How to Critique a Short Story

IMG_3165_1Sooner or later one of your fiction writing friends will turn to you and ask, “Would you read this story for me?”

You will think this is innocent enough.  But it’s not.  This little question is packed with emotion.

And if you don’t read or write fiction, you don’t understand the code behind the words.  The code reads like this:  Please take care when you read this.  It represents all the sweat, emotion, and working with words that I can muster. 

Got that?  That’s the first part of the code.

But the second part of the code is much more obtuse, and yet, extremely important to a writer who wants to get published.  The second part of the code reads like this:  Do you think I can improve upon my baby? 

Got that?  Not, your baby stinks, but maybe your baby needs a diaper change.  You need to give some concrete examples of ways the story can be improved.

What should you focus on in a short story that a writer can relate to?  The key here is honesty in the following areas.

Structure:  The structure is the bare bones of the story, and language fills it up.  Does the story flow well?  Is there a place or places in the story where story starts to slow down and your mind wanders?  Or is/are there places where you get confused as to what is happening in the story?

Language: Do the characters speak authentically and true to themselves?  Is it believable?  Or is it stilted or strained?  The language should sound very close to speaking dialogue.  I say very close, because we do not often speak in full sentences as you would find in fiction.  The idea with fictional dialogue is to make it sound as close to reality as possible, while maintaining the flow and direction of the story.

Character and Idea: Are the characters believable?  You don’t necessarily have to like the characters, but you should develop a relationship or a bond with the characters.  They make you feel something – whether it be love, disgust, fascination, repulsion, envy, lust, etc.  The wide range of human emotion.  And how do the character(s) relate to the idea presented in the story?  Do they react well with what the writer is trying to convey?  Or is the chemical reaction of character and idea falling flat?

Other Points:  Don’t be afraid to list other points that you are unsure of, or think need further clarification.  Also, don’t be afraid of listing points that you really like, either.

Remember that a critique is ultimately a measure of your objectivity.  It is not a matter of like or dislike.  You must get beyond that in a critique, you must serve the story, not your ideas of like or dislike.

If you would like some practice on critiquing fiction please visit Writer Dad or Steph Vandermeulen’s site, In Other Words.  Writer Dad posts his short stories on Fridays, and Steph has a short story area you can visit on her blog listed under fiction.

Photocredit: © Ellen Wilson

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16 Responses to How to Critique a Short Story

  1. Writer Dad says:

    Wow, how about that. I was reading, then all of a sudden, it was like someone kissed me on the cheek. Thanks Ellen, that was really nice. Please everyone, don’t mistake me for any kind of an authority, but thanks. And I’m in good company. I’ve had the pleasure of exchanging emails with Steph this week. She’s awesome.

    Writer Dad’s last blog post..A Breath of Fresh Air

  2. Vered says:

    I don’t think I would be very good at that. I would be afraid of hurting the author’s feelings. I know that they need the feedback, but I would just have a very hard time saying anything negative to someone I care about.

    Vered’s last blog post..Would You Eat Spicy Chocolate?

  3. Will you critique my story?
    is like:
    Does this dress make me look fat?

    You can’t win! Critic is either a liar (You look great./The story is perfect.) Or critic is too harsh because any suggestion can hurt the author.

    It takes a long time for a writer to get used to critiques. It is part of the writer’s road, to thicken the skin.

    Eventually, if you submit your work enough for critique, you get used to it.

    Also, writing on the Internet can be good practice; commenters can be so unnecessarily cruel, that when someone actually has useful feedback, it is refreshing.

    Dirty baby diaper change… good analogy. “Yes, I love your baby, but it stinks and you need to change the diaper.”

    Jaden @ Screenwriting for Hollywood’s last blog post..Write a Screenplay in One Month: Week Four

  4. steph says:

    Writer Dad!! Did I just get kissed *twice*?! Thank you for saying such an awesome thing! You beat me to it. I think you’re wonderful too. And by wonderful, I mean very, very talented. And a bunch of other, assorted good things, like enthusiastic and caring and fun.

    Ellen: Thank you for pinging me! I actually feel very privileged to be critiqued by you: you’re honest and reflective and thought-provoking. I wish I could write more for you right now! 🙂 This was a good post. There are other things to consider too: Does the point of view work? (Two of my stories are from a guy’s point of view. )How is the setting, do you get concrete imagery? Do you feel as though you’re there? How is the ending, the title? What about the premise of the story itself? Should more research be done? (Like that time you suggested I listen to some four-yr-olds.) How does the lenth work? Too long, too short, just right? One of the hardest things to comment on can be the actual prose. Is the story well-written in general, or are the words trying too hard, or are there tons of errors? All of these things need to be gently pointed out and commented on, because as writers, we’re too close to our work and often can’t see what others can.

    @ Vered: If you sense that someone is simply too attached to their writing and wouldn’t respond well, even if they say they will, then perhaps gently decline commenting. But otherwise, writers know they have to develop a thick skin! Just point stuff out by asking questions and making gentle suggestions. for example: “I noticed that your dialogue sounds a little stilted. What if you tried writing it as though you were speaking aloud?” Or “This sounds a bit off here. Guys don’t really go for a pee. M guy always says he’s going to take a leak. Wouldn’t it be more natural for your narrator to say that instead?” 🙂 Something like that. (I just made that up.) It won’t be offensive. They’ll come to appreciate your honesty, sincerity, and interest, the way I do Ellen’s.

    steph’s last blog post..Is It Okay for Me to be Selfish Yet?

  5. steph says:

    I mean, “would it be more natural.” Saying “wouldn’t” doesn’t really give them a choice. Let them come to the idea and agree or disagree. Saying “wouldn’t” implies you’ll think they’re dumb if they don’t agree.

    steph’s last blog post..Is It Okay for Me to be Selfish Yet?

  6. Karen Swim says:

    Ellen, this is great advice. I have done editorial consultations for clients and it is not an easy job. You do not want to be a dream killer! I have learned to dig for the good and then build on that – i.e. your concept is beautiful here’s how you can strengthen. Critiquing someone’s work really does require you to shift your perspective and become almost clinical, but with warmth like a doctor who has excellent bedside manner.

  7. Cath Lawson says:

    Hi Ellen – Thanks for these tips. I hate when people ask me to look at a story they’ve written. It makes me feel so uncomfortable. Often I end up telling them it’s good because that’s what they want to hear, rather than suggesting any improvements. And if it really sucks, I’ll say – it’s ok – it’ll be great when you’ve done a few more drafts.

    I’ll bear these points in mind next time.

    Cath Lawson’s last blog post..Business Referrals: Are You Making This Huge Mistake?

  8. Hi Ellen,

    I’ve with Vered on this one. I wouldn’t know what to say if I thought it was bad. I would definitely not want to hurt their feelings, so would probably just say, “I’m not the best one to ask”. Yikes!

    Barbara Swafford’s last blog post..Plugins, Questions and Open Mic

  9. I had the priviledge of reviewing/editing my brother’s fiction novel (which, btw, as been accepted by an agent to publish, yay Alex!). I edit a lot of strategies and processes at work. And I review and edit each and every one of the Lion’s posts. I find the main trick is to resist the temptation to edit the person’s writing style. The Lion is a very good example, because his style is very different from mine. I focus on content, continuity, and grammar.

    Urban Panther’s last blog post..Cut and run

  10. Amy Derby says:

    I admit folks who are able to critique. I’m very bad at it. I’m always happy to read the work of my fellow writers, but am rarely able to critique anything. 🙂

    Amy Derby’s last blog post..What’s Your Dream Gig?

  11. Ellen Wilson says:

    @Writer Dad – I’m glad you had the pleasure of meeting Steph. I hope more people get to read your stories!

    @Vered – Yes, it is always tough. But if you approach it in a friendly spirit, rather than like a shark going to the kill, it can be done. A writer will always appreciate your honest criticism. Most writers can tell honest from smarmy.

    @Jaden – Oh yeah, definitely, you eventually develop a thick skin or you never develop as a writer. I like to get a lot of feedback and see what jibes with me. See if my critics are saying the same thing. That’s the purpose of a writing group in my opinion.

    @Steph – Ping! Hey, thanks for adding the additional information. I will keep it in mind when I read more stories. I try to do the best I can.

    @Karen – Yes, when people are just beginning to write it can be very difficult. People usually know what stage they’re at though. The trick is to be gentle with a new writer – not to gentle, but not to rough. Just right. If you are too gentle new writers will never improve, and if your too harsh they might shut down forever. I would rather error on the side of being too gentle.

    It’s all a matter of developing a thick skin, and realizing some critics don’t have your best interest in mind.

    @Cath – I like critiquing stories, because I know writers want to make their work as best as possible before they start the journey towards submissions. Writing is a difficult task, and it’s kind of like rewarding the writer after all that hard work.

    @ Barbara – I suppose it’s better being honest than not! If you feel like you will do a bad job I guess there’s no harm in bowing out. I guess you have to be the judge of that.

    @ Urban – I focus on content and continuity when I do a critique too. I usually don’t mess with grammar unless there are glaring errors.

    That is very cool about your brother! Now you can critique my novel and get me an agent.

    Kidding.

    @Amy – Hey, you’re honest. Critiquing is as hard as writing I think. There definitely is an art to it. And I’m not perfect by any means.

  12. I always kick off my critiques with the positive feedback. In college, I was taught to do this, and over the years I’ve realized that this helps build a writer’s confidence before you lay down the bad news about parts that need fixing. If you start with the problems in a piece, you get off to a negative session. Start with the positive and you open the session with hope.

    Another thing I learned in college was to take criticism heartily. I always feel that getting feedback, even negative, is better than not getting it.

    My advice to all writers is get as much feedback as you can and accept it graciously. Separate your ego from your work, and know in your heart that when someone gives you feedback they want to help you make your writing even better.

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..Don’t Think, Just Write

  13. steph says:

    Hey Ellen,

    Congrats on moving along on your novel, btw! I’m excited to hear more about it! Will you tell all here soon? Have you already and I missed it?

    @UP: Alex never told me his novel was accepted by an agent!! WOOHOO!! And good for you for the critiquing you’re doing; it sounds as though you’ve got a good balance. You’ve got it exactly right: an editor should remain invisible, behind the scenes. Changing an author’s voice and style is just, well, wrong.

  14. Ellen Wilson says:

    @Melissa – Ah yes, how right you are to add that tidbit about starting the critique off with something positive. Thanks for adding that. Getting as much feedback as possible is a very good thing. Then you can decide what to do with it all. Writer’s groups are good for this type of thing.

    @Steph – I should be done with it at the end of October. It’s my second novel. I will let it set for awhile and then edit it and then it will make the rounds of agents. I think I will send it directly to some publishers too. See how that goes.

    I don’t talk in detail about what I’m working on because it breaks the spell.

  15. Marelisa says:

    Although I’ve never reviewed fiction, when I worked for the Panama Canal Commission as a labor attorney they would send me letters drafted by the Labor Relations Division for my review. I would literally write them over. So I don’t think it would be a good idea for someone to hand over their “babies” to me; I wouldn’t change the diaper, I would give them a different baby back. But I see your point 🙂

    Marelisa’s last blog post..How to Create a Swipe File to Jump Start Your Creativity

  16. Ellen Wilson says:

    Marelisa,

    That’s funny. They truly must have “stunk” then? These letters. Well, I guess you had to do what you job entailed.

    Everything must be very “to the letter” when dealing with government.

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