Responding to writing is something I know a thing or two about. During my years as a teacher, I conferred thousands of times with young writers about their work. I taught workshops for teachers about how to teach young writers, and I contributed to books about running Writing Workshops in elementary school classrooms. Plus, I have my own experience as a writer of stories for children, giving and receiving feedback in critique groups. With all of this in mind, I’ve started a list of some of the most helpful questions (and comments) a writing partner can contribute. These are the questions that can crack open a story and give it room to grow.
- “I’m not clear what’s happening in this part.” Almost always, when someone says this to me in a critique, it’s about a part of my story in which even I am not clear about what’s happening. One of the most helpful things a critique partner can do is shine a light on a part that the writer wishes could be left alone, in the dark (because it’s so much easier that way!). These are the parts that the writer doesn’t know what to do with, and that’s why the light is so important.
- “What does the character want?” All the beautiful prose in the world will not save your story if the character is not searching for something, whether it’s the answer to a mystery, a priceless work of art, comfort, or all of the above. The character has to want something.
- Note whether there is balance between the action, the backstory, the dialogue, the inner dialogue, the setting. Often writers are really good at some of these things, but completely forget about the others. For example, I tend to write stories that start off with some action and lots and lots of dialogue. I need a critique partner to remind me to locate the characters in a specific place, and to give a little backstory.
- “The character(s) isn’t consistent across the story.” If the character is super shy for the first half of the story, and then suddenly turns into a social butterfly, it won’t sit well with the reader unless there is a good reason for the change. The story I’m working on now has a character who flies into a rage quite frequently during the first chapter. Then, in the second and third chapter, she becomes very easily placated. Since I’m still at the beginning of my writing process, I’m still casting around for the shape of her personality. It was good to hear that feedback during my critique so that I can keep that in mind going forward. By the way, secondary characters should also feel like real people who behave with consistency.
- “The metaphors aren’t working.” A reader will likely lose interest if your metaphors are forced, or don’t match your story’s tone. The language in general should match the story’s tone and subject. Your language creates atmosphere and setting for the book, and gives the reader countless clues about the book’s meaning.
- “This scene isn’t carrying its weight.” If a scene doesn’t move the story forward, or contain a significant revelation or reversal, cut it out. Or, if it’s a great scene with a great setting and it’s important for another reason, make it count by adding a transformation or reversal.
- “What are the subplots (or what are they going to be)?” I’m still mastering the fine art of the subplot. What I do know is that they are the harmony to the main plot’s melody. They are absolutely necessary for your story to be complex enough to hold a reader’s attention. (On the other hand, your critique partner might point out that there are too many subplots, and it’s making your story overly complicated.)
- “Have you considered reading your dialogue out loud?” In my writing workshop yesterday, one member suggested to another that he read his dialogue out loud, to hear the spoken language. This is something that I’ve heard from several other authors, and that I’ve tried myself. It’s a powerful revision tool, and not just with the dialogue parts.
- “Do you think you could start the story any later?” The story should start as close to the action (inciting event) as possible, especially for anyone writing a book for children. Too much backstory up front can kill a story’s momentum. One can always weave in backstory later, but, as a rule of thumb, you actually need much less than you think.
- Turn any of the above critiques around to make a compliment! Writers need praise, and lots of it! Praise – the honest variety, please – encourages us to keep going, and it also shows us what is working. Sometimes this is the best feedback of all. If a writer knows what is working, she can use that awareness to fix up another part that isn’t looking so hot. So, by all means, if the dialogue sounds natural and the metaphors are hauntingly beautiful, and the character is rich and consistent, do not leave that out. It’s almost hard to give too much praise.
Another thing that I often include in critiques (because a critique partner once said this to me, and it was so lovely) is: “Your book reminds me of [title of a wonderful book that is similar in tone or subject to the manuscript at hand].” An unpublished writer is usually hoping to one day be published, and it does feel ever so nice to have one’s work compared to a book that is already out in the world, occupying shelves in books and libraries. It’s a reminder that all books start out as nothing more than a bundle of marked up pages.