Everyone is a critic, just some critics get paid shit-loads of money for it, which results in people respecting their opinion more. If I told you Scribophile was paying me 10k per post, you’d probably be more interested in what I have to say. But an opinion is an opinion, right? Sure, some are more qualified than others to speak on certain topics, but when reviewing such things as entertainment, it doesn’t mean much to go on and on by how expertly formed a piece of art is if, frankly, it’s just not a joy to experience.
But that’s also the beauty of it. Professional critics are paid to give reviews of movies, books, televisions shows, weddings, judgement days, etc for the purpose of helping the consumer make their choice. So they have to sometimes put aside their own biases and remember they are not writing for themselves, but for the people. Here on Scribophile, or any small workshopping setting, that is not the case.
Either you like something or you don’t. There are intermediates, but when it boils down to it, those are the main areas. Whenever you read stories, whether you bought them at your local Borders or clicked on it here at Scribophile, certain things about the story will click with you, certain parts you may not like, and then sometimes you can just be plain confused. Any reader can experience this, but to give good criticism, you have to think about the why.
As I’ve said, I think there’s two main ways to think about your criticism. One is from the artistic standpoint: how well are the mechanics, how does your story flow, how does it stand-up in the literary world. And then there is how you personally perceive it. For this post, I’m focusing on that latter. I’m not saying this is the best way to give criticism, but that it’s also important to remember that one of the main goals is to entertain.
And thus, some practices I like to utilize:
1) When do you stop reading? To a writer, especially new ones, I believe an invaluable piece of knowledge is when the reader puts down your work. When critiquing, take note of where you take breaks. Even if it’s for some other reason, still take note: you can identify it later. Think about why you stopped reading where you did. Was the pace too slow? Was there a tangent that you had no interest in? Do you dislike a certain character and were less intrigued with their story-line?
On the flip side, just to keep balance, also note when you read longer than you intended to. If you find yourself reading the story well after your lunchbreak or while walking across the street, take note of what part that’s on. Ask yourself what it was about that part that kept you engaged.
2) Does it feel like you’re reading a bunch or words, or like you’re experiencing a story? This can be a hard thing to gauge. I’m sure you’ve heard people talk about how they’ve been so pulled in to a story that they forget they’re just reading. Maybe you are one of these people. I’m sure this has happened to me, but it’s hard for me to know exactly where the separating line for that is. What I like to do is reflect back on something I’ve read and see how I remember it. The good stories (to me), I remember as actual stories and events, while the not so good I remember more about the writing. For example, I was reading something someone sent me the other day and after a page or two I just remembered how much I didn’t like the writing style. Or after reading Twilight I thought about how the love-language felt too deliberate and forced. If a story can cause the words to disappear and be replaced in your memory with pictures and dialogue, then the reader has done well. Let him or her know.
3) How do you feel after? A big part of stories is the ending. Yeah, all the stuff getting to the ending needs to be great and the second-coming, all that jazz, but the ending can either make or break how the reader remembers it. Did you feel like all of your investment was well paid off? Were all plot points wrapped up in a satisfying way? Did it all feel like a waste, regardless of how excited you were 100 pages prior? Beyond the ending, what are your main impressions of the story? How do you interpret it? This can be on a lot of different levels, from what you thought the piece’s greater purpose was to whether you felt bored most of the time. ‘Great literature’ can also be extremely boring. Don’t be afraid to let them know.
What’s the point of this post? I think that a piece can be ‘good writing’ and still spark these problems. Just because something is great art doesn’t necessarily mean it’s entertaining, and that’s something the author might like to know.