I love a good critique. Don’t get me wrong. It’s an acquired taste. And you have to deal with a lot of asshats along the way. A lot of bad experiences that lead you to those god ones happen along the way. But when they happen, you cherish them and how they help you as a writer. So what makes a good critique.
The Sandwich Method
The Sandwich method of critique and I have a checkered past. The Sandwich method involves telling your writer what you like about their writing. You then explain what can be improved. And follow with an overall focus on the positives of the story for the conclusion. This is a great theoretical approach to practicing critique, but it gets out of hand quickly with works longer than a short story or thirty-page script.
I certainly agree that someone should not be critiquing a piece if there is nothing that they like about it. One issue I always had in writing classes was critiquing the work of someone who clearly wasn’t trying. Those folks who take the writing class to get an easy A and aren’t there out of any sense of the craft. If you find yourself in this situation outside of a classroom, it’s often best to opt out of critiquing. I will often refer the individual to someone more suited to their material or level of writing.
For me, the structure is too limiting. In long-form works, each scene or chapter needs its own analysis, and getting trapped in this Sandwich method ends up with a Dagwood of improvements between the thin white bread of positives. Or, you end up being too general in your critique to make any major improvement in the writing.
I loved the energy in the first and third scenes.
It’s All About the Story
The first bit of advice I can give for writing a good critique is it’s all about the story. If you didn’t love at least the ideas of a story, you should probably pass on critiquing it. This means you are either not connecting with the material or have a bias against the material or person you are critiquing. It won’t be helpful to either of you to continue.
This doesn’t mean you have to love every story you critique. Ask yourself what about the story you didn’t like. Is it something you can point out that could be improved? The intent of a good critique is always to help the writer, and often the reviewer, to write a better story.
I learn just as much from reading the stories of my fellow writers as I hope they get from my critiques. I strive to be insightful and let folks know that I care about the material. That I am there to help them tell their best version of the story. When I get a well-written, well-worded analysis of my writing, it always feels like I have been given the tools and inspiration to edit a rough sketch into a well-crafted work.
Critique the Work, Not the Writer
It’s easy enough to go down the rabbit hole of making suppositions about a writer based on what they write. This is especially true of writers in non-fiction genres, but as we all write (or at least should) from our own experiences, it is often difficult, both as a writer and a reviewer to separate the work from the person that wrote it. Let the author stand apart from their work. Critique the story based on whether it keeps you interested and accomplishes its story goal. Not based on whether you agree with the characters or writer personally.
Avoid the Technical
Avoid technical and syntactical notes in your critique. The place for notes is in the margins of the writing itself. In the olden days (and in my own scripts), these are often those illegible scrawlings with arrows and grammatical notations that fill up the margins with ink. Now, a much more elegant and legible method is to use the notes function in almost any document editor, keeping everything electronic and easy to read.
For the Writer: Find Your Ilk
Not every writer is great at editing every work. Not every critique will resonate with you. Having a network of writers whose voices and styles you trust is essential to a great review. A screenwriter will not help you write better poetry. Similarly, a writer that only works in horror may not have the best insights on your romantic drama. But even above style differences, it’s important to get a critique from someone whose writing and taste you trust.
If I want the general public’s insightful reviews of my writing in terms of everything from their likes and dislikes to my heritage and everything that looks like my heritage, I would just post everything on YouTube and drink obscene amounts of bourbon. Instead, I prefer to have the insights of writers who inspire me, like Faith McQuinn and Richard Brooks. That way I know my words are crafted and touched by individuals who will care for them and make the work its best. And then drink obscene amounts of bourbon.