How to give a written critique
As part of the Spectrum Annual Short Story Contest, all entrants are required to submit three written critiques; authors will be contacted by the admin team with the stories they have been selected to critique. For those who have not entered the competition but would still like to take part in the critique process, please contact one of the administrators (Kat, Rachel, Grant, James or Vivienne) and you will be assigned one or more stories to critique.
Below is a short guide to help you approach writing a critique, which can be more difficult than delivering one verbally.
Before we talk about how best to give a written critique, please bear in mind first and foremost that Spectrum exists to support and encourage one another as writers. Critiques are an essential part of that process, but do consider how your critique will be received, especially as the authors reading them will not be able to tell by tone or body language and so only have your words to go on. For many authors feedback from the Spectrum competition will be the first time they have ever had their writing critiqued, so please remember to be constructive, supportive and above all, be kind.
How long should your critique be?
At Spectrum we use the Milford method of critiquing, meaning each person giving feedback has three minutes to discuss the piece, which is around 400 words. We recommend written critiques are roughly this length as you may be asked to provide your critique verbally at the awards ceremony. You won’t be stopped from writing more or less, but significantly shorter may deprive a writer of valuable insight, and we feel most writers will be able to get across key points in around 400 words.
What is in a critique?
There are many things you can tell the author about their piece in your feedback; a good starting point is to consider your overall impression, and your thoughts on the four main voting categories from the competition:
- Plot: Did you enjoy the plot? How was the author’s use of structure? Were there twists or revelations you thought did or didn’t work well?
- Character: How did the author use their character to further the plot and world-building? Even if you did’t like them, did you enjoy the character and did they feel developed? Were their motivations, goals and actions understandable and logical/consistent to you as a reader?
- Dialogue: How did they use dialogue to further their story? Were their characters consistent in their dialogue? Did they use dialogue tags effectively so you could you always tell who was speaking?
- Setting/World-building: How did the writer use their setting/world-building to immerse you in the story? Was this consistent and did it draw you in?
Some other things to think about include:
- The opening: did it grab your attention and make you want to read more?
- Writing: How did the author use word choice and sentence structure to enhance their storytelling?
- Style: The elusive “voice” of a story; how did you connect with the writer’s style and how did they use this to amplify the other elements of their story? Did they show and tell in the right proportions?
- Pace: Was the pacing too fast, too slow, or just right? Did it change sufficiently throughout the story to keep you engaged as a reader?
- Conflict: Was there enough internal or external conflict in the story to keep your interest?
- The conclusion: how satisfied were you with the ending, did it wrap everything up neatly (or even too neatly)?
Some useful Do’s:
- Start on a positive note, and highlight the strengths of the piece your are critiquing; a good aim is about 1/3rd positive feedback and 2/3rds constructive feedback
- Be as specific as you can.
- Use positive framing, for example, instead of saying “the plot was boring and the setting was irrelevant”, you could say “I think your plot could have been strengthened by making use of the setting to exacerbate the challenges your main character had to overcome.”
- Say why something isn’t working for you as a reader or could be adapted, rather than simply say it isn’t working.
- Use objective language, rather than subjective.
- Critique how you would like to be critiqued; be respectful with your feedback.
Some useful Don’ts:
- Don’t direct feedback at the author, for example “Your opening line was poor,”; instead focus on the piece itself, eg “I wasn’t hooked in the opening lines, one way to draw me in sooner would be…”
- Don’t focus on the story you would have written. For example if you think their medieval fantasy story about dragons would have been much more enjoyable as a futuristic story about AI, that’s not necessarily useful feedback for the author.
- Make moral judgements about the characters (or the author for writing them). It’s ok to relate how a character’s choices made you feel as a reader, but a critique isn’t the place to make a moral judgement about their actions. A short story about a serial killer can still be an excellent story!
- Tell the author they were wrong to do something. Instead frame feedback around specific elements, for example “I thought this sentence would have been much more impactful if you’d used a stronger word here, for example x, y or z.”
- Use decisive statements, such as “this scene needs to be cut”. It may not be in the author’s plan to remove that scene, instead you could point out why you feel that scene isn’t currently working, or query its purpose.
- Do line edits! It’s ok to point out a few spelling errors or areas that need a bit more technical focus from a language perspective, but the purpose of your critique is to look at the story as a whole, not copyedit prose.
- Tell authors what you ranked them, or what points you gave them, especially if you used your own method of scoring to shortlist your stories; it’s not helpful, and can be demotivating for some writers who may not understand your process or criteria.
- Give unsolicited critiques. Every entrant to the competition has been assigned three pieces to critique; even if you have critique notes on a story outside of these three, do not send those to the author unless authors ask for them. Once author identities have been revealed you can approach them and ask if they would like to receive your critique notes, please do not simply send them to the author unsolicited.
Thank you in advance everyone for writing supportive, constructive and kind critiques. We all know how valuable feedback is to improving our writing, and so every critique you give is a vital step in our journey as writers.
With kindness and encouragement,
The Spectrum Contest Organising Team