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Writing groups are more popular than ever. Yet more and more people aren’t happy with the workshops they’re attending, they don’t think that their meetings help them to become better writers. Mostly the writers feel that they are wasting their time.

What is the most important feature of a writing workshop? It is the peer critique. Opinions such as “I really liked your story” may be flattering, but they don’t help the writers to improve their skills.

A critique is not someone’s personal opinion based on a feeling. Rather, a critique is a rational evaluation that has structure and looks not only at the big picture of a work, but also at its mechanics. It ought to be in written form, so that the writer can reread and consider the important points the critics have made when s/he starts the process of rewriting. The critics benefit from writing critiques in so far as it will enable them to better evaluate and analyze their own work.

How does one go about composing a helpful critique and what should it contain? In order to evaluate a piece of writing such as a short story, for example, one needs the read it at least twice.

The first reading

During the first reading, the critic evaluates the plot as well as the flow of the story. Is there a beginning, middle, and an ending? Does the point of view work for this story? Sometimes a good story can be improved simply by changing the point of view from which it is told.

Things that interrupt the flow, such as confusing or abrupt transitions, can quickly be marked on the draft. Are there any problems with overall clarity or coherence of the story? Is the piece satisfying? Clichés are usually disturbing and are noticed and marked during the first quick reading as well.

After the first reading is a good time to compose a brief summary of the story. The summary is a rather important part of the critique. It doesn’t only let the author know that the critic read the entire story; the summary shows how the story was perceived and understood. When a writer receives a number of peer critiques all containing the same misinterpretation of the text, he or she knows that the story isn’t clear enough. The summary, therefore, is a good measurement of a work’s clarity.

The second reading

The second reading is a closer look at the text and how certain parts of the story work. It is best to mark the draft as well as jot down notes as one reads along. The critic looks at what works as well as for what doesn’t work. Questions the reader should bear in mind:

* Is the setting detailed enough or is there too much unnecessary description?

* What kind of images does the story create for the reader?

* Are the main characters fully developed and believable? Does the story contain stereotypes and stock characters? Stereotypes and stock characters are okay in some cases, yet they shouldn’t play a big part in a story. Do the characters undergo any changes in the course of the story? Are those changes believable, do they make sense?

*Evaluate the dialogue. Does each character have a distinctive voice or do they all sound alike? Does the voice fit with the description of the character? For example, an inner city youth does not talk like the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Is the dialogue age-appropriate for the characters? A 70-year-old lady uses a different vocabulary than her granddaughter would, for example.

* Are the metaphors used comprehensible? Are they creative and new? Does the story contain any metaphors at all? Perhaps it could benefit from the use of a metaphor?

Writing the critique

After the brief summary of the text the critic may want to address the strengths of the story. By evaluating what works in a story and why it works, the critic teaches him or herself a valuable skill. One could compare the deconstruction of an excellent work to finding out what the ingredients of a fabulous dish are and what exactly was done with them to create that scrumptious meal. Afterwards, one can use the techniques and cook up something special just the same.

It is not for reason of flattery or to soften the blow of what will follow further down in the critique (though it usually works that way) that the critic lists the strengths of a piece; oftentimes a writer may have simply followed a creative surge and not even paid attention to how exactly a paragraph or scene was constructed. It helps to know what works.

Stating the weaknesses of that same story is a delicate, but not that difficult an undertaking. It is best to not address the author, but only to refer to the text. One ought to state what doesn’t work in a very detached and analytical manner. An inexperienced critic may assume that it would be helpful to make suggestions as to how to improve and rework the text. This is not a good idea. Suggestions, no matter how well intended, are condescending on one hand and limiting on the other.

Writing a critique is not a small favor. It takes time, thought, and sharp focus. Small writing workshops, therefore, make sense as every participant benefits equally. A good system to use is to hand out drafts and collect critiques at the beginning of the meeting. With the actual work done at home, one can then take the time to socialize, talk about writing, and share information about publishers, and so on.

The success of a writing workshop depends on the quality of critiques exchanged. A successful writing group can increase one’s productivity, sharpen skills, and even help overcoming writer’s block. One may even make good friends there.