How to Critique like a Mentor
Updated: Oct 11, 2020
If you're like me, we're constantly learning and growing in our writing craft. I've wanted to get better at critiquing for my writing buddies, and get better at critiquing my own work. There's only so much you can do on your own. Sometimes you need a little help from a mentor.
I received feedback from a Pitch Wars mentor and an Author Mentor Match mentor on two different projects and have learned a few things, but I also put the idea to my friend and mentor Cat who created a fabulous blog post comprised of two parts: Part One & Part Two.
I'm going to break down advice into categories so it's a *little* less overwhelming.
Overall Notes to Take
- Worldbuilding- setting, tone, atmosphere, description, etc. For fantasy/dystopian/etc, do the rules and society make sense, does anything need to be fleshed out? How has the world shaped the MC and their world-view?
- Descriptions- do you feel like you're there?- sights, sounds, smells, touch, taste.
- Plot- what is it and how does it further the development of the MC. Was anything confusing? Is it consistent with the theme?
- Structure- do the plot points hit in the right spots? Is it missing any beats? Does anything need to be fleshed out/expanded?
- Characters & character arcs, including side characters and antagonist. What's the antag's backstory for why they are the way they are, and how do the protag and antag mirror each other to help the protag learn their theme? Are there any flat characters? Does everyone have agency? Is the character arc consistent with the theme?
- Conflict/Tension- is there tension in every scene? Did any conflicts get wrapped up too quickly?
- Subplots- did they tie in and enhance the main plot and the character's wound? Were any left unresolved?
- Voice, Dialogue, Writing Style, and other Line Edit type stuff.
- Backstory- is everything necessary that was revealed and was it revealed at the right moment? Was it info dumped or spread out? Does anything need more backstory or flashbacks?
- Inconsistencies or Contradictions- with character, world, or theme.
- Is the age and topic appropriate for what the writer's story is. - Like, is it YA but would be better suited to MG? Look at the themes and voice.
- Ask for a beat sheet to make sure those points hit home and that the structure is there. Tell them to reoutline if its needed.
- Ask any questions you have.
Notes While Reading
- Go ahead and cheerlead and squeal and point out things you love!
- Point out where a character is inconsistent.
- Comment where pacing drags or where it needs to slow down with introspection. Comment anywhere you are bored.
- Comment with any questions you have, this helps with tracking if there are plotholes. Leave comments where you're confused.
- Notes for passive voice or filter words, where there needs more description, where there's telling, where there needs more interiority, etc.
- Look for things you/the writer is worried about and pay special attention to that.
- Is there anything you don't love? Why?
- Find out what story you/they are trying to tell, what the character arc is and what theme they're exploring, so you can focus on and enhance that. To test the theme, line up each 1-sentence chapter summary and consider how each ties to the theme. Try to tie the theme and character arc strongly together.
- Ask how you/they want readers to feel at the end of the story.
- Ask what you/they are unwilling to change.
- What's the MC's misbelief and want, what stands in their way, and how does all that impact the story?
- Is there anything to cut, condense, or combine? Scenes, characters, settings, conversations, etc. Are there any scenes/convos that could be cut and the story would remain the same? Are there any boring bits/everyday life moments to cut? Kill your darlings. Are any scenes repetitive? Can two characters be combined? Can a conversation or backstory be condensed for pacing?
- Keep asking questions!! Brainstorm things out with the writer or your writer friends if it's your own work. Keep exploring to figure out the best way to tell the story and put pressure on your MC's wound.
Some additional take-aways:
- When you give notes, don't forget to explain why you feel that way or why your suggestion might work better.
- Try to think critically for each aspect of the book and what would really enhance it while sticking to the theme/story the person is trying to tell.
- Help with marketability if you can, what makes it unique, what's the 'hook'?; look at what's selling; help with comp titles.
Other ways to hone your critique style:
- Some other ways to gain critique experience is to analyze books/movies, read writing craft books, analyze agent feedback on your query package/full requests, read edit letters your friends have gotten from their agents, find peers in the writing community who are ahead of you and can help you, attend workshops, join a writing/critique group, research published authors' writing processes, listen to podcasts, etc. Keep writing and practicing and evaluating your own work.
- You'll never be perfect or be done growing or learning, so don't beat yourself up about that. Do your best, and as long as you're trying to make your/their book the best you can, that's all you can do.
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