Many years ago in graduate school I taught a class on nonfiction critique writing. Most of my students had no experience critiquing another person’s writing so we spent a lot of time talking about the elements of a good critique. It didn’t take long for me to realize they needed an acronym to help them stay organized. I created the Triple R.I.T.E. as a check list for them to follow.
Since the WriteonSisters seem interested in the topic of critiques lately, I thought I would share my system with everyone.
The R. stage
Take time to understand what phase the other author is in with their project. A first draft needs a different kind of critique than a finished project does. Define the other author’s expectations beforehand and work together to establish a realistic timeline for the critique process. This will cut out a lot of headaches later on.
In my opinion a full line-by-line edit will take at least three or four full manuscript reads. A big picture critique takes just one or two. If the project is of a shorter page count try to read the manuscript in one sitting. For longer projects keep the reading intervals closely spaced so you don’t lose track of the storyline.
Reflect on what you read:
Make notes as you read. Jot down any questions you have for the author. Also note every time you stopped reading, grew distracted, confused or bored with the project. Allow the project to sink in for a day before you start to create your official critique response.
The I. stage:
Record your Impressions:
This is the one step when you get to rant about how much you did or didn’t like something. Let out all your emotional gut reactions. This part is so important, we all have natural biases, by getting them off your chest you will free yourself from that first sentimental response and allow yourself to move on to a more analytical response.
Inspect the project for mistakes:
There are lots of great checklists for this step. The basics are: check the project for believable characters, nice pacing, logical plot development and great story craft elements. Look at how clean the work is grammatically. Make notes about any errors in formatting.
Learn to Ignore issues when necessary:
Don’t harp on anything the other author specifically asked you to skip over. If they know it’s an issue you’re not doing them any favors by pointing an accusing finger at it. Also don’t flag or comment on any non-issues. No one cares if the main character shares the same first name as the guy who broke your heart in high school. Don’t expect the author to change minor details to please your taste.
The T. stage:
Tally your information:
Take your time and collect together everything you’ve noticed while reading regardless of how small it seems. Don’t try to rush or cut corners on this stage. You should respond to the other person’s work with the same level of quality and care you would expect them to give your work.
Practice some Triage:
Organize your information into three levels of importance: critical fixes, important fixes and minor fixes. Most people can only process a limited amount of critique before they shut down and feel overwhelmed. Make sure the most important aspects of your critique take center stage.
Remember to Tell the Truth:
Be fair, unemotional and above all honest. Always remember you’re not their as a friend, you’re a fellow professional working as part of the other author’s team to make the project the best it can be. If you can’t objectively point out the problems as well as shine a spotlight on what they did well, you’re just wasting everyone’s time.
The E. Stage:
Explain your observations:
Your goal is to create a clear and concise analytical report. You want a document the author can use as a tool for their revisions, not something that reads like a puff piece. However, this is also not the place to attack, bully, shame or belittle the other writer. Only the work should be critiqued, not the author as a person. Even if you hate their kind of story keep your comments focused on the writer’s skill and what they can do to improve the project.
Include your Evidence:
Avoid generalization and opinions and pack your critique with specific examples. In most cases you don’t need to highlight every single time they made the same mistake, give them a few citations and trust them to find and fix the others. If you feel you must mention your opinions include them at the end. Make sure you identify them as your personal viewpoint and use neutral language and logical reasoning to express them. If possible provide some cold hard facts and/or information about your expertise in this area to back up your comments.
Remember you can be honest and still be polite. I’m a firm believer in the “you can catch more flies with honey” school. The pages you’re reading are someone’s baby, unless they’re a total hack, they worked their butt off for a long time before they ever asked you to read them. Show them some respect!
After you turn in your critique make yourself available for the author’s questions. It might be necessary for you to shrug off any initial animosity the other writer might show you. Often it takes a few days for someone to emotionally recover from a full critique. If you followed the R.I.T.E. plan you have given them a detailed, thoughtful, but not overly negative or emotional critique, backed up with lots of examples to illustrate your points. The author should eventually calm down and thank you for all your hard work.
Writing a critique is truly a rite of passage, both for the author and the critique writer. When done correctly both parties gain insight and sharpen their writing and reading skills during the experience.
For more on critique partners and feedback, check out these other Writeonsisters posts: