Patrick Hester is an author, blogger and Hugo Nominated Podcast Producer/Host who writes science fiction and fantasy. He is represented by Bob Mecoy for his fiction. His Functional Nerds and SF Signal weekly podcasts have both been nominated for Parsec awards and the SFSignal podcast is nominated for a 2012 Hugo Award. You can usually find him on twitter when he’s not writing (or even when he is).
A couple of years ago, I wanted to take the next step in my journey to become a published author. For me, that meant joining a writer’s group and getting some feedback from other authors. I found a well established group (founded in 1996) with a good mix of authors (folks who write poetry, science fiction, fantasy, horror, general fiction) and, after a few months of visiting (similar to auditing a college class except I was expected to read all of the material and comment/critique as well), I was welcomed as a member and could submit my own stories.
The critiques I received were well thought out, composed and, most importantly, helpful. So much so, that I started feeling guilty about my own critiques. At times, I would read a submission and stare at a blank page without a clue what to write. Over the next few months, I noticed a pattern. Some folks talked about plot, others were focused on characters, sentence structure, syntax, grammar and even dialogue. No two critiques were the same but when you put them all together, you had the big picture. I wanted to reciprocate and offer up the best critiques possible, so I created a form – a critique template I could use for every submission. With it, I can deliver a consistent and, more importantly, useful critique to the author.
Today, I’d like to share that form with you and look at each section.
Here I have the Story Title, Author, Date and my own contact information in case the author wants to follow up with me later. In General Thoughts, I want to summarize my Initial Impression of the story, list the Pros and the Cons and deliver the Bottom Line – did the story work for me?
How was the Pace and Flow? If I struggled reading through for some reason, or couldn’t stop turning the pages, I need to note that here. What were the Strong Areas of the plot? Maybe it was the development of the main character’s backstory. Weak Areas –- was there an info dump that put the brakes on? Loose Ends – you mentioned a snickerdoodle in a way that made it seem important, but never returned to it or explained why. Stand Out Moments –- Holy crap that was the best fight scene ever! Stumbling Blocks -– your faster-than-light travel depends on thousands of gerbils running in little exercise wheels, and that just doesn’t work for me… Comments –- add anything about the Plot that doesn’t fit into the spots above.
Are the characters in this story Believable? This is subjective, I know. Did you believe that the cop in the story would rob someone? Would the drunk anti-hero save a kitten from a burning house? Are the characters Well Formed? Is there enough detail to let you immerse yourself in the character? What are the Strong Areas of the characters? What are the Weak Areas? Comments – add anything about the Characters that doesn’t fit into the spots above.
Sentence & Paragraph Structure
People either have a lot or a little to say about this section. For me, I narrowed it down to two areas where I feel comfortable commenting: Vocabulary and Word Territory. Vocabulary is important (especially in a short story) and I like to point out where someone has done really well or where they could improve by changing out just a few words here and there.
As for Word Territory, well, this is basically where the author uses the same word or phrase enough that it stands out in the text. I tend to circle these words on the manuscript, drawing lines between them so the author can see them flipping through. Then I list the major instances here. Example: “Search your document for ‘that’, ‘quickly’ and the phrase, ‘working up the courage’ – you use these a lot.” For myself, I recently cut the instances of the word ‘that’ in my novel manuscript down from 1,147 to 659! Comments – add anything that doesn’t fit into the spots above.
Even if you get everything else ‘right’, a character’s dialogue/voice can take the reader out of the prose if it doesn’t flow correctly or feels forced or wrong. I have personally had people point out a bit of dialogue that they felt belonged to a different character in the manuscript – and they weren’t wrong. In this section, I point out Strong Areas that stood out to me, and Weak Areas that could use some work. Comments – add anything that doesn’t fit into the spots above.
This section is for a couple things that don’t fit anywhere else: Readability and Conflict. Readability goes to the manuscript as a whole – is it readable from start to finish? Conflict is about the conflict within the manuscript, the challenges that the characters have to face or work through. Did it work for you? Was it believable? How about the resolution(s)? The Comments space is for all other comments or thoughts you might have on the manuscript that just didn’t fit in a section above.
As I am reading through a submission, I might have a thought or reaction to a scene, passage or bit of dialogue. I put a number and circle it at these points, then use the Bullet Items section to gather those thoughts for the author.
There you have it –- my Critique Template. This is not meant to be the definitive source, just a starting point. Many people in my group have already modified this template for their own style and to include areas they prefer to comment on. You can too -– I’m offering up this template as a free download. Use it well.
As a last thought, don’t focus on fixing everything. Be positive where you can and provide encouragement when it is deserved. Yes, you want to help the author produce the best story possible, but your critiques should be constructive, not crushing.