When writers ask me for advice, the first thing I emphasize is the importance of finding a critique group or partners. These support systems are invaluable for adding the objectivity we lack and helping us see where our work needs work. They also provide an opportunity to share our knowledge with others—though many writers may struggle with this, especially when reading or hearing a more experienced author’s work.
From time to time, I have this problem—not so much with the technical stuff like grammar and typos and such, but with the big picture items. When a really talented author reads an excerpt at my face-to-face group, I might think that it’s wonderful. Astonishingly brilliant. Then someone else mentions a problem they noticed and I think, Wow, that’s totally true. How’d I miss that?
Out of a desire to a) help my fellow writers, and b) not sit there feeling like a twit, I started a list of observations that I frequently hear at critique group. Then I turned the observations into questions. Now, when I’m hearing a piece that’s so good I can’t pick out any problems, I consult my checklist. Many times, I’m able to identify a weak area from among these possibilities:
Overall Story Issues:
- Is the story problem clear?
- Is the voice realistic and consistent?
- Does the voice sound right for the author’s target audience? (Too young? Too old?)
- Does the chosen point of view (first, close third, omniscient, etc.) create the right level of intimacy or distance for the story?
- Are there tantalizing questions, or is everything being explained along the way?
- Has the story started in the right place?
- Does the character’s situation continue to worsen, or is the author letting him off the hook and breaking tension?
- What does the character want in this scene?
- What’s the conflict?
- Does the character’s emotion change or remain the same throughout the scene? Are the descriptions multi-sensory, or primarily visual?
- Is too much information being shared? Can some of it be revealed later?
- Does the scene move the story forward? (Is it necessary?)
- Does the scene go on too long? Should it end earlier? Be split in two?
- Is the pace dragging anywhere?
- Does a given section feel like it’s gone on for too long and should be condensed?
- Is there too much narrative?
- Too much telling?
- Too much backstory?
- Is there enough character emotion?
- Is the character well-rounded? Flawed?
- Is the dialogue realistic?
- Is the character consistent in his speech, actions, and responses to stimuli?
- Does the character evoke reader empathy in some way?
The beauty of a list like this is that while it works well for critiquing others, it also works on my own writing. When critiquers admit that their attention is drifting, I look at the Scene Issues to see if any of them are to blame. If someone isn’t connecting with my character, I edit with the Character Issues in mind. And when I’m reading my own work and I get that niggly feeling that something is off, I can usually find the problem on this list.
If you think something like this might be beneficial for you, take note of the suggestions being made at your critique group or by your individual partners and jot them down. Better yet, print out this list and add to it. And please share your knowledge in the comments section by adding any of the questions that you like to ask when critiquing; I’d love to flesh out my list.
What other problems do you frequently find, in your own writing or in the pieces you critique?