BACCA Guidelines for Critiquing Creative Writing

When BACCA began meeting in 2011, we adopted Luke Whisnant’s guidelines for critiquing fiction, just as David Ronka, our WriterHouse (Charlottesville, VA) fiction teacher, had done in the class where we first met.

Since that time, as we’ve explored other forms besides fiction, we’ve responded to the need for expanded guidelines by drafting materials to address critiques for creative (narrative) nonfiction, children’s books, and self-help / instructional manuscripts.

BACCA writer Noelle Beverly starts us off with her thoughtful comments on how to approach a critique. After preliminary how-to steps, we then continue to more specific guidelines by genre. We include sections for Fiction (by Luke Whisnant), Narrative Nonfiction (modified by BACCA writer Carolyn O’Neal), Children’s Books (from BACCA guest writer Pam Evans), and Self-Help / Instructional manuscripts (modified by BACCA writer A M Carley). Throughout, Whisnant’s text appears in bold type.

Contents

CRITICAL THINKING IN CRITIQUE

PRELIMINARY CRITIQUE STEPS

FICTION

NARRATIVE NONFICTION

CHILDREN’S BOOKS

SELF-HELP & INSTRUCTIONAL MANUSCRIPTS

CRITICAL THINKING IN CRITIQUE by Noelle Beverly

I find that writing skills and critique skills belong in the same toolbox. Honing critique skills makes me a better writer, so I’m willing to spend a fair bit of time. The Whisnant guidelines, I think, are the best basic set of guidelines. Branching off from his basic strategy, a few ideas:

  • Everything is intentional. My initial mindset when approaching a manuscript: everything is intentional. Assuming that a draft needs to be fixed, or reinvented to look like something the reader recognizes, can cause damage. I assume the writer has something in mind, and it’s my first job to figure out what that is.
  • Distill the project. As I figure out the project, I distill what’s in front of me into two or three sentences, and post it (if necessary) at the top of the critique. Sometimes it’s obvious, or in some nonfiction, stated explicitly. But if not, I try to capture the basics of a manuscript in a few lines. Then this becomes my north star.
  • What’s working. What needs work. All comments, falling under the categories of “what’s working” and “what’s next?,” are in conversation with that summary and point back to it in one way or another. Comments under “what’s working” acknowledge elements of a manuscript that support, solidify, or enhance the goals of the project; questions or comments about what needs work highlight elements that seem to fall outside of the scope of the project, conflict with it, or undermine it in some way.
  • Zoom out. Starting with the writer’s intent/project helps me to zoom out—gets me out of line-editing territory, so that I can focus on how a piece of writing is put together. But it also helps me weed out my baggage, so that all comments are focused on the writing itself. When I notice that a reader is trying to reshape my project—force it to resemble something s/he would write—I know that comments from that reader are likely to be inadmissible. 
  • A group of careful readers. From there, I do what we all do—identify the elements that are working and those that need to shift or develop. What I notice is particular to me and my preoccupations. The magic of finding a group of careful readers is that we may all notice something different and provide the broadest range of help possible.
  • Examine how it works. I also push myself to go beyond stating what’s good and explain how something is working. When I identify something that works well in a manuscript, I try to explain why and how I think it’s working well. This isn’t just to validate the writer, but to uncover strategies for all of us to use. (Sometimes, too, as the writer, I know something feels right, but I may not have noticed exactly how it works on multiple levels—sometimes, a reader sees it and lets me know.)
  • Explore your questions. If I have a question about a manuscript, I will spend even more time—if I suspect that an aspect of the manuscript isn’t living up to the writer’s project and intention, I will look for what I may have missed, trying to find a justification for its use. If I can’t do that, my note will end up in the critique under “what’s next” or “questions.” By then, I usually have a list of reasons why something isn’t working so that I can identify exactly how it veers from the project. Sometimes in this process, I’m converted by the writer and a question will end up in “what’s working.”

Noelle Beverly also wrote a blog post, Critiquing Critique, for BACCA with more insight on this topic.

PRELIMINARY CRITIQUE STEPS

These steps apply to all four of the sections that follow. We have adapted them from Luke Whisnant’s “Responding to Other People’s Fiction” and have updated them for paper-free critiques using digital tools. Whisnant’s remarks are bolded.

If you’re an old pro at workshopping and you already have a method for going over other folks’ work, good for you. But if you’re wondering where to start, or want a little guidance, then here are some suggestions.

  1. First, read the piece all the way through, in one sitting, without writing any responses. At most, on the first reading, just flag anything that you want to revisit. Set it aside and come back to it later.
  2. On your second reading, mark up a copy of the document on the computer—specifics on style, images, characterization, dialogue, phrasing, etc. You can use the Comment function in MS Word, Google Docs, etc., making sure to rename the file so the author knows this comes from you when you share it.
  3. Then create a new document and write a note to the author, giving your overall reactions on what’s working and what could work better. Start with what’s working. List several things that are working, and several more that might need work, that raise questions, or otherwise deserve comment. Make all your comments constructive, and as specific as possible.
  4. Use the writer’s page numbers and cite to them in your comments for everyone’s ready reference. (No need to delay the critique meeting while you or others search through the writer’s manuscript for specific text.) 
  5. Your responses should be phrased as “I think” or “It seems to me” or “In my opinion.”
  6. It is usually more valuable for a writer to hear observations than evaluations. Instead of evaluating something as “good” or “bad,” I prefer to note “what’s working” and “what could work better.” (In BACCA, we also say “what works” and “what else” or “what’s working” and “considerations.”)
  7. It is more valuable for a writer to hear what’s working and what could work better than it is to hear “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” “I liked it” is good for the ego but does nothing for the writing.

A M Carley for the BACCA writers

FICTION GUIDELINES by Luke Whisnant

Here are some questions you might want to address in your note. 

  • Are the characters believable? Why or why not? Is their dialogue believable and consistent? Do you understand their motivations for their actions? Is there enough background on the page to tell you who they are and how they got to this point in their lives? Do you feel an emotional connection with them? Do you know what they want?
  • Is there a clear conflict? What is it? Tell the author in a few sentences what you perceive it to be and where that becomes clear in the piece.
  • How is the pacing? Is it slow, bogged down with too much exposition? Or is it too fast—just a lot of scenes which fly by without any depth? Where would you slow down, and where speed up?
  • Does the piece open well? If you picked it up in a bookstore and read the first paragraph, would you buy the book? Or put it down? Or, undecided, read further?
  • Are there enough physical details to make a good movie in your mind?
  • Is the point of view (POV) consistent? Who is/are your “hot character(s)”? Would you want to read a whole novel about that person or persons? Do you think the POV is appropriate for the story being told?
  • Is the style clear and free of mechanical/grammatical errors? Realize that you’re reading a draft and drafts are never perfect, so go easy, but at the same time, if you see errors, correct them in a friendly way. Are there aspects of the style that seem unsuited to the story (for example, diction elevated far above the characters’ vocabularies)?
  • What is the mood/tone of the piece? When the mood changes, is it done convincingly?
  • What is the theme—the main idea—of the piece? Try to state it in one sentence. Is it coming through clearly? (In a brief excerpt of a novel, you may not be able to identify a theme, but guess anyway).

Luke Whisnant, “Responding to Other People’s Fiction”

NARRATIVE NONFICTION GUIDELINES

Here are some questions and considerations you might want to address in your note. 

  • Since nonfiction is about real people, believability isn’t really an issue.  
  • All dialogue should be from actual quotes or relatively inconsequential (saying good morning to someone, etc.) 
  • Do you understand the characters’ motivations for their actions? Is there enough background on the page to tell you who they are and how they got to this point in their lives? Do you feel an emotional connection with them? Do you know what they want?
  • Is there a clear conflict? What is it? Tell the author in a few sentences what you perceive it to be and where that becomes clear in the piece.
  • How is the pacing? Is it slow, bogged down with too much exposition? Or is it too fast—just a lot of scenes which fly by without any depth? Where would you slow down, and where speed up?  
  • Nonfiction generally must have more exposition than scenes. Thoughtful critiquing can help keep exposition readable and not bogged down in facts or boring details.
  • Does the piece open well? If you picked it up in a bookstore and read the first paragraph, would you buy the book? Or put it down? Or, undecided, read further?
  • Are there enough physical details to make a good movie in your mind?
  • Is the point of view (POV) consistent? Who is/are your “hot character(s)”? Would you want to read a whole novel about that person or persons? Do you think the POV is appropriate for the story being told?
  • Is the style clear and free of mechanical/grammatical errors? Realize that you’re reading a draft and drafts are never perfect, so go easy, but at the same time, if you see errors, correct them in a friendly way. Are there aspects of the style that seem unsuited to the story (for example, diction elevated far above the characters’ vocabularies)?
  • What is the mood/tone of the piece? When the mood changes, is it done convincingly?
  • What is the theme—the main idea—of the piece? Try to state it in one sentence. Is it coming through clearly? (In a brief excerpt of a book, you may not be able to identify a theme, but guess anyway).

Carolyn O’Neal, modifying Luke Whisnant’s Responding to Other People’s Fiction.” Whisnant’s text is bolded.

CHILDREN’S BOOKS GUIDELINES

Here are some questions and considerations you might want to address in your note. 

  • Does the dialog work? (It may not be meant to be believable).
  • Is there enough detail? (If this is a picture book, is plenty of room left for the illustrator?)
  • Different children’s book categories observe specific requirements / conventions. These are subject to change every few years and may depend on what’s “in.” Here are a few of the basics:

Board Books

  • 300 words or fewer. 
  • As much about the illustrationsif not morethan about the words.
  • Word sounds are important to consider.

Picture Books

  • 500 words or fewer. (For kindergarten, some are longerup to 1,000 words.)
  • Leave room for the illustrator. You must not tell the whole story in words. This is hard for writers to do.
  • Is the character consistent? (Not necessarily believable.)
  • Is the conflict clear?

Independent Readers

  • 3,000 to 5,000 word max. (For 5- to 7-year-olds.)
  • Length varies, but fairly short.
  • Vocabulary limited.
  • Would it hold the interest of an elementary school child?

Chapter Books

  • Fewer than 10,000 words (6- to 9-year-olds)
  • Stories divided into chapters.
  • Can kids relate to the story personally? Or is it a fantasy that works?

Middle Grade / Young Teen / Young Adult

These categories can overlap and be a bit murky as to length and style requirements. Our basic Whisnant fiction critique suggestions work well with them.

—Pam Evans

SELF-HELP & INSTRUCTIONAL MANUSCRIPT GUIDELINES

Here are some questions you might want to address in your note. 

  • Can you relate personally to the guidance being offered? If not, can you imagine an audience for whom this guidance will be useful? Describe that audience.
  • Can you identify a theme or common message in the material? Is the material internally consistent or does the author take contradictory positions within the manuscript?
  • Are the advice and recommendations believable? Why or why not? 
  • Are steps clearly identified and does the sequence make sense?
  • Is there enough background on the page to give you the context you need to understand why someone might benefit from the advice being offered?
  • Does the author have a consistent voice and stance relative to the reader? Does the author maintain the same tone throughout, or does it shift from formal to conversational to business-speak to stilted academic-speak? Is a sense of humor evident? Does the tone match your sense of the intended audience for this material?
  • Is the author overwhelmingly either negative or positive, or is there a sense of realism?
  • What is the overall message to the reader of this piece?
  • How is the pacing? Is the material presented sufficient, excessive, or uneven from one section to another? Where would you slow down, and where speed up?
  • Does the piece open well? If you picked it up in a bookstore and read the first page, would you buy the book? Or put it down? Or, undecided, read further?
  • Are there enough physical and organizational details to make the proposed actions easy to imagine doing?
  • Are you aware of anything that is missing? Authors can have blind spots and will appreciate this kind of input.
  • Is the style clear and free of mechanical/grammatical errors? Realize that you’re reading a draft and drafts are never perfect, so go easy, but at the same time, if you see errors, correct them in a friendly way. 
  • What is the theme—the main idea—of the piece? Try to state it in one sentence. Is it coming through clearly? (In a brief excerpt of a self-help book, you may not be able to identify a theme, but it’s likely to be there).

A M Carley, modifying Luke Whisnant’sResponding to Other People’s Fiction.” Whisnant’s text is bolded.

The BACCA writers hope these expanded critique guidelines are helpful. Tell us what you think by clicking the text box below the heading, “Leave a Reply,” at the end of this post.