How To Critique a Story

15th August 2002

Filed by: Officer Taylor

One of the most helpful resources for improving your writing is an on-line critiquing community such as The Internet Writing Workshop or Critters Workshop. In communities like these, a member submits a story to the group, and the other members respond with critiques, explaining where the piece is strong and where it is weak, and how it can be improved.

Unfortunately, the usefulness of these critiques is often compromised by a lot of namby-pamby liberal whitewashing: critiquers are frightened to tell it like it is for fear of upsetting the writer's fragile ego. This approach is often encouraged by feeble, bleeding-heart articles such as The Diplomatic Critiquer, It's Not What You Say, But How You Say It and the IWW's softly-softly critiquing guidelines.

Articles like these major on nicey-nicey details of etiquette such as ``Don't quote `rules' of writing'', ``Critique the story, not the author'' and ``Assume the author knows what they're doing''. Though no doubt well-intentioned, in the long term such guidelines can only harm the recipient of the critique.

Here at the SAGP, we recognise that the only way to help aspiring writers to straighten their act out is to tell 'em straight, hit 'em hard, and leave 'em grovelling in the dirt. That's why, when we critique someone else's writing, we follow these few simple rules:

Now let's try putting all these rules together: suppose you were asked to provide a constructive critique for the opening of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

``My dear Mr. Bennet,'' said his lady to him one day, ``have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?''

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

``But it is,'' returned she; ``for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.''

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

``Do you not want to know who has taken it?'' cried his wife impatiently.

``You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.''

This was invitation enough.

``Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.''

``What is his name?''


``Is he married or single?''

``Oh! Single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!''

You might critique it as follows:

What a crock!

I tried to critique your Pride and Prejudice but I couldn't get past the first chapter. Talk about density! Ridiculously long sentences, antiquated subject-matter and endless waffle.

If this is ever going to be any good, you're going to need to trim ruthlessly, and move the plot along much more quickly. Look at the opening: an abstract, philosophical statement. How does that advance the plot? And it's not even true - it's not a truth ``universally acknowledged'', is it? Perhaps you should try thinking before you write.

The characterisation is hopelessly unconvincing. No wife would address her husband by his surname. The Mrs. Bennet character is completely over the top, and your story would work much better if you cut her out completely. Her lines could be given to the cipher that is Mary.

You really don't have a clue how to write dialogue, do you? You have six consecutive speeches here without so much as a single tag to tell us who's saying what. You should intersperse the spoken words with ``action tags'', like this:

``What is his name?'' Mr. Bennet tapped his pipe thoughtfully on sideboard.

``Bingley.'' His wife's face had turned red with excitement, and she couldn't keep still.

``Is he married or single?'' Mr. Bennet stifled a yawn as he walked across the room to draw the curtains.

See how much more naturally it flows like that?

I could go on, but frankly there's so much wrong with this that there's really no point in picking nits. It needs a complete rewrite before it's worth spending any more time on.

One final point: you absolutely must change that title. Pride and Prejudice? How does that tell us anything about the story? You should use something vivid and evocative like First Impressions instead.

Now just think how much much better P&P could have been if Jane Austen had had the benefit of good, honest critiquing like that.

Feedback to <> is welcome!