Prose Critique Basics
Critique... we all want it. We all need it. But what exactly is the embodiment of this fear-inspiring, often frustrating word?
Ever since dA rolled out their advanced critique system in 2009, I've made it a point to read through many prose critiques, mainly in seeking a person to look at my own work. While most critiques are helpful to some degree, it never fails to surprise me how many exist out there are nothing more than in depth comments. Just the critic's opinion or view on the piece, which is usually made of nothing but positives. In short... a review. Of course, the receiving authors snatch up whatever feedback they can get, but are all those stars really fair to them?
A critique is by definition, the art of criticizing, which in turn means (according to dictionary.com): to censure or find fault with. So it stands to say that a proper critique would imply the seeking of faults, right? Not an Amazon.com type of review, or a literary form of kissassery, or pretty stars on a board. Although the overall impression an author makes on a reader is important, what many want and need are the nitty-gritty, line-by-line details about their mistakes. Because we all make them.
Now maybe you're new to critiquing. Or to writing in general and don't feel qualified to give something more advanced. Or maybe you're just afraid to offend the author. Here are a few tips concerning prose critiques to (hopefully) dispel some of those apprehensions:
1. Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation
All three are a given, but still key points to check for, and addressed if broken. Sometimes writers don't understand how to punctuate tags. Or maybe they keep misspelling that one word. Or they have an affinity for paragraph-length sentences with a half dozen or so connectors. Whatever the case, call the author on them. Don't let these seemingly harmless errors slip... because an editor won't.
If the piece is so riddled with mistakes, don't be afraid to nudge the author to use their grammar/spell-checker. Word's checker can be tweaked to look for just about everything, and there are many other online checkers as well. Suggest they Google 'free grammar checker' or supply them with one of your own if you have one in your bookmarks.
And if the author says they typed the text straight into dA's submission box from their loose leaf notebook, don't be afraid to tell them they're crazy.
2. Paragraphing and Formatting
There are no set in stone rules on paragraphing, except one: the actions/dialogue from one character need to be separated from those of another. In all other places, paragraph length can be half a page or one word. It all depends on the pacing and impact the author wants to make.
Still be on the lookout for giant walls of text that never seem to end. One long paragraph makes for headache-inducing reading material and most times can be broken up.
As far as formatting is concerned, what looks incredible in Word and Works can chase critics away on dA. Don't be afraid to suggest adding spaces between the paragraphs for the revise. Many publishers require those anyway, so that reflects well on the author. And you if you gave them the LD.
For more on formatting literature on dA, you can refer them to this helpful deviation.
3. Point of View (or POV)
This is a common issue for beginning writers. Did the story skip around between the first person or third person? And was it intentional? Some writers like to switch around with the hero/heroine being in first and the other characters in third.
If written all in third person, was it limited or was it omniscient? Did it stay limited or omniscient?
If written in first person (a POV that is becoming more common), were the POV changes obvious? Most authors who use first person exclusively change chapters when they switch heads.
Was excessive head-hopping involved? A lot of published authors do this, in one head for one paragraph, then in another for the next. Seems harmless, but those authors are published twenty times over and New York house bestsellers. They can get away with it. For the rest of us minions, the best rule is to contain your sections/parts to one head only. There is nothing wrong in changing POVs mid-chapter/mid-piece, as long as it's done with breaks. This is usually done with a * * *, or some other kind of divider. Many publishers require a # or a ###. It all depends on the publisher of course, but there usually is a symbol marking the change. (A header that says 'Kimisomethinsomethinsan's POV' does NOT count!)
Most new authors who head-hop or slip into omniscient do so without realizing they've done it. You as a critic should point out any dalliances in POV.
Was there too much dialogue? Or not enough? This is all opinion based, as there is no right or wrong here. Every author has their style, but it's still something to let he/she know if it bothered you. If the characters got too chatty during a poignant sex scene, or went off on long internal dialogue sprees during a sword fight, let them know.
Did a character tend to talk in long monologues? People usually give one to three sentences during a typical two-way conversation. Not that monologues shouldn't happen in prose, but sparingly. Point is, the conversation should flow realistically.
Does the dialogue seem too stiff? Contrite? Dialogue shouldn't read like a narrative. People cuss, use contractions, pause, inflect, stutter, slur and all sorts of other interesting things when talking.
Did the character speak as you'd imagine a person from their locale/time would speak? An English baron from the Regency period would not speak the same way as a New York cabbie from the present.
Did the dialogue push plot? Or did it fizzle? If you got nothing out of a conversational exchange, mention it.
Did the dialogue show the character? Were you able to sense the conflict, attitudes, and intentions in their dialogue without the author telling you directly? Something even the best of us need work on. If you're good at dialogue, point this out.
Another common mistake to look for--overuse of tags on dialogue. Of course what constitutes overuse is always an opinion, but if it bothers you as a reader, it could bother another. Or an editor. Let the author know. Tags tell. They do not show.
5. Show vs. Tell/Passive vs. Active
These two issues can constitute their own deviation, so I'm not going to try to explain what they mean. If you are critiquing, chances are you understand these concepts to some extent. But the basics...
Verb usage. Is the writer using the most active (or most appropriate) verb for the job? Are they using too many? Are they in the proper tense? Are there too many present participle verbs (verbs that end in ING)? PP verbs tend to weaken action if used too frequently.
Adverb usage. A subject of much heated debate as to whether or not to hate all things LY, but it's widely accepted that too many adverbs weaken writing. 'Very' and 'really' are ones to point out, as well as any adverb/verb combo that can be ditched in lieu of a better verb. You can find more on adverb usage here and here. Note: adverb usage in dialogue is immune, since most people talk using them.
Adjectives. Even those can be overused as well. Usually one, sometimes two, are all an object needs. Sometimes, not at all. Pillows are usually soft. Skyscrapers usually tall. If the noun has an implied adjective and the author uses it anyway, call them on it.
Did the author use all the character's senses in the scene? Sight, sound, smell, touch, taste? Did you feel like you were there, smelling and tasting the food on the table? Or did the author just tell you the dinner was delicious? Be wary of too much telling and link them up with your favorite show vs. tell website/dA deviation. Usually telling is accompanied by the verbs, is, are, was, were, have and had.
Was the main plot clear and believable? Did the hero have a clearly defined problem to solve? The conflict in a novel should be somewhat defined by the end of the first chapter. If you're on chapter five and are still clueless as to where the story is going or who the hero is, mention it.
That being said, did you feel the story started at the right place? Should they start the story at chapter two instead? Most of us struggle with beginnings. First chaps are important to an editor. Most say they know whether or not they are going to accept a story by just the first few pages. If a first chap doesn't hook you into wanting more, let the author know.
Once the plot gets going, are there scenes that don't seem to further the plot? Or the subplot(s)? And if a subplot was used, was it useful to the story as a whole? Did those subplots add to the overall story or did the author seem to stick it in just for complexity?
Were there too many flashbacks, internal monologues, and/or backstory narratives, which took your focus away from the plot? And, more importantly, were those diversions important to plot?
Pacing. Did the plot/subplots move fast enough to keep the reader's attention? Or did it move too fast, forcing you to re-read?
Did you feel by the end of the piece that the story's conflict was solved to some degree? Was there any resolution after the story climax, or were you left hanging?
The dreaded plot hole. These are usually seen as weaknesses or flaws in a story, and writers try to avoid them to make their stories seem as realistic as possible. Did the actions of the character/movement of the story make sense? Or did it seem like the author was flying by the seat of their pants where continuity and realism is concerned? AKA, pantsing.
This also could be its own deviation. Tread with caution on attacking an author's characters. We get very defensive over our fledglings.
Did the main/minor characters seem real? Or were they stereotypes or one-dimensional cardboard characters. Was the cop a cliché of every other cop you've seen on TV, or read about in a book? Or was he a real person with real issues beyond the badge?
People do not exist in a vacuum. They have family, friends, a job, worries, ambitions, etc. Was the main character(s) believable while still remaining interesting?
Backstory. Were you distracted by too much background information of a character at one time? Did the author seem to dump a lot of information on the background of a character in long speeches, or did you learn about that character here and there in smaller pieces? Were these pieces properly placed (given where needed)? Most new authors have a hard time handling backstory. They want to dump it all to get it out of their brain. Be wary of info dumps.
Protagonist. Did he/she undergo some change in the story? Were they too perfect? Too flawed? And be nice about labeling someone's baby a Stu or a Sue. You don't want to become the subject of someone's journal rant.
Antagonist. Did they seem real as well? Or did they seem so evil or one-sided that they were more like cliché villains? If the villain was defeated, were you relieved? Or saddened? The latter could be a sign that the author put too much character into the wrong character.
Is there enough description of the background in the story to paint a picture that seems real enough for the reader? Did you feel you were transported to 'that time or place?' Setting and description requirements are different with each genre. Fantasy calls for much more description on a scene than a romance does. The same can be said for historical vs. modern pieces.
Was there too much description in modern pieces that readers might become bored? A living room is typically a living room. One or two sentences should suffice. Unless there was something unusual about the room. Like mutant chimpanzees having a pillow fight on the sectional.
Was the author's descriptions accurate if a specific time/place is named? If they didn't do their research, it will show here.
The same applies for objects/clothing. Did the author spend too much time describing something mundane that had little bearing on the story? Or too little? Again... any lack of research will show.
So now that you know some fundamentals, are you still shy? Just remember, there's no set rules in giving critique, and no one is judging you. These are just some examples of where to start. The more you comfortable you get in being a critic, the more flaws you'll be able to pick up on a read though, and the more confident you'll become. Treat each piece as if editing your own, with a caring but objective eye.
Even if you do not write, anyone with a passion for reading can give a critique. All it takes is a grasp of language skills and story-telling, and the unfettered ability to express your opinion. Don't be afraid to. Writers won't break. If they asked for crit, don't deny them. This is the foremost way for them to improve.
And for the rest of the world to reap the benefits of their endeavors.