The Subtle (and Unsubtle) Art of Critiquing

At the end of August I did a post about the run up to Milford.

It starts next Saturday so I’m deep into reading and critiquing the 23 pieces submitted by the fifteen attendees. I’m obviously not going to comment on any of those pieces because that wouldn’t be fair, but I can talk about critiquing in general.

I belong to two groups/organisations which exist to critique. One is Milford, established in the UK in 1972 by James Blish who brought the idea over from Milford Pennsylvania. Milford’s conference week for published SF writers happens once a year in September, and I’ve been attending most years since 1998. Eventually they had to give me a job to do, so I’m the current secretary. Milford is open to any published SF writer. (And by published we mean at least one short story to a recognised market.)

The other group I belong to is NorthwriteSF, a small quarterly face to face group that meets at my house, or by Zoom in these Covid times. We take our lead from Milford in the type of critiquing we do. All our members (eleven in total) have been published. Most have attended at least one Milford, though that’s not a prerequisite.

Milford is limited to fifteen participants who are allowed to submit up to 10-12,000 words in one or two pieces. Northwrite has a limit of up to 10,000 words in just one piece. Not every member attends every quarter, but we usually have seven to nine people attending. As you can appreciate the reading load is heavy for both Milford and Northwrite. We had one applicant who came to one Northwrite meeting as a trial, but it was obvious that we weren’t going to suit each other. After the meeting she admitted that she’d felt like a fish out of water because the level of critique was (in her words) like a masterclass.

I think that’s because a lot of our critique is aimed to make a piece (short story or book) more saleable. The ultimate aim of every author who attends either Milford or Northwrite is to have their book or story published, and the ultimate aim of people critiquing is to help the book/story on its way.

The Milford Method

  • Milford rules allow even the shyest member’s voice to be heard.
  • Constructive rather than destructive criticism is strongly encouraged. It’s the work being critiqued, not the individual authors, so no ad hominem attacks.
  • The group meets in a comfortable room with chairs drawn up in a circle.
  • Each participant, in rotation, spends up to four minutes (timed) giving their critique of the work at hand.
  • Everyone gets the opportunity to open the critting.
  • No interruption, whether by the author or anyone else, is allowed during this stage of the proceedings.
  • After everyone has spoken the author gets an uninterrupted right of reply.
  • This is followed by a more general discussion.
  • It’s customary for the critee to scribble copious notes, but the critter normally gives the crittee a written version of their crit or maybe their original MS with notes, or emails it afterwards.
Milford 2017 – Photo: Matt Colborn

There is no One True Way

I used to be on the (long list) selection committee of the Carnegie and Greenaway medals (for the best written and best illustrated children’s book of that particular year). For the Carnegie Medal we had to assess on plot, characterisation and style. They are still three great building blocks, and well worth examining closely.

We all take a slightly different approach to critique and from this wide variety of reactions to a story (or book excerpt) we get a good spread of feedback. I tend to give crits based on reactions to a first reading because a reader of a magazine, or someone who has just picked up your novel in a bookshop (or on Amazon) and read the first few pages, won’t give your story a second chance if it doesn’t grab their attention immediately. I make notes as I go though, picking out things I don’t quite get, or things that are not explained clearly enough. I’m looking for places where a protagonist acts out of character, places where the pace flags, or perhaps where it gets too frenetic, and places where the author has missed an opportunity to let the character show how the events are affecting him/her (show not tell). Sometimes my critique might say that this idea doesn’t support a 7,000 word story but if the author can cut the flab and get it down to below 5,000 words, it will be more saleable a) because the pace will be much better, and b) a fair proportion of short story markets will not accept submissions of over 5,000 words, so there will be more places to send it to.

These are the way some of my writer friends approach a critique in the first instance:

  • J.M. always starts his crits by asking: what does the protagonist want? He analyses the story and asks whether the protagonist gets what he wants. Sometimes the answer is: no, but he/she gets what he/she needs.
  • S.T. analyses a story from a philosophical standpoint and assesses character motivations and the rights and wrongs of characters’ actions.
  • J.F. is a wizz at plot logic and can pick holes in any plot that has holes to be picked.
  • T.J. looks at (amongst other things) grammar and spelling and tends to do a copy edit on a manuscript which is amazingly helpful.

Critiques should build rather than destroy. So though there is no one true way to critique just as there in no one true way to write, there are starting points. What will yours be?

About Jacey Bedford

Jacey Bedford maintains this blog. She is a writer of science fiction and fantasy (www.jaceybedford.co.uk), the secretary of Milford SF Writers (www.milfordSF.co.uk), a singer (www.artisan-harmony.com) and a music agent booking UK tours and concerts for folk performers (www.jacey-bedford.com). She's also a Home Office / UK Visas and Immigration department licensed sponsor processing UK work permits (Certificates of Sponsorship).
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