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The Desk Drawer Critique Techniques and Tips
version 4 revised: 6/15/2018

What are The Desk Drawer's critique requirements?
What is the preferred ratio of submission to critique?
What if I’m pressed for time and only say “good job”?
How do I know what the author wants from me?
How do I critique?
     General critiquing rules
     Informal Critique Technique
     Praise, Question, Wish
     Chas’ Critique Technique
     Oreo Technique
     Wildacres Seven Steps Technique
     Seven Story Elements Technique
     Story Feedback Sheet Technique
     Critiquing Fiction with Luke Whisnant’s Guidelines
     Critiquing poetry
     Critiquing personal works
Is there somewhere I can find more critique information?
How do I critique a piece that’s truly awful?
How do I thank my critiquers?
What if a critique is wrong?


What are The Desk Drawer's critique requirements?

You must participate each month and may choose to post 1 submission and 2 critiques *or* 3 critiques.


What is the preferred ratio of submission to critique?

A ratio of 2 critiques for each submission is preferred. This means every time you send in your own writing for critique, you should be critiquing two other submissions. When all meet this ratio, all receive comments on their work.

If it looks like most people are not meeting this ratio on their own, The Desk Drawer may need to go to an enforced ratio. We really don’t want to see that happen.


What if I’m pressed for time and only say “good job”?

While we all like to hear “I liked it!” about our work, having this be the only thing in a critique is not very helpful. If you send in such a critique, you may hear from the listowner that your “CRIT” was not counted toward the monthly stats. If it looks like all your critiques are this way, you may be removed from the list.

Remember, everyone who can read can critique. “I liked it” can be the starting point. You liked it. Why? What worked for you? What were the points that really stood out? Did anything not work for you or seem out of place? What and why? You read it, you formed an opinion on whether you liked it or not, and that qualifies you to critique it. As writers, we need to know what the audience thinks and feels while reading our work. Consider using one of the techniques below to help you.

When I can't think of anything else to say but want to do a critique, I lean on one of two things:
        * A line by line review of what I was thinking during the piece if the SUB is short, or
        * The Wildacres Seven Steps critique technique from our Tips page.

The first can often reveal why I thought it was good, even when I can't figure out how to say so immediately after reading a piece, and the second asks some specific questions to answer related to the piece which can help when I'm totally stuck.

If you’re worried the author might not want to hear what you have to say, rest assured. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have posted it. The Desk Drawer works on feedback, and anyone submitting work expects and wants comments.


How do I know what the author wants from me?

Isn’t that a bit like cheating on a psychological exam? There aren’t any “right” answers. If authors want something specific from a critique, they should ask for it up front in their SUB. Perhaps they’re aiming at a market and need to know if what they’ve written is okay for sixth-graders. If they don’t tell you, you don’t know to check for that.

If it’s any help, consider this poem from Jo Best:

After I send in my new sub
I hope I haven’t flubby-dubbed.
Still…they say erring is human.
We can learn from our mistakes, man…

When some words I might have misspelled;
Other members may feel compelled
To right silly screw-ups and goofs,
Always appreciated by me, forsooth.

It’s important to know the score
Before your work hits the book store.
I know that’s quite presumptuous,
But hope can be advantageous.

So tell me what you see that’s wrong
That I seemed to miss all along.
In return I‘ll be honest too,
When sending my proofing to you.


How do I critique?

I see three types of critique on this list:
     * The non-CRIT that simply says “great job”
     * The brief CRIT pointing out spelling errors, unnecessary or wrong words, tense changes, etc.
     * The in-depth CRIT which performs a critical analysis of the piece, touching on plot, conflict, characterization, etc, and may do a line-by-line review.

I am creating this in an effort to reduce or remove that first type from our list, but I can’t refuse to count a “loved it” as a CRIT if I don’t give you some tools for critiquing. What follows is a compressed list of the various critiquing techniques and tips presented in The Desk Drawer, whether through a formal Training session or in a Miscellaneous post. If there is more to it somewhere, I will also add a link pointing you in that direction. My thanks to Chas Ridley, who has hosted critique training sessions. Much of the following material comes from those sessions. Additional thanks go to Jo Best, Richard Kirby and Susan Frank, for their suggestions.

What I see as the general rules for critiquing:
     * Critique the piece, not the author -  the author may have written a murder mystery but that doesn’t necessarily mean the author has committed a murder.
     * Do not critique something you absolutely didn’t like - if you didn’t like anything about the work, you won’t be able to give an impartial critique.
     * Note everything that catches your attention - if you see a misspelled word, say so. Please don’t say “I saw some things but won’t mention them here.”
     * Use one (or more) of the techniques that follow - each one gives some kind of guideline for critiquing and guidelines can be very helpful.
     * If you really can’t find anything to improve, consider sending your comment privately.


Informal Critique Technique:

This is what we see most often on the list, but until now it had no guidelines. Please consider the following things when doing an informal critique.

Before you read:
     * Review the exercise guidelines.
     * Prepare and allow enough time to read the piece twice.
     * Note how the piece looks visually. Is it all one really long paragraph? Can you see that the first section has sixteen sets of quotation marks within it?

As you read the first time:
     * Watch for mistakes in spelling, grammar, tense, formatting, and when exercise guidelines are lost.
     * Watch for moments when you question things. Are you wondering who this main character is? Did you not understand what just happened in that scene? Did you have to reread that last sentence three times?

For the second reading:
     * Try reading it aloud. Sometimes we catch other things that way, like cadence or the use of a same word or similar words too close together. This can also catch places where the reader stumbles.
     * Try reading it backward. Read the last paragraph (reading forward), then the next-to-last paragraph and so on. This catches things like missing ending punctuation and more spelling or grammar errors.

After you read:
     * If you loved it - Did you truly love it or only like it? Why? What worked? Be specific about why you loved it.
     * If you didn’t like it - Why? What didn’t work?
     * Try starting some comments with “I wonder,” “I notice,” or “What if.”
     * If you think of a possible market for the piece, say so.


Praise, Question, Wish Technique:

This technique may be designed mainly for critiquing the work of beginning writers and its thrust is 90% positive in tone so as to be encouraging.  It may be too "gentle" in its approach but may be used to good effect, especially with budding writers who show talent but have much to learn - and may learn from the questioning method suggested.

To use PQW:
     * Praise - Find something you liked about the piece and talk about it. Tell the writer why you liked it, what worked for you, and what you found memorable. Be specific.
     * Question - Ask questions about anything that confused you or spots where you found yourself losing the flow of the piece. Again, be specific.
     * Wish - Use “I wish” for items like “I wish it hadn’t ended.” and “I wish there had been more detail about the main character.” You can also use consider or wonder for things like “You might consider switching the POV to first person.” or “I wonder what would have happened if Gerrod had stolen the horse instead.”

Find more about this technique here.


Chas’ Critique Technique: (a paraphrase of Chas’ Training)

Keep these in mind as you read the piece.

For short works:
     * Was anything critical left out? Does the story feel whole?
     * Does it speak for itself or do you feel it has to be explained? Were you confused anywhere?
     * Did you see any misspellings or grammar errors?

For medium works, use the ones above and:
     * Does the story line (or subject explanation) flow? Is it in the order you feel is best, or does it seem to jump around?
     * Does it begin and end satisfactorily?
     * Is it the right length? Maybe it’s better suited for a shorter or longer piece.
     * Does it leave you wanting to know more? If so, be specific about what you want to know and, if you can, tell the writer what made you so curious.
     * Some of the medium-length SUBs come with a note about their purposes. If so, note whether you feel it suits that purpose.

For longer works, all the above and:
     * If you're reading along in another world and suddenly you aren't there any more, what happened? How did you get bumped out?
     * What made the character real for you? What made you care about his/her/its success or failure?
     * Did the piece have you jotting notes of things to look up or to write or to ask somebody about?
     * Do all the characters, places, timeframes and story lines flow smoothly?
     * Does every word add value to the total piece?


Oreo Technique:

Wrap your critique up in a neat sandwich cookie format.

     * Positive - Talk about something you liked in the piece and why.
     * Negative - Explore something you saw as needing improvement. If applicable, note why.
     * Positive - End in a positive way by touching on something else you liked or which you thought worked well.


The Wildacres Seven Steps Technique:

Seven Steps to a Constructive Critique of a Short Story

     1) Is a believable world created?
     2) Is there real emotion? This can be emotions from characters as well as emotion from reader.
     3) What drives the main character forward? What is his/her goal? What does the character want?
     4) Is there a change - either in a character's perception(s), or in the reader's perception(s)?
     5) What do you understand from the piece? What is the story's theme? What meaning is being conveyed to you? (Reader should be able to identify theme in ten words or less.)
     6) What did you like? What worked well? Was there something that did not work at all in your estimation?
     7) What would you like to know more about?


Seven Story Elements Technique:

Review the seven story elements as you read the piece.

     Plot: Does the story start at the right place (beginning writers are most apt to start too early); is the pacing good; is it a "real” plot (character with a problem), does it avoid extraneous events that serve no discernable purpose; does it end well and does the ending make sense and were the seeds of the ending planted in the beginning?
     Hook: Does the beginning catch your interest and make you want to read farther or is it ho-hum? This element can be crucial to getting you manuscript read by an agent or an editor.
     Characterization: Are the characters believable, life-like? Consider the basics. Names are important, strong names indicative of character. Are similar names of characters used and hard to keep separated; e.g., Peter and Paul, Joan and Joanne, Marvin and Melvin? Do the dialog and action fit/support the character?
     Point of View (POV): What is the POV? Are there slips in POV or so much head-hopping the reader gets confused about POV? Would a different POV be better?
     Style: Style is subjective but there can be real errors in style that are glaring mistakes. For instance, is a serious story told in a flippant tone or a comic story told in a heavy voice? Is the story written in the "tone" of the setting? Watch for confusing phrases and sentences, an over abundance of adjectives and adverbs, passivity and over use of the forms of "to be.” Watch for sections of too much telling and not enough showing. To quote Anton Chekov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
     Dialog: Conversation should be believable and advance the plot. Watch dialog tags.
     Original and Creative: Depending on where you look, there are only so many themes in fiction writing. I’ve seen seven, ten, and twenty. It’s how the author tackles the theme with originality that makes it great or mediocre.


Story Feedback Sheet Technique:

     * Who is the central character? Name? Age? Distinguishing characteristics? Background?
     * Who are the other characters? Distinguishing characteristics?
     * What does the central character want? What is the central conflict in the story? How did it come about?
     * What complications prevent the character from getting what's wanted? What obstacles prevent the resolution of the conflict?
     * Where and when does the story occur? Where does each scene take place? When in the time-line of the story?
     * Can you readily see (and hear) the people, places, and relevant things? (If not, what details are missing?)
     * How does the first paragraph hook your interest? How much of the first paragraph or two are necessary to the story?
     * What is the central character's turning point? As you look back, how does everything in the story lead up to it?
     * Does the central character's final crucial moment take place in a scene? Is it fully developed? How is the story's conflict resolved? Is this the same conflict in answer #3?
     * Is the story's title effective? Can you suggest a more appropriate, intriguing, or compelling one?
     * What further changes can you suggest the writer might make to the story?
     * What do you like about the story?


Critiquing Fiction with Luke Whisnant's Guidelines:

     * What is main idea of piece? Is the piece unified or does it wander? If so, where?
     * Are the characters believable and consistent? Is their dialogue natural and believable?
     * Is there a recognizable, meaningful conflict? Is enough at stake for the reader to care about the outcome? Is what the protagonist wants important enough to make a story?
     * Is there a good balance between showing and telling?
     * Is the point of view established early and maintained consistently?
     * Are the details specific enough? Does piece need more/less description?
     * How is the piece organized? Do we begin in medias res, are there flashbacks or is it told chronologically? Is the organization effective?
     * How's the opening? Does it hook the reader?
     * Is the title working? Suggestion(s) for better one(s).
     * What is the tone - comic, serious, tragic, formal, informal, colloquial, high-energy, laid-back, objective, biased, satiric. Are there places where the tone wavers or shifts, or is it consistent?
     * Is the style clear and easy to read, or does it come between the reader and the content? Is the surface free of major grammatical errors? Do the sentences flow well? Is word diction or sentence structure awkward?

Any of these techniques can help you polish your critiquing skills. You can mix ‘n’ match or find a favorite and stick with it. If you find another way that helps you, please share it with the group.


Critiquing poetry:

The critiquing techniques for prose often don't work successfully for poetry. They can be the wrong tools for the job.

When critiquing poetry, first consider the form. If the poem is a set form, like a limerick, check to see if the author followed the form, and how closely.

Beyond form, there is often a "substance" requirement. For a double-dactyl, this requirement is that the poem be humorous or witty or point out an unexpected truth or poke fun at some overly-self-important person. For haiku, there is usually a natural world connection.

Some tips from our own Richard K:

“First, read the poem from beginning to end, then read it again aloud.  Does the poem have a smooth, pleasing flow?  Or do you stumble over awkward phrasing?  Do you have to re-read passages in order to get a sense of what the poet is saying?

If the poem uses rhyme, does it seem natural?  Or is it forced?  Are there instances of internal rhyme?  And does the rhyme add anything to the poem, or is it just meaningless convention?

Did you spot any interesting metaphors or similes?  Often the meaning of a poem may be suggested through a  metaphor or a simile.

Did you note any alliterations or cadences that you found pleasing?

Did you find any lines that are memorable -- lines that will stay with you because of their insight or clever word play?

Is the language rhythmical with a musical quality?

Does the poem have a structure that repeats from stanza to stanza?

Most important, does the poem rise to a universal level that speaks for all mankind?  Or if it's meant to be humorous, did it make you laugh?

Finally, what do you think the poem means?  Is it so obscure or personal as to be meaningless to the reader?  Does it speak to you?  And does it say something fresh and important about the human condition?

Remember that poetry often requires repeated readings and that it often works through suggestion and emotion, rather than through stated facts.”

Confused by poetic terminology? Try this site:

For more detailed critique assistance, consider reading this article:


Critiquing personal works:

The authors who write about their highly personal and emotionally-charged experiences, no matter the mood of the piece, also need serious critiques. It's hard for the authors to step outside themselves to be objective when their emotions are running all over the floor. It's one thing to put your heart out there on the page, but quite another to do it well.  The intention of writers of this genre is to elicit emotion from their readers. That requires skill and skill comes with practice and helpful critiques. Of most use is often commentary on how the content could be presented better to the reader.

There is a very natural tendency on the part of some critiquers of such pieces to show sympathy and relate a similar experience of their own, but this isn't critiquing.

Technical critiques are still valuable, but for very personal pieces, you might also consider these questions.

What is the message? Is it presented in a way any reader can understand even if he/she wasn't there?

Did the writer's experience come through to the reader?

Can you think of any tips which might sharpen the experience, strengthen the reader's emotions, or clarify the message?


Is there somewhere I can find more critique information?

The sections above which came from Chas’ Training course contains a link for the full Training course notes. Reading the whole session helps flesh out the ideas presented here in shortcut format. If you have a specific critique question, you might want to post it to the list under the STYLE category. You may also want to search the Web for critique techniques. Many Web sites offer great tips on critiquing the written word.


How do I critique a piece that’s truly awful?

A comment on the unfavorable critique:  If a truly unfavorable critique is the only possible honest response, consider sending one privately to the writer, rather than posting it to the list.  The reason for this is to spare the writer the embarrassment of an unflattering critique open to all eyes, which may mark that writer's work as inferior. It will also help prevent them from defending their work.

To write an unfavorable evaluation requires the utmost tact, qualified as an opinion, and backed up by citations and examples.  To shy away from critiquing a poorly written piece affords the writer no help. However, it can and should be done on occasion.  Often, such an effort can lead to a dialogue between writer and critiquer - yet another demand on the critiquer's time - but still, it can be educational . . . and not just for the writer.


How do I thank my critiquers?

Please thank your critiquers privately, but do thank them. Our email list is very busy (what else would you expect, since we’re all writers?) and in an effort to keep list email volume as light as possible, we ask you to send thank-you notes to the individual who did the critique and not to the general list.

While it’s an extra effort to send that thank you privately, it’s worth it.

     * First, thank all your critiquers - even if you do not agree. (Maybe even especially if you don't agree.) They took the time to review your piece - yours - from among the many SUBs they get every week.
     * Second, we don't get paid here. We all have lives and other people or things competing for our time. The *only* thing we get for critiquing your SUB is your note that says "Thank you for taking the time to read and comment." When we don't get those, we start to wonder if people read our CRITs. Did we waste all that time we spent reviewing?
     * Third, it’s a fact. SUBmitters who don't thank their CRITiquers eventually start to get fewer CRITs.


What if a critique is wrong?

Don’t argue. Period.

If the critiquer has misunderstood your intent, or has a question about something in your submission, you may choose to email them privately to clarify or answer. Please don't defend what you've written; you likely won’t change their mind anyway and you may find the person won’t critique any of your work again.

Maybe you just don’t agree. Sometimes a writer, maybe even a really great, published author, will tell you something in a CRIT that doesn't sit right. We forget, we author wanna-bes, that even though someone is more knowledgeable, has more experience, or has a whole shelf of published books, they aren't God. They don't know everything, and they aren't always right.

The reverse is just as likely to happen. Sometimes, someone whose work you can't stand has some great ideas on how to improve your piece.

Take all CRITs with a grain of salt. Use what feels right, learn from all of it, but chuck what you don't agree with. It is up to you as the author to decide which comments to utilize and which to discard. 

Two more good tips from Richard Kirby:
     * Look for a consensus of opinions. If three critics make the same point, it's probably something you need to address, even if you don’t think so.
     * The vicious critic may be a blocked writer, jealous of your accomplishment or just a malicious, sadistic person. Take what seems valid from such a critique and forget the rest.

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