Critical appraisal wanted

There’s a lot of advice out there for writers wanting to get cracking on their novel or screenplay. Be it on the net, in bookshops or libraries, there’s pretty much an answer for every conceivable question.

However, no-one it seems has considered what criteria the person who has been asked to assess a piece of fictional writing may need. Nor has anyone made any attempts to create some basic guidelines as far as I know.

Appraising, critiquing or reviewing, call it what you want. It’s not about opinionation, but assessment of the writing as objectively as possible.

When you assess your partner/friend’s work, be fair but honest. Please note reading fiction doesn’t require some dry academic reading of the text analysis. It does needs to be read without being read into, so avoid seeking out any hidden meanings or messages. And God forbid, avoid guess who’s the character’s based on game. Be on the lookout for your own tendencies to take over too, such as re-writing whole sections or paragraphs. Do not give into this, it’s their work, not yours. 

Reviewing a writer’s work should not be difficult, unless it’s really badly written and/or incorrectly formatted. Also, it’s not quite the same as reading in the way you are accustomed to. You can’t  just lose yourself in the story as per usual.

Below is a checklist that can be used when appraising the piece of writing given to you:

  • Ask what draft you will be reading: If it is a first, ask why? Strictly speaking no-one should ever be given a first draft to read. This is acceptable only when the following apply:
    • They’re a complete newbie, and haven’t yet grasped the concept of editing.   
    • If they’re lost track of the story’s value and they need an objective reader to help them figure out if it’s salvable or not. 
  • First read the short story/chapter(s) without any expectations. If you wish to make any notes, do, but at this point it isn’t necessary.  
  • Leave the story/chapter(s) in a safe place for a couple of days, a week even. Be strong but gentle about this if you get nagged to give feedback.
  • Now, re-read. This time, before you start, have a pen and notebook handy: As it’s easy to lose track of which particular word, paragraph, or page your notes or comments are linked to, remember to use symbols or numbers.
  • Language and Prose are intertwined in writing, so when reading you need to pay attention to both:
  • Grammar and punctuation: Are they up to scratch? It is not pretentious to care, it does matter.  Bad punctuation and grammar leads only to confusion for all readers, not just you.
  • Are there any spelling mistake? Please remember typos and spelling mistakes are two different things.
    • Make a note of any mistakes you do find. Your partner/friend may have made these ‘mistakes’ intentionally. However, it never hurt to check.
  • The prose
    • What can be cut?
    • What needs cutting and/or re-writing?
  • The characters
    • Do their personalities/motives/action feel realistic within the context of the story being told?
    • Names: Are there any characters with names too alike or the same? This is a common mistake, if the same name must be used, then suggest nicknames to help the readers keep track of who’s who.
    • Are the characters identifiable? Did you recognise them when they re-enter the story?
    • Do the characters and the story seem mutually exclusive? Like they being forced together?
  • Dialogue – Does it read right? Real? Stilted? Unrealistic? Good or bad?
    • Do you recognise who’s speaking and when?
    • Is the dialogue formatted correctly?
    • Does the dialogue read like an explanation or guide to the plot and characters rather than realist speech?
    • How many adjectives appear alongside the characters’ dialogue?  Every so often, meh, okay. Every single time is overkill and a real sign of bad writing.
  • Is the story coherent?
    • Are there any subplots that just taper off without resolution?
    • Do any characters drift off or disappear without explanation?
    • Is there anything that needs developing, or fleshing out?
    • Is there anything in the story that stagnate/prove distracting or unnecessary?

Also be aware that the piece of work you’ve been asked to read may be very different from your usual reading material choices. Assessing a piece of writing that’s the near or exact opposite of what you usually read can make it difficult to avoid judgement(s) influenced by this. Plus what you have to say, no matter how objective you’ve been, can be rebuked with insulting responses along the lines of…

“What do you know anyway!”

“You haven’t got a clue.”

“I’m an artiste.”

“Its original, not some tired rehash…”

This can have you ready to call quits, after all you’ve got other things to do with your time. It was favour for Pete’s sake!

Whatever the outcome, as long as you are honest, you will have done right by your friend or partner. If the feedback is met with an angry backslash, make it clear that it will be better for them to find someone else, perhaps consider a professional writing consultant.

Either way, just as writing is an ongoing learning curve, so is critiquing a writer’s work. If you enjoyed doing it don’t hesitate to offer to do again . Your friend or partner will really appreciate  it.

2 thoughts on “Critical appraisal wanted

    • You’re quite right. Funny thing thought, people (myself included) often fail to be honest not because we fear the backlash from our fellow writers, but because we not sure how to assess the writing confidently. The list above is far from complete, but hopefully it helps those seeking some guidance.

      But hey, with practice comes confidence.


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