Terry Moore, who is a member of UK-Writers, kindly volunteered to write a short article on how to give a critique. It's aimed at those who have never given a critique before but also contains some useful points for the rest of us too.
(c) Terry Moore 1999
A Layman's Guide to Critiquing.
Don't worry if you've never commented on another author's work before. If you've ever read a book, and the majority of us have, then you will have commented without realising it. To make my point obvious, If a Roman Centurion checked the time by his Rolex and you mumbled to yourself, '..they didn't have watches then.' You've just spotted a mistake in someone else's work, it's your first critique!
Imagine this scene is in a story you've just received and have been asked for comments. Which of the following would you, as the author, like to receive back:
A) You're talking a load of rubbish mate, Roman's didn't have watches.
B) Although the Roman's were ahead of their time and had sundials, they found these concrete contraptions to heavy to wear on their wrists, so left their invention to a different time.
I would suggest that B, even though it's a bit long-winded, would be received by the author with a blush rather than A, which would create an angry grunt. So the first, and in my view, the most important lesson to be learnt is to make comments the way you would like to receive them.
When you reply to this author's 'Roman Centurion' story, start by making some good positive comments on the story as a whole.
Did you like it? - seems a natural thought.
How it struck you from your first reading?
Was the 'hook' at the beginning enough to keep you reading?
Then go through the rest of the piece, and where it doesn't read right or where the author has used too many words to describe something, make a note. I find if you cut and paste (this is for PC owners) then put your suggestions underneath. The author has a direct comparison on which to work. If you're not lucky enough to have a PC, then hopefully the author has left you plenty of space between each line for your comments.
Some other points to consider when critiquing:
If it is a short story, were there too many characters? Were they well enough drawn? (remembering the constraints of words in most short story guidelines)
Was there enough dialogue? It helps in the 'showing not telling' department.
Point out to the author if they've used too many 'speech tags' like:
...he said angrily...she commented...he blustered...she stated...
Look out for over-description. Suggest where an author can dispense with some superfluous words. Long paragraphs slow the pace and short ones do the opposite. Is there a balance of the two?
Watch out for Point Of View (POV) jumps, especially within paragraphs.
Make sure the character's eye colour remains constant throughout the story. (unless of course he/she uses up to date contact lenses, which come in different colours!!)
Try and assist the author to move away from phrases like:
...in my humble opinion...as a matter of fact...
Don't comment on grammar and punctuation unless the author requests you to, It's a minefield.
If you see a recurring error, and you're positive you know the correction...only then make your suggestion.
Finish off your critique with more positive comments. Maybe even a suggestion as to where you could see such a piece published. Let the author know these are only your suggestions and to ignore those he/she doesn't agree with.
This is by no means a complete critiquer's guide, but for those of you thinking of dipping a toe into the commenting ocean, these simple suggestions will get you going. Once you've started you'll learn from every critique you do.