questions does the draft raise–in terms of logic, drama, theme, etc.–that the author should be aware of?
- Comment on how language operates in story. What are the identifiable trends, patterns, and qualities to the writing, and how do they lend themselves (or perhaps undermine) the project at hand?
- What are the thematic possibilities of the story? Should elements of craft (point of view, plot, dialogue, etc.) be considered with respect to the possible themes of the work?
- These are merely some questions to help you structure your critiques. Some of them you may address, others you may not. Regardless of how you approach your critique, keep in mind that the objective is to help the author accomplish what she has set out to do with their fiction, by identifying what is successful, under-developed, and questionable about the work-in-progress, and by addressing issues of craft, drama, theme, etc.
- And of course, be respectful and courteous in your critiques. You’re not approaching these letters as reviewers, but as fellow writers working to fulfill a common goal–good fiction.
In the ongoing challenge to do justice to a colleague’s work by giving feedback, fiction writer and professor, Scott Hoshida, illuminates us with his method:
Usually when I look at a story, I look for its center or soul and then begin to shape my comments from there. Of course no story completely revolves around one moment, but it helps me figure out how to build my comments out from the one or more moments that I find compelling. Often this center is shown through some dynamic action, a particular revelation or epiphany (there’s a great article against epiphanies by Baxter), or some internal shift inside a character of which the reader becomes acutely aware. A second reading will reveal how other sections work or don’t work in relationship to that moment or, as I often find, I’ve missed the point completely and revise my comments from there.
Finding the hot spots to a narrative are critical. Many times, we might be unaware of the true moments of conflict. More akin to archeologists, we outline a specific site and start digging away at our subconscious trying to see what we come up with for story. Lacy Crawford, the senior editor at Narrative during her visit to Saint Mary’s College of CA advised MFA fiction writers to actively and consistently pinpoint the “hot spots” in story. Those hot spots are the key to strong narrative and fleshing out character. Once these moments or hot spots are identified, they need to be amplified and exploited to their full potential. In critiquing each other’s work, we would do well to relay where we find the hot spots or moments of soul and core. Especially if the writer seems focused on other passages, which happens more often than we care to think. Our colleagues will thank us for this.
Born on California’s central coast and raised in its valley, Scott Hoshida often writes about the people who live outside the major cities of northern and southern California: Santa Maria, Port Hueneme, and Lincoln. A graduate of the creative writing program at Mills College, he works as an English instructor at Berkeley City and retreats to China Hill in Oakland for rest and writing.
Critiquing a Colleague’s Work, Part I
In Writer as Critic on June 26, 2009 at 6:32 am
Years after completing our MFA and adrift without the aid of a writer’s group, we may still be just as confused about what’s the most helpful, most constructive sort of criticism to give a colleague who requests our commentary. We might be rusty if we’ve been away from formal structured criticism. A professor one semester might have advised us to focus on dialogue, another semester that idea was contradicted. And the whole matter of what makes good criticism might have never been settled, might never be settled, might just be the same sort of muddling we trudge through when we edit our own work.
When a colleague asks us to lend assistance in critiquing his work how can we be sure to do him justice?
Start with a semblance of a plan.
“Our first duty as readers is to try and understand what the writer is making from the first word with which he builds his first sentence to the last with which he ends his book. We must not impose our design upon him; we must not try to make him conform his will to ours.” Virginia Woolf sagaciously instructs us when we read for a colleague that’s precisely the gist of it. We read for him, not for our own ego, not to bandy about our own intelligence or sharpen the thin blades of superiority. We read for the writer’s sake, or, more precisely, we read for the work itself. The work is a living breathing entity, the spirit in the rock that our writer-colleague is sculpting into shape. We are assisting in the search for veins. We are helping to add perspective, shed new light, and lend guidance to the potential of what is already there.
With that said, we should read to learn from our colleague and hone awareness of our own aesthetics and predilections. We read to learn. It’s okay be to a little selfish. If there are two or three things that we’re struggling with in our own story, and our colleague hasn’t given any specific instructions on what kind of commentary he’s expecting then why should we not take liberty and read for what we’re editing in our own work? Albert Molio in Fence’s Issue “The Talking Cure: Contemporary Fiction and its Critics” (V8 N1 & 2) argues for us, “More crucial, though, is the fact that when writers write about writing they are conducting a form of self-interrogation. That is to say, in the truest sense, reviewers review themselves.” Why should we be ashamed or embarrassed? We write to learn and improve. We read to learn and improve. The process is cyclical, never ending. Read in anticipation. Read actively searching for what we can hopefully apply to our own work.
Anytime we read for critique, we must remind ourselves that we’ll never catch everything, and our colleague certainly wouldn’t want us to try and catch every typo, every single slip of grammar or craft misstep. No one wants to see their work dipped in red, and its more productive to stick to two or three main concerns rather than trying to scrutinize every word and every line. We must be selective and use our time and our colleague’s energy and patience wisely.
Read first with an open mind and, as Woolf charges us, figure out what our colleague is trying to do. Shut out any preconceived notions, any bias we have for certain styles and aesthetics and try to figure out what this story is about on its own. Let the story BE before bringing our thoughts to it. Let the pen alone and save marking for the second read.
Before reading for the second time, summarize what we think the story is about. Be sure to include this in our notes to our colleague. It helps to see what comes across and, more importantly, what doesn’t come across for the writer. Then, with pen at hand, or Track Comments activated on our Word app, read with careful attention to our list of two to three specific concerns.
In our commentary, would it not be wise to apply The Golden Rule as we scribble our comments and jot our reactions? Would we not want someone to call attention to our tics and point out that we have a tendency to misuse commas or paint passive characters? One of the most beneficial, most constructive aspects of having a fresh set of eyes review our work is that this new perspective can track imagery, symbols, and figurative language throughout the story, and see how these techniques accumulate, evolve or even devolve. We can point to where our colleague might need more symmetry and when he may be laying it on too thick. It’s much easier to observe these technique’s in other writer’s works but can become nearly impossible when we’re so up close and personal to our own.
Ultimately, if we’re true to the art, we must be willing to give the brutal truth and nothing less. Flattery gets us nowhere. Keen honesty does. Read with a slavishness to savage truth but couch that truth with hope. Honor the art and inspire the artist. What more can we ask of ourselves as colleagues?