DIY Critiques

Critique Template & Guidelines for The Serial Collective

In The Serial Collective, critiques identify what works for the reader in a writer’s submission and what does not. This is an opinion-based review process, not a fact-based teaching process. The philosophy behind Critiques in The Serial Collective is that you can inspire more growth and better writing in a compassionate, constructive environment than you can in a judgmental, pull-no-punches environment. Be blunt if that’s who you are, but make sure you temper that bluntness with the aforementioned compassion.

The Serial Collective critique process is designed to benefit you as well as the writer you’re reviewing. When you give the act of critiquing your time and attention, and make the effort to provide thoughtful insights, you reinforce your own ability to recognize and use the components of good writing and the elements of good storytelling in your work.

You may choose from one of two critique formats or combine them. Regardless of format, please present each of your critiques in the body of an email, one email per critique. Emails with critiques attached in a separate document will be returned unopened.

Every Critique in The Serial Collective has three parts, regardless of format:

1. What works and why
2. What doesn’t work and why
3. One or two quotes, sentences, or phrases you like

Each of these parts deserves your time, attention, and thoughtful comment.

The first format option: present each part in an email as shown above, in list form, using each item as the heading for a set of critique comments. 

The second format option: cut and paste the writer's submission into the body of an email. Make your comments in situ after each section of writing they pertain to. Choose a different color for your comments so they're easy to find. (Example below)

What works and why

Begin with identifying what works and why. Resist the urge to flatter the other writer and focus on genuine compliments that show you gave the process some thought.

Examples of flattery vs compliments

Flattery: Your character is so funny! I laughed out loud.

Compliment: The way you tapped into your main character’s inner child a little bit at a time had me smiling at first and then laughing out loud by the time I finished reading this scene. Your timing was perfect and your pacing kept me giggling. I’m looking forward to spending more time with them. 

Flattery: This scene is so hot!

Compliment: The intimacy you have worked hard to build between these three characters really paid off in this scene. The hesitancy of one contrasts vividly with the eagerness of the others, and I appreciate the way you built up to the behavior change at the end. You brought them right to the edge of their boundaries and then … 

What does not work and why

Next, talk about what does not work and why. One strong indicator that something’s not working in a story is the fact that you noticed it. It drew attention away from the story over to itself, made you stumble on the words, made you realize what you pictured was going on was wrong, or confused you.

Let the writer know when something in their submission steps you out of the story. This includes poor sentence structure (too many clauses, clauses in the wrong order, run-on sentences), mistakes in the timeline, action that defies the laws of physics, too much accented dialogue, navel-gazing or info dumping between action and reaction, etc.

It is not your job to fix anything in anyone else’s writing. Do not give grammar and/or punctuation advice. If you really want to help another writer with their grammar and/or punctuation, and you know Chicago Style like the back of your hand, there are opportunities to ask for consent in the discussions.

If poor grammar or punctuation is what's stepping you out of the story - because it's a constant problem - tell them the specific thing and stop there. You tend to use semicolons incorrectly and it's distracting me from the story. You are not their editor. They have access to Google. If they keep using semicolons incorrectly and it keeps distracting you from the story, keep telling them or read someone else instead. 

Note: Chicago Style is not AP Style; is not what’s taught in school; is not your corporation’s style; is not your university’s style, etc.

Critiques in The Serial Collective are about opinion. Your opinion about what works and doesn’t work in a submission is just that, opinion.

Again: Grammar and/or punctuation are not matters of opinion, so don’t do it. 

Feel free to highlight typos, though. A question usually works: Did you mean to say ass instead of ask?

In summary: It is your job to identify what stepped you out of the story, explain your experience to the best of your ability, and then trust the other writer to fix it or learn how.

One or two quotes, sentences, or phrases you like

Choose a couple quotes, sentences, or phrases you like and share what you like about them. Sign off; you are done.

Because everyone in The Serial Collective has to practice The Serial Collective way of critiquing before they get it right, and because I learned in the pilot that without guidance the critiques were all over the place, I’ve written out some examples of what kind of feedback is expected from you.

Situation: The writer has forgotten or skipped over describing their main character and you’re frustrated because it hampers your ability to picture the scene.

One way to say it: I’m having difficulty picturing your main character moving through this space. There’s a lot of detail about the size and shape of the space, and I know it’s cramped for the main character’s best friend, but I don’t know how the main character fits within the space. I would like to be able to picture her in relation to this unique and awesome space, but all I can picture at this point is her purple ponytail.

The situation: You’re reading along happily, getting to know a character and liking him, and then suddenly you realize you’re not supposed to like him. Or are you? Wait. What? What kind of person is this guy? Arrggghhhh!

One way to say it: There is a disconnect between what’s going on in his head and how he behaves. This character has been thinking kind, forgiving thoughts the whole time, but suddenly he is taking pleasure in being cruel and bringing up past wrongs.

The situation: Oh, lovely! The scene opens on a beautiful spring morning. You know it’s spring because, even though the description could go either way in a pinch – spring or fall – the writer chose to use words that typically go with spring. You find out they were talking about fall and you feel annoyed; reader expectation has been betrayed.

One way to say it: The beginning of this scene talks about the life cycle of trees across the seasons and new growth and all the bright colors in the forest, but then everyone’s sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner. I was picturing spring and had to go back and read the first part again to see if I misread it. Once I knew it was fall, I could see how the beginning was about fall, but I didn’t like having to go back to find out I was wrong.

The situation: The story is going well and you’re enjoying the narrative voice, and then (bump, side-track, where was I?) you hit a set of parentheses and it was not informative or funny; it was distracting and annoying.

One way to say it: You tend to use a lot of parentheses, but they interrupt the story and grab all the attention. They make it difficult to remain in the flow of the story and they skew your pacing. In this one part, you were building up great tension and then the parentheses knocked it back to no big deal, which cost you momentum and impact at the end.

In the case of critiquing a submission without context / without having read the submission leading up to it:

Do critique what’s on the page/s in front of you.

Do critique scene structure. There’s enough to look for in a single scene to keep you busy for a while: Can you identify the inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, and resolution? Every scene has all of them. What about the value shift, polarity shift, and turning point—how does the character change mood, mind, or attitude in the scene and does it make sense? Was the POV consistent or was head hopping involved? How about tense? Was it the same all the way through, or handled well if the submission covered multiple tenses?

Do comment on the action, reaction, setting, dialogue, info dump, navel gazing, and/or humor in front of you.

Do pay attention to specific skills.

Do not critique what’s not on the page. You cannot assume anything about anything that is not in front of you, so don’t.

Do not critique plot, storyline, theme, or motif.

Do not ask questions about what came before this submission or what comes next. If you really want to know, read earlier or later submissions.

Do not make assumptions about what came before this submission or what comes next. It makes you look bad.

Do not ask for more information or more thorough descriptions. You have no way of knowing whether that has already been handled somewhere else in the story.

Examples for avoiding assumptions:

Situation: In the submission in front of you, there are a lot of characters with green hair interacting all at once. That’s all you know.

Assumptions galore: Since everyone in this scene has green hair, I’m assuming they’re fairies? I can’t tell if they’re good fairies or bad fairies, though, so it was hard to figure out what to think about each one as I was reading.

Remaining relevant: I don’t know the significance of the green hair, but I love the way you chose different shades of green for each character. I could picture each one and it did help keep them straight in the scene.

Situation: In the submission in front of you, two characters are in an argument. That’s all you know.

Assumptions galore: I don’t understand why these two people care so much about this one little thing. It seems petty. I would rather see them arguing over something important.

Remaining relevant: The way you escalated this confrontation had my heart pounding! I could feel the tension. Even though they were whispering, I could tell they were angry.

In situ critique format example: (this is my work; this critique was very helpful. Note the person making the critique comments did not offer a solution, instead trusting me to know what to do).

"Persephone sets to work bathing her ample frame with a busy tongue, shaking the coffee table where she’s been butted up against our feet for the last hour. Fia sends over another text, the fourth or fifth one this weekend, wondering how early is too early to come in and get something from her car. Now I’m annoyed; I’ve told her several different ways that I can’t give her access to the shop on the weekend and I’ve reassured her that her car is safely locked up where no one can casually get into it. She knows I could have met her down there and snuck her in, and I suddenly realize that she’s been waiting for me to offer exactly that. Shit. Shit. Shit. My conscience is going to nag me about this if it was really important, but there’s just no way I could have managed that situation. My shoulders sag. I am a crappy friend.

"I stare at my phone, willing myself to be okay with walking into the shop with another person in the morning. I sigh heavily and text Fia to meet me for coffee first, then flip immediately over to a game on my phone to distract me."

Critique comments: 
This is such an honest portrayal of coping with hard stuff.

"Monday is like Friday, only everything has changed. Catching Crispin in flagrante in my office triggered a response in me so deep that it has set my life and my psyche on an entirely different course. In a single moment, the man I had been half afraid of, half in awe of, and probably half still in love with had melted into a pathetic and laughable character—so laughable it threatens to make me cry when I think of it. If it turns out he has been so low and so base for so long, what does that say about me?

"You were snowed. My lips move, silently framing Naomi’s words in my head.

Critique comments: 
Oh good. I’m glad Naomi showed up because I was about to get impatient with Chloe. I think that feeling has been building in me a bit over the last sections. I know in real life it takes a lot of processing to get through the results of the kind of abusive relationship Chloe had, but when you show her processing the same stuff again and again in story, it gets problematic. It makes her seem self-absorbed to an unpleasant degree when she has to be told over and over that it was not her, that she is capable and lovable.