I first started writing back in high school, with some coaxing from my friend Christine Carter. We wrote anime fan fiction and original stories using a shared universe of characters and places. At one point I started writing a longer work (the characters and general premise of which has been recycled into my current project, Proper Magic) that was loosely connected to our larger cosmos. I became very serious about it, and asked Christine to critique my work.
She was brutal. And I am so grateful.
Learning to take critique is rough, but it is a necessary step for any serious culture creator. It means putting your work before your feelings.
If it will make your work better, do it.
If it is a matter of a difference in personal taste, if it is non-specific, or if it won’t help the work, ignore it.
If it hurts, ride that burn like the ache in your quads during a long warrior pose.
(If it hurts too badly, it’s okay to ask to hear what’s good about your work too.)
I’ll admit, developing this attitude early made me a bit vicious when I went on to college. I started taking a lot of art classes (more on that in another post) and wound up graduating with a BA in Studio Art. A central part of all the classes was critique, and I wasn’t always nice about it. I went there.
One fellow student was an anthropology major who only did female nudes of conventionally attractive women in conventionally attractive poses. To justify this, he said the female form was more expressive than the male. I asked him, as an anthropology major, could he see that maybe his opinion that the female form was more expressive was not a universal truth but a product of our culture.
Apparently, he couldn’t.
But the failing was on me too. I critiqued poorly. I did not look at his work, and consider how to make his work better. I tried to get him to change what that work was on a fundamental level. And so of course he didn’t listen (and of course he didn’t like me much either).
That is the most important thing to remember in any sort of critique. You are helping to refine the work of another person; not co-opting it and making it your own. You’re always welcome to not like what it is, but that’s not critique.
When it comes to critiquing a work of fiction, I recommend that you begin by asking any questions that come to mind that the manuscript left unanswered. My husband recently supplied me with such a list for my own fantasy manuscript, and it included questions about population density, the daily habits of clergy, and the structure of the governments within my world of Endrion. The behavior or characteristics of characters, the timeline, or the use of various mythological elements are other good things to ask questions about.
You should also express what you want to see more of. Does it need more romance? More comedy? More action? More unbridled awesomeness? Was there a particular scene that stuck in your mind?
Remember, critiquing is not the same as editing. Don’t try and fix all those punctuation errors or passive sentences (though you might mention any common problems). Do advise if a scene is unnecessary, or doesn’t further the plot.
Another thing to look out for is boring characters. Not every character can be Darth Vader or Princess Leia, but you don’t want a Qui-Gon Jinn to wander in and waste your reader’s time. I would also keep an eye out for boring or otherwise unmemorable settings.
Last but not least; identify what you like. Don’t lose focus on the good stuff. If there isn’t any there, why waste your time critiquing it? Critique with love.