THE ART OF CRITIQUING
Last modified: November 03 2012 12:33:13


Please respect our bards. Please don't send criticism unless the bard has specifically requested it. We want our Xenaverse to be a place where everyone can feel comfortable sharing what they've written.


This represents the input from several bards in the Xenaverse as well as from various grammar and writing sites around the 'Net. If you have comments or would like to suggest additions or deletions, please send a note to Lunacy at lunacy@lunacyreviews.com and she'll see that we get it.

FORMAT OF THIS DOCUMENT

There are two main parts--How Do I Start? and What Do I Look For? Both are intended to be outlines, easy to scan, easy to read. There is an Appendix which explains in more detail some points of grammar and style.

* * * * *

PART ONE

HOW DO I START?

PURPOSE OF THIS DOCUMENT
WHAT IS A CRITIQUE?
HOW DO I WRITE A CRITIQUE?

1. PURPOSE OF THIS DOCUMENT

A. It's a reference tool. Nothing more. Use what interests you, ignore what doesn't. Its purpose is to give readers some direction for comments about stories and to give bards some idea of the type of criticism they want. Please do not feel you need to speak to everything on this list! Yikes! You may find that you can't pinpoint something in a story that didn't seem quite right. Maybe this list will help you sort it out.

B. The categories (capitalized) are intended to give direction to a reader. The details are merely examples of what to look for, not an exhaustive list, nor do they all pertain to every story.

C. The list can also be used as a tool by a writer. You might wish to re-read your story, beginning to end, concentrating on one of the aspects listed in "What Do I Look For?"

 

2. WHAT IS A CRITIQUE?

A. It is an evaluation. It is your opinion of someone's writing. Critiquing fan fiction can help bards become better writers. It can also be beneficial for the person writing the critique. Critics learn to see the weaknesses in a story, to determine ways in which these can be eliminated, and then to communicate this information in a manner which is helpful and clear to a bard. Critiquing can turn a reader into a better writer by teaching that reader to find weaknesses in his/her own writing.

B. There is no form or formula for writing a critique. Writing critiques engages the creative process just as writing fiction or poetry does. A good frame of mind is to consider what you would like to hear and how you'd like to hear it if you had written the story. Be nice, be positive, encourage the bard. Please don't aim your critique at the writer, talk about the writing. Please try to be clear. Sometimes when trying to write about complex issues, this can be tricky.

C. If the bard has asked for criticism, it is best to send it in a private e-mail. If you and the bard have both agreed that your discussion of the story would be of value to others--and you are both willing parties--you might wish to post to a mailing list, newsgroup, on a web site, or even at the NetForum. If you are sending your critique to a publicly viewed place, you might wish to include CRITIQUE in the subject heading of your post. If it includes spoilers, please remember to indicate that in the subject heading and add spoiler space.

 

3. HOW DO I WRITE A CRITIQUE?

A. Carefully. Bards put a lot of their heart and soul into their work and you should respect that even when there are aspects of a story you don't like. There are different kinds of critiques, from those that look strictly at form (see 'Nuts & Bolts' below) to those that examine the content of a work, to those that combine both approaches. Sensitivity and respect for the bard is crucial regardless of what approach is use.

B. Be constructive. The main objective of a critique is to help the bard become a better writer. Point out problems, but also always explain *why* you think they're problems. (Sometimes it's helpful to a bard if you can offer illustrations or suggest alternatives. Others may prefer just to have problems identified.)

C. Be nice. You are offering your opinion about a story, *not* about the bard. You cannot help someone learn if you attack them; they simply won't listen. Consider carefully how you phrase your comments so these aren't perceived as an attack. Something that may not seem offensive to you could appear that way to another person. There are some simple things you can do to ensure a bard is more receptive to your criticism.

(a) Frame your criticisms in terms of the writing, and not the writer. For example, instead of saying, "When you made Xena do such-and-such..." try saying, "When Xena does such and such..."

(b) Describe your own reactions to a troubling story element, rather than making authoritative black and white statements about it. For example, if you say "It was idiotic of Gabrielle to run out into the hurricane," the author could very well assume that you think they're an idiot for making the character do it. It's much easier for them to hear the same criticism if it's phrased in terms of your own reaction: "When Gabrielle ran out into the hurricane, I didn't think it made sense, given the way you'd developed the story up until that point."

All this may not seem like much, but it really can make a difference in how your comments are perceived.

D. Comment only on aspects the bard has asked about. Don't assume every bard wants to hear criticism. Please read their disclaimers and see if the bard has asked for feedback. If you aren't sure what kind of criticism they are open to, ask. Some writers might want to receive comment on form but not content, or vice versa. Don't assume the bard wants you to post a critique publicly. Ask for permission via a private note before posting any criticism to a list or web site. Remember that some bards are intentionally taking their characters outside of the canon. Before you criticize them for it, ask if that is their intention. If it is, respect their right to do so.

E. In addition to pointing out any weaknesses in a story, always make sure to mention what the bard is doing well. This encourages the writer, providing an example of what to work toward and also tends to make it easier to accept criticism. If you're familiar with the bard's other works, it's a good idea to point out improvements you've noticed over time or simply to mention the strengths in the person's overall writing.

F. It should be as long as you want. Most of us have precious few moments to spend reading much less critiquing. If you're pressed for time, concentrate on only one or two comments. Please do take the time to explain why you found weaknesses (or strengths). It isn't helpful to say "The grammar is inconsistent." It is helpful to point out that after dialogue ends, punctuation goes inside the quotes.

G. Allow the author their story. Please don't criticize aspects of the plot and expect a full explanation in return, particularly for stories in progress. It may be that the bard is carefully setting up a plot twist. It may be that the bard isn't quite sure where it will go. Let bards create their own their world; don't try to shape the fundamental constructs of their stories. (Unless they ask for that specifically.)

H. You don't have to be any type of expert in order to provide useful feedback to a bard, but do keep in mind that a bard may choose not to act on any of your suggestions. That is the bard's prerogative and you should not take it personally. It doesn't mean your ideas are stupid or without merit - they simply may not fit in with the bard's own vision. Always remember that it is the bard's story and not your own.

 

 

* * * * *

PART TWO

WHAT DO I LOOK FOR?

NUTS AND BOLTS
THE CANON
THE UBER CANON
CHARACTERIZATION
DIALOGUE
DESCRIPTION
PLOT / MOTIVATION
POINT OF VIEW
PACING
STRUCTURE / COMPREHENSION / CONSISTENCY
STYLE / RHYTHM
CLICHES
INTANGIBLES

1. NUTS AND BOLTS

A. Grammar

If you comment on grammar, it is a good idea to suggest a correct substitute. Some grammar issues are covered in the appendix.

B. Spelling

Has the spell checker missed errors? (Examples: then for than, write for right, your for you're, etc.

C. Word Choice

Does the chosen word reflect the bard's apparent intention? Is the story consistent in its vocabulary, or are some words out of context? Are some words used too often in close proximity? Is the vocabulary appropriate for the historical period and the characterizations being represented? [Example: having someone referred to as an 'angel' by ancient Greeks (historically speaking, they lived in pre-Christian times) may make atmosphere of the story less credible.]

D. Repetitive or Empty Words

Are too many words used to express an idea? Tight writing often has more power. Are there redundant phrases? (Examples: brief moment, another alternative, actual truth, mutual agreement, penetrate into, reason is because, empty vacuum, intimately familiar.

E. The passive voice

What is it? When the subject acts, the verb is active. When the subject is acted upon, the verb is passive. Usually, you want the subject to be more important than the object. (Example: "The huge iceberg was rammed into by the Titanic." Here, the object --Titanic-- acts on the subject --iceberg. Contrasted with: "The Titanic rammed into the huge iceberg. Now it's subject, the Titanic, that does something. See appendix for more explanation and examples.)

 

2. THE CANON

A. What is "canon?" It is the accepted body of rules, principles, structures, or norms found in X:WP. Most of the canon comes from the show, some from classics in fan fiction.

B. Are the characters true to those on the show or those accepted in most fan fiction? In the context of the story, should the characters follow the accepted principles? Remember--some of the most fascinating stories in the Xenaverse come from tweeking with the norm.

C. Are there "mistakes" in references, names, relationships, history (according to the show)?

 

3. THE UBER CANON

A. Are the characters true to the X&G archetypes?

 

4. CHARACTERIZATION

WHO:

A. Are walk-on characters too important? Do they stick in our memories and yet have no impact on the plot?

B. Are minor characters treated well. If they do impact the plot, are they memorable in some way?

C. Are the major characters fleshed out properly? *This aspect of writing is quite different in fan fiction, as the major characters are already well understood. If a new major character is introduced, is this character as rich in the readers minds as X&G?

D. Good Guys: What makes us like a character? Are they altruistic; do they have dreams, passions, and courage; are they honest and always keep promises; are they responsible; are they clever; do they have human frailties and weaknesses?

E. Bad Guys: What makes a reader hate a character? Do they love power, do they murder for selfish reasons, are they self-serving, do they break promises, are they certifiably insane, do they treat royalty differently from the common man?

F. Do the characters have enough of a mix of good and bad characteristics to make them realistic and understandable? No real person is perfectly good or perfectly evil; if you don't give someone weaknesses, they might be seen as unbelievable.

HOW:

G. Does the character show you, rather than tell you, who they are? A character is what he/she does, not what the narrator tells you. (Example: "She was tired." or "Her legs ached from walking. She hadn't rested since she'd started out, just as the sun peeked over the horizon. Now, the midday sun beat down, stealing her fading reserves of energy.")

H. Are the characters' motives shown? Why someone does something gives value to the act. Xena kills; Ceasar kills. It's the reasons why they do that separates them.

I. How is the character seen by others in the story? What are their relations with others? What the character has done, what others think of him/her, and who the character has met helps define them.

J. What are their habits and traits, talents and abilities, tastes and preferences? Everyone has some of each.

 

 

5. DIALOGUE

A. Does it sound like real speech? Most written dialogue is a compressed form of speech, leaving out the "um's" and "ah's" and making complete sentences. If you overcompensate in translating literal speech to written dialogue, your dialogue can sound too formal and stilted, too unlike speech to ring true to the reader. (Examples: How it may really have been said: "Ah, Xena, um, yeah, well, um, ah, I was, uh, kinda, um, ah, wonderin', um, if, well, would you, like, um, to catch me some dinner?" How you might write it: "Xena..." Gabrielle paused, not wanting to impose on her friend. "Would you, ah..." She cleared her throat. "I'm in the mood for fish. Would you mind?" Going too far might result in this: "Xena, my sense of taste requires that I partake of pan-seared aquatic flesh. Would you be so kind as to perform fishing?" )

B. Is there too much dialect, colloquialism, slang? Does it bog down the reading?

C. Would the character really speak that way? Does the dialogue style change depending on the character speaking? Are the style changes consistent and do they make sense?

D. Is information communicated effectively using dialog instead of narrative? Usually this is more interesting. If a character needs to learn something, do we get to see it told to them and know their responses?

 

6. DESCRIPTION

A. Are all of the five senses engaged? See, touch, smell, hear, taste. (Example: Xena's broad shoulders brushed against the rotting door frame. She ignored the splinters because an overpowering stench of fetid meat assailed her as soon as she stepped into the noisy, dark tavern. Her memories of the tavern had included scrumptious stews and a delicately spiced lamb dish smothered in garlic and lentils; now she knew Old Molly had died.)

B. Is there the right amount of description? There should be enough to make a scene vivid but not so much that it overpowers the plot and rhythm of the story.

C. Is there too much melodrama or sentimentality in the descriptions?

 

7. PLOT / MOTIVATION

A. Is the plot clear and easy to follow? If the revelation of a mystery is being set up, the questions should be clear even if the answers are evaded until the end.

B. Are key scenes missing?

C. Are events crucial to the plot slighted? Do big scenes end up not impacting the plot as much as the reader was lead to believe they would? Are plot twists set up properly?

D. Is the plot too stock, too predictable, too dependent on stereotypes?

E. Is dramatic tension developed effectively? There are a number of elements that can contribute to this:

a. Physical suffering looses effectiveness with repetition. Describing its cause and effect in detail can be sustained. Orson Scott Card wrote, "If your characters cry, your readers won't have to; if characters have a good reason to cry and they don't, the reader will."

b. The "greater good": self-chosen suffering for the sake of the greater good--sacrifice--is far more intense than pain alone.

c. Jeopardy: The anticipation of pain is often more potent than its actuality. Jeopardy magnifies the stalker, the savior, and the prey just as sacrifice magnifies sufferer and tormentor alike.

d. Sexual Tension: It can also can be intensified with negative emotions--rivalry, contempt, anger. It heightens audience interest with all involved characters.

e. Signs and Fate: Connect a character with the world around her, so her fate is seen to have much wider consequences than her private gain or loss

 

8. POINT OF VIEW

A. Is the point of view consistent? If not, does it work or is it confusing?

B. Does the point of view change at appropriate times?

C. Is narration written with a mind toward the current point of view?

 

9. PACING

A. Is the pacing appropriate to the scene? Does everything seem to move too quickly or too slowly? (Example: does the story slow down inappropriately in action scenes?)

B. Does the story build to a climax?

 

10. STRUCTURE / COMPREHENSION / CONSISTENCY

A. Does the sequence of scenes make sense?

B. Should some scenes be told in flashback?

C. Should the story remain structured chronologically?

 

11. STYLE / RHYTHM

A. Does the bard incorporate various devices such as imagery, metaphors, similes, analogy, foreshadowing, repetition, humor, symbolism, flashbacks, or dreams?

B. Do the sentences flow smoothly or are they constructed poorly so the reader really has to work to make sense of them?

C. Does it sound like you're reading the author's real voice or does some amount of pretension slip through?

12. CLICHES

A. Is the dialogue rife with cliches?

B. Are there sensationalism or repulsive elements that distract from the story?

 

13. INTANGIBLES

A. Is there a certain magic in the prose? Is there an ineffable quality about the story and the writing?

B. Is there an overarching concept that becomes clear over the life of the story.

C. Is there a remarkable sense of the imaginative?

 

 

* * * * *

APPENDIX

These are collected from various sources on the ‘Net.

 

ADJECTIVES AND ADVERBS.

An adjective is a word that modifies a noun: it answers which one, how many, or what kind. Some examples: "the big one"; "seven books"; "a devoted student."

Adverbs usually modify verbs, and answer in what manner, to what degree, when, how, how many times, and so forth. Some examples: "He ran quickly"; "I'll do it soon"; "We went twice."

Sometimes adverbs modify adjectives or other adverbs: "She finished very quickly" (very modifies the adverb quickly, which in turn modifies finished); "The work was clearly inadequate" (clearly modifies the adjective inadequate, which in turn modifies work).

The best rule for spotting adverbs is to look for -ly. Be careful, however; not all adverbs end in -ly, and not all -ly words are adverbs: soon, twice, and never are adverbs; friendly, ugly, and northerly are adjectives.

Go easy on the adjectives and adverbs. While modifiers are necessary in any sort of writing, make sure your nouns and verbs are clear and are doing most of the work. As Strunk and White put it, "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place."

AGREEMENT.

One of the fundamental rules of grammar is that the parts of a sentence should agree with each other. It's easier to demonstrate than to define agreement. Most agreement is instinctive in native English speakers. In "I has a minute," the verb has doesn't agree with the subject I. We would say "I have." In "John got their briefcase," assuming John got his own briefcase, their should be his. It's obvious.

It gets tricky in only a few cases. A plural noun right in front of the singular verb can throw you off. Consider "Any one of the articles are available": the verb are shouldn't agree with articles, but with the subject, one: the sentence should read, "Any one of the articles is available."

A preposition that governs two pronouns can also cause problems. In "He wanted you and I for the team," the word I should be me: he wanted you and he wanted me, so he wanted you and me. Pay special attention to phrases like you and I, you and she, and so forth.

FIRST PERSON.

Grammarians have divided references to people into three categories, to refer to I, you, and he or she. The first person is I, me, my, we, our, and so on. The second person is you and your. The third person is he, she, they, their, his, hers, him, her, and so on. While you need to pay close attention to these when you study a foreign language, most issues of person are instinctive to native English speakers..

MIXED METAPHOR.

A vivid metaphorical imagination is one of the best signs of a good writer. We use more metaphors than we realize, and if we don't pay attention, they become hopelessly scrambled. The sentence "We were swamped with a shocking barrage of work, and the extra burden had a clear impact on our workflow" suggests images of a marsh (swamped), electrocution or striking (shocking), a military assault (barrage), weight (burden), translucency (clear), a physical impression (impact), and a river (flow). Pay attention to the literal meaning of figures of speech and your writing will come alive. ( Don't, by the way, confuse mixed metaphors with mangled clichés -- though a mixed metaphor might result from a botched cliché, they're not the same thing.)

PARAGRAPHS.

There's no hard and fast rule for the length of a paragraph: it can be as short as a sentence or as long as it has to be. Just remember that each paragraph should contain only one developed idea. A paragraph often begins with a topic sentence which sets the tone of the paragraph; the rest amplifies, clarifies, or explores the topic sentence. When you change topics, start a new paragraph.

THE PASSIVE VOICE.

Overuse of passive voice makes a passage dense. When you write in active voice, the people and things in your sentences do something--they are the center of attention. Passive voice weakens writing by assigning actions to some unknown "other" or by producing evasive or uncertain sounding prose. To identify passive voice, look for forms of the "to be" verb such as is, am, are, was, were, has been, have been, etc. Also look for the preposition "by," as it might indicate a use of passive voice.

Passive Example: It was suggested by our instructors that we use active voice instead of passive voice to achieve conciseness and eliminate prepositional phrases.

Active Example: Our instructors suggest that we use active voice instead of passive voice to achieve conciseness and eliminate prepositional phrases.

Sometimes passive voice is not only acceptable but appropriate. For instance, you might use passive voice when the doer of the action isn't known:

Red ochre was used as one of the primary tints in ancient cave paintings.

Passive voice might also be used when it is more important to emphasize the role of the receiver than that of the doer, as in many scientific or technical texts:

The liquid was then heated to 300 degrees Fahrenheit until a white distillate formed.

Finally, you can use passive voice to vary sentence types in your writing. Generally speaking, though, you will want to avoid excessive use of passive voice, as overuse will make your writing sound weak or evasive.

PRECISION.

The guiding principle in all your word choices should be precision, the most important contributor to clarity.

Sometimes this means choosing words a little out of the ordinary: peripatetic might come closer to the mark than wandering, and recondite is sometimes more accurate than obscure. But though a large vocabulary will help you here, don't resort to long words or obfuscation. More often precision means choosing the right familiar word: paying attention to easily confused pairs like imply and infer, and making sure the words you choose have exactly the right meaning. For instance, "Hamlet's situation is extremely important in the play" means almost nothing. Try something that expresses a particular idea, like "Hamlet's indecision forces the catastrophe" or "The murder of Hamlet's father brings about the crisis."

Precision can also mean putting your words in just the right order, or using just the right grammatical construction to make your point. Always read your writing as closely as possible, paying attention to every word, and ask yourself whether every word says exactly what you want.

PUNCTUATION AND QUOTATION MARKS.

In America, commas and periods go inside quotation marks, and semicolons and colons go outside, regardless of the punctuation in the original quotation. Question marks and exclamation points depend on whether the question or exclamation is part of the quotation, or part of the sentence containing the quotation. Some examples: See the chapter entitled "The Conclusion, in which Nothing is Concluded." The spokesman called it "shocking," and called immediately for a committee. Have you read "Araby"? He asked "How are you?"


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