This is a critique format I learned from Maureen F. McHugh in the Clarion Workshop, which I attended in 1996. We used it throughout the six-week workshop, and I continue to use it to this day — one of the many invaluable lessons I learned at Clarion.
There are many formats to follow, but this one is easy to use and especially helpful for the author.1. What the story or work is or does, in one or two sentences.
2. The successes of the work.
3. The weakest parts.
4. One or two ideas for the fastest and biggest improvements.
This kind of critique is meant to help the author improve the story before publication – something quite different from an academic or literary analysis, which helps readers understand the story after publication.
Each part of the critique tries to accomplish something different to help the author and often the critiquer as well. The best way to learn to write is to write a lot, and the second-best way is to analyze other written works. Doing it as a group exercise lets you see other viewpoints and get even more ideas about how to improve your writing.1. What the story or work is or does, in one or two sentences.
This way the author can see if you read the story the author tried to write. For example: “This is a story about racism.” “A couple pause during a trip and talk about everything but her pregnancy. It becomes clear they’ll break up after the abortion.” “A poet faces constant challenges to his art until he decides to defy authority.”
A unique understanding of the story can spur the author a new thematic development. On the other hand, the summary may also show the author that the critiquer wanted to read a different story and that person’s comments should be interpreted in that light.
It’s okay to say you didn’t understand the story.2. The successes of the work.
So the author knows what not to change, which is important. Also so the author feels some sense of accomplishment. We wouldn’t want the author to make a mistake out of despair and eliminate the good parts.3. The weakest parts.
This helps the author to know what should be changed. This is not the place for typos, quibbles, and stylistic changes such as how to handle dialog, which should be noted on the manuscript. This is for observations like “There’s no foreshadowing of the murder” or “I didn’t realize at first that the setting was a hotel”.
Critiquers might not agree on the successes and weaknesses.4. One or two ideas for the fastest and biggest improvements.
The author and you can focus on the big picture. This can be a learning experience for both of you, since there’s always a lot that could be changed.
Again, there may be disagreements that can help both the author and critiquer evaluate other stories better by observing what different eyes saw in this particular work.When should you seek a critique?
When you don’t know how to improve the work further. Or when you have questions you can’t answer yourself. Don’t waste the critiquer’s time with works that you intend revise before you receive the critique. Likewise, critiquers should also have the courtesy to return the critique promptly, and should offer constructive rather than destructive criticism.How should you do the critique?
As a rule, it’s best to read the work through once to get an overall sense, and then read it again to begin critiquing.How should you conduct a group critique?
Here are the usual rules for the feedback:
The author does not speak, since readers will not have the author on hand to explain the work after it is published. The author should be scribbling notes, though.
The critiquers speak in a circle, one after another. If someone else has already said what you found, you can just say “I agree with Miriam about the lack of foreshadowing.”
After every critiquer has spoken, they can continue to discuss, even argue. The author remains silent, taking notes.
Finally, the author speaks, and more discussion can ensue. The author collects the manuscripts and thanks everyone.
— Sue Burke