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How to develop a critiquing mindset

Critiquing is analysis of what works and doesn’t work in a piece of fiction. It is an art and a skill and it takes time and practice to master.

The question about how to learn to critique comes up a lot from new people. Below is an attempt to tease out the intellectual and emotional process. (If you’re new to critiquing, you might find these resources helpful.)

When you’re first learning to critique, it’s better to work with printed out manuscripts at your own pace.  But in this group, sorry, manuscripts are not emailed in advance to members for reading at home for a number of reasons detailed elsewhere on this site. New writers might need to practice outside of the group.

When we critique, we’re not focusing on what we personally like or don’t like as a reader would; we’re analyzing the WIP more objectively–what works or doesn’t work and why.

In order to effectively analyze, critiquers need three characteristics:

  1.  hyper-aware of their own reader reactions
  2. deeply studied in fiction writing how-to (detailed elsewhere on this website), in order that the vocabulary and techniques of fiction-writing have been internalized and are second nature
  3. widely read in the genre(s).

A hyper-aware critiquer has been trained to be sensitive to the intellectual reactions and emotional responses provoked by individual words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, and scenes. That means that they’re paying attention to whatever stops them–be that a word, line, paragraph, page, scene.  That could be what delights them. What’s boring. What’s confusing. Sometimes what stops them can be a perfectly placed intriguing element which can be celebrated in the “circle of joy;” more often it’s a question, a confusion, a dissatisfaction. Critiquers have to learn to identify their own reactions and confusions and not let them go unnoticed, or pass over them, or dismiss them.

Critiquers are also drawing on their knowledge of the possibilities for good, commercial genre fiction. This is not a particular work(s). It’s more a range of possible successful work. It’s a spectrum of everything the critiquer has ever read–from poetically written literary to badly written page-turner. It emerges out of extensive reading and study of the genre. (Actual study. Actual analyzing with a highlighter sentences, pages, scenes, openings, endings, chapters, and whole novels.) However, let’s be clear that we’re not drawing on other fiction for story, plot, scene, or character ideas which would be plagiarizing. (Although we do occasionally recommend studying a title that solves a pertinent fiction challenge with great skill.)

More resources on critiquing includes excellent resources on critiquing  like checklists, recommendations, and more.

Header photo: Ithaca, NY, by Paul Joran