Critiquing Fiction: The 10-Point Review

A critique is an appraisal of your story with accompanying suggestions for improvement. In some ways, it’s like an annual review with your boss or a report card from school: you’re told a bit about what you’re doing well and offered some suggestions on how you could do better.

It’s an excellent method to learn if your story is sound, before you submit it to an editor. A good critique can mean the difference between publication and rejection.

Want someone to read your work and tell you how to improve? Trade critiques with someone else. Not only do you get the opinion of another writer, you improve your own skill set. By critically reviewing the work of others you learn what works and what doesn’t, and can apply it to your own writing.

Here are ten things to look for when assessing the work of others:

1 – Hook

The hook is the first line or paragraph of the story: the opening. Is it sufficient to interest the reader? Is there a balance between dialogue, action and narrative to set the hook? What does or doesn’t work? How can it be made better?

2 – Character

Discuss the believability of the characters. Are they well-rounded or only two dimensional? Are they caricatures or stereotypes? Are the characters actions’ consistent? Are their motives understandable? Are the plot and the characters’ motives in sync? Provide solid examples to demonstrate your point of view.

3 – Setting

Creating a believable world is crucial. It also needs to help set the mood. Discuss whether the setting is right or not for the story, and give examples of what works and what doesn’t. Is the description of locale too much or too little? Did it enhance the mood? Can you visualize the setting? Can you picture what the characters are seeing, hearing, tasting and smelling?

4 – Plot

Does the plot make sense? Did events happen in a logical order? Did the story start in the right place? (Maybe not, if there’s no apparent hook, or the story feels as though the author didn’t get to the point right away.) Discuss any rough spots. Did the story have a beginning, middle and an end? If in a particular genre, did it work? Is it appropriate for the chosen audience? Does the pacing work throughout the manuscript?

5 – Theme

Not every author writes a story with an intentional theme in mind. Nonetheless, one usually develops by the end of the story. While critiquing, consider whether the story has an overt theme and what it is. If a theme emerges, does it work? Can you restate the theme in a single sentence? Is the plot of the story or storyline appropriate for this theme?

6 – Conflict and Resolution

Is there enough conflict in the story to create adequate tension? If not, what is stopping the tension from building? What could be changed to increase it? Does the story resolve too easily? If so, is that a reflection on the characters or the plot?

7 – Dialogue

Is the dialogue realistic? Does it forward the plot? Is it obvious who is speaking? Are sufficient dialogue attribution tags used? Are too many tags used? Cross out said bookisms-dialogue attribution which is impossible (he smiled, she hissed, he sniffed) or those which explain the conversation (he demanded, she insisted, etc.).

8 – Viewpoint

Review the characters and their roles in the story. Are there jarring shifts of viewpoint characters within a scene? If a scene isn’t working, is it possible that another character should have the viewpoint to carry the plot forward?

9 – Grammar/Language/Overall Writing

This is a detailed examination of grammar, language and writing. On the manuscript, mark awkward passages, spelling errors, trite or over-used phrases, incorrect grammar, poor transitions, etc. Point out passive verbs and cross out unnecessary adverbs. Look for places the author may have told more than he showed. Were there any metaphors or analogies? Did they work? Was there a balance of narrative and action? Was the sentence pattern varied? Has the author made any Freudian slips or written in any anachronisms?

10 – Summary

Sum up overall impressions of the manuscript. Did you like the story? Why or why not? Did it work as a whole? Did it feel cohesive? What about the title? Does it work for the story? Why or why not? Point out whether you believe the story is marketable or not and provide solid reasoning for the belief, especially if you don’t believe the piece is marketable. If you think it will sell, suggest a market or two for which the manuscript may be relevant.

Even if you’re meeting face-to-face to discuss the stories, always provide the author with a written copy of your remarks. He should do the same for you. It’s helpful in providing a detailed observation for the write and it can be useful in furnishing a cohesive, articulate oral review.