PE: Literature Critique Tips

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BeccaJS's avatar
*Updated 03/08/17 because it needs a refresh!*

Originally, this article was part of Project Educate Critique week back in 2012!

Literature Critique: Top Tips

Before you start giving critique:

  • READ the piece all the way through.
  • Read it again, making notes of what you would like to point out in your critique.
  • Stay Objective- you are critiquing the piece not the person.

Things to look out for when delivering Literature Critique:

:star: These tips are areas which aren't just necessary in critiquing others' work, but also when self-critiquing your own writing. 

:bulletorange: A good opening.

The opening to any form of writing doesn't need to involve an  explosion, but it does needs to have a hook; something to entice the reader. It needs to be clear, something that sparks interest and leads the rest of the piece. Keep an eye out for opening paragraphs/stanzas that are flat and uninteresting. How can the writer improve their opening lines?

:bulletorange: "Show, don't tell".

I would put money on people having used this phrase in giving critique! Showing, not telling refers to understanding your audience and engaging them in your writing. A lot of newer writers often have a great idea for a story, but splurge the whole story out in one go. This is usually as they are making it up as they are going along (like they are telling themselves the story) and not necessarily planning.

This sometimes means the audience element is forgotten. Show, don't tell encourages the writer to allow the reader to experience the story for themselves, through the characters perspective and not through the narrator talking at the audience, overbearing with description, blocking the imagination of the reader. The reader wants to be able to be in the story and feel the story for themselves.

This also applies to poetry. You want your audience to experience senses in poetry and if you're not showing them those senses, then they are being told a poem that lacks the connection.

If you can understand the difference between "showing" and "telling", you will find critique and application to your own writing working much more effectively.

:bulletorange:  Cut the fat.

This is a two-parter! The first focuses on sentence structure, the second on over-description.

Often we can get over-descriptive or use too many words to make the same point. Although this is a very good skill for a writer to learn in editing; it is also a good aspect  in giving critique to others too. Look out for the "sapphire ice sea-blue eyes that reflected in the sky like aquatic raindrops" when all we care about is the colour is blue. Adjective abuse is a common habit, even for some of the more frequent writers and pointing out these can really help improve a piece.

Sentence structure bottles down to readability. Do we have ridiculously long sentences that lack punctuation breaks? Are there random short sentences that have no meaning or significance to the rest of the plot? Look for repetitive sentences and words also. How many ways do we need to say the same thing?

:bulletorange: Watch those Clichés.

I love to hate clichés! 

Themes can be clichés- how many people write poems about writing poetry? What about when talking about transformation then using a butterfly analogy? Or starting a novel with a description of the weather?

We've all read the poems with imagery such as "broken wings", "crimson tears" etc, but clichés have a nasty habit of slipping in everywhere.

Writers can sometimes use them without even realising it- how many characters have "beads of sweat running down their back" or how many battles are called "epic clashes of steel"?

Writing is about originality and although sometimes a little cliché is healthy, it really should only be a little. Helping a writer notice where their clichés lie can encourage more original writing.

:bulletorange:  SPAG.

SPAG stands for "Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar". This is a fundamental element of good writing. Poor SPAG will usually put the reader off from even glancing at the work and this is essential especially those aiming for future publication.

Sometimes people do make small typos and mistakes, so pointing them out actually helps the writer considerably! Don't be afraid to point out the obvious, because obvious to one person isn't to another.

However, do be aware when it comes to spelling that sometimes different forms of the same language do mean different spellings dependant on writers language. American English Vs British English is a great example.

:bulletorange: Fluidity.

How does the piece flow? Is the piece difficult to read? If certain pieces aren't working, try reading them aloud to see what is tripping the piece up. Does the order of stanzas/paragraphs make sense? Could sections be removed or rearranged to improve it?

When people ask for critique, they ask about flow often. Its all about readability and ensuring that what they're writing is actually readable and understood by the reader. Be honest if you don't find it working, but make sure you explain yourself. Don't just say "it doesn't floe", try be prescriptive.

::bulletorange: Presentation

Ridiculous small writing can be off-putting to read. Often people include things in their writing to "make it unique", but actually sometimes this unique element actually makes the piece unreadable and unappealing to the audience. It is harder for most people to read from a computer monitor than a book and therefore writing needs to clean and clear. How does the writer's piece look visually?

:bulletorange: Style over substance.

There are many different forms of literature; different styles and some forms which have specific rules. However some writers often find themselves caught into the style of the poem and forgetting about the content.

Also, sometimes people use format to try and make their writing look "quirky" (such as bolding certain words in a poem or spacing verses sporadically) and this doesn't always match the content. Good writing it was readers look for, not fancy formatting unless it enhances the writing. 

:bulletorange: Common rhymes

Similar to spotting clichés, we look for more creative rhyming. What can be done when words ending "ing" are removed? Or how many times have we seen: Flight/Sight Life/Knife Long/Song etc? Could the writer use something different and more effective? Does the rhyme necessarily have to be at the end of each line?

:bulletorange:  Point-Of-View and Tense  

Does the writing skip around between the first, second and third person?  Does it flick between past and future without clear deliberate reason why? Both of these elements contribute to the consistency of the story. 

:bulletorange:  Concrete Imagery

Although a little bit of abstract imagery might be ok, sometimes being too ambiguous alienates your reader. Really powerful poetry not only uses concrete images; it also describes them vividly. Is the writer using concrete images?

5 simple things to remember on the receiving end of a critique?

1. Be gracious. Even if you don't agree with what you have received, make sure you thank the person for their insight. You may find coming back to it a few days later you agree with them!

2. If you asked for critique, make the most of it and get editing! There is nothing more frustrating than giving someone a critique for them to reply "Thanks, I'll do that next time". People like to see development of a piece and you're more likely to get repeat critiques if you take it on board and do something with it!

3. Don't get personal! Often, people ask for critique when actually they may just want validation if their work is any "good" or not.  Remember that the person giving you critique has been objective and may not give you that validation- it doesn't mean it isn't "good", it just means you need to work on it a bit.

4. People are not there to do your homework. Sometimes in a critique, you may be given tips to do some research, or rewrite certain parts etc. You have to drive yourself on that advice, don't expect someone to do it for you.

5. Share the love! It is amazing how much more response you can get, if you give a little yourself. Get critiquing others because it is totally worth it!

Share your own advice and experience!

Feel free to add your own tips, experiences and thoughts about literature critique in the comments! 

I hope you have found this useful!


© 2012 - 2024 BeccaJS
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squanpie's avatar
Brilliant article, bookmarked to share! I don't think I caught this first time round, so good to see it back again!

(Also a good giggle reading through some of the older comments!) :giggle: