Using a Critique Checklist, or, How Not to Look Like a Twit


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? 


Scene Issues: 

  • 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? 


Pacing Issues: 

  • 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? 


Character Issues: 

  • 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?

40 comments:

Beth said...

I can see how a list like this would be helpful.

Krystal Marquis said...

This is amazing! Thanks!

Krystal Marquis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carol Riggs said...

Great stuff! I have to copy this into a Word doc and keep it forever. :) Some of these things I notice right away, and some I don't. Great to have a concise list, thanks!

Jai said...

Totally amazing. Thanks for sharing.

Matthew MacNish said...

Very useful.

Julie Musil said...

How not to look like a twit! Now THAT'S advice I need :)

Thanks for this great list!

Angela Ackerman said...

Great checklist, Becca! I agree, this is a good thing when doing critiques, and for our own revisions!

Crystal Collier said...

Whew! Now that's a great list. I find objectivity is a little skewed on my own work when analyzing these things, but then I suppose that's what CP's are for. Thanks for posting this. =)

M Pax said...

Great list. I see a lot of authors using simultaneous events - is / while / things happening at the same time that shouldn't. I've been guilty of this, too. My crit group is hating on me for this one lately...

Jacqueline Howett said...

A wonderful list I will find useful! Thanks for sharing!

Robyn Lucas said...

Great list. Lots to think about

Robyn Lucas said...

Great list. Lots to think about

Theresa Milstein said...

Excellent list.

New book idea: The Critiquing Thesaurus.

You're welcome.

Becca Puglisi said...

M Pax, I've been there. The good news is that once you master that one, your crit group will be on about something else ;).

ROFL, Theresa!

JeffO said...

Great list. My biggest issue, when I crit (whether it's my own work or someone else's) is with getting too caught up the details, and not being able to see the bigger stuff.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Love the list!!!!

Jae Holt said...

You always have wonderful insights! I seem to always miss the pacing issues because I focus on the character and scene development, so your list is very helpful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

Susan Vaughan said...

Extremely helpful list, and not just for critique groups. We need to ask ourselves all these questions as we write. Thanks for this post.

Stéphanie Noël said...

This is amazing! Thanks a lot for this!

One Latina's Pen said...

This is great for self-editing/revisions. I made a copy for my critique group-the info is so useful.

Deborah McKnight said...

Will be applying these questions to my own writing... Thanks!

Alex said...

I love the first point under "scene issues" -- desire is really what drives a scene/story/novel. Too often, I find critiques (self or group) get lost in a little detail when it is the big stuff (like character desire/motive) that really matters.

Martha Ramirez said...

This is excellent! Thank you!!

Rosi said...

Thanks, Becca. This is terrific.

Becca Puglisi said...

I'm so glad you're all finding this useful, both for critiquing other peoples' writing and your own. :)

Susanne Drazic said...

Great checklist. Thanks for sharing it.

Romelle Broas said...

Thanks for this list. I will definitely use it so I don't feel like a twit too.

Kelly Polark said...

Wow! This is an awesome checklist!!! Thank you for sharing. I will definitely use this when I'm critiquing (actually I'm finishing critting a manuscript this weekend.)

Marcia said...

Very helpful checklist!

healingbywriting said...

Another great tip from The Bookshelf Muse. Thanks, Becca!

Jemi Fraser said...

That's an awesome checklist! Thanks :)

creativewritingintheblackberrypatch said...

Great list! I'm going to put it to good use on my own manuscripts. Hope you don't mind, I just linked to it from a post on my blog.

Sherry Ellis said...

Very helpful advise!

Ilnara Hesken said...

I guess this sort of fits with the voice being consistent but I notice some authors I've critted switching the tenses of their sentences. It's a bit annoying to read a few paragraphs in past tense then read in present and then go back to past.

So I think I would expand a bit on the voice being consistent question just for my own reference.

Laura Murray said...

This is SO helpful, not only for critique groups, but also my own writing! I love your blog - thanks! Becca - hope all is well with you - I have recommended the Emotional Thesaurus to so many writer friends after getting it at the last Miami SCBWI conference!

Teresa Robeson said...

I'm so behind in reading blogs...but this is a wonderful list that I'm going to be referring to over and over again. Thank you!!

Amanda Stephan said...

Excellent! Thank you :) I'm an escapist reader and I have a difficult time picking anything apart in anyone else's writing, so this is going to be invaluable!

Joanne R. Fritz said...

Fantastic list! Thank you. I've needed this without ever realizing it until now. :)

In a workshop on scene structure at NJ SCBWI earlier in June, Laurie Calkhoven reminded us that every scene should have an arc, just like the book. There should be dialogue/action, conflict, a climax, resolution, and an exit line. Comparing the first and last line of a scene helps you realize if the scene works.

Andrea Mack said...

I love this list! It's going to be so helpful with my revision-in-progress!

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