W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

No 14. Committing Acts of Language


When we finish writing a piece how do we critique it?

If we have just finished it we are far too close to be objective. I've never understood why writing, which was brilliant when I put it in the drawer, becomes so flawed when I look at it months later. Are their demons inside changing my pristine prose into blathering?

Giving it to friends and family isn't any good. Either they will love it not to hurt you or hate it to hurt you. There may be an exception if a family member or friend is a professional editor or writer. Most of us aren't lucky enough to have one of those. Also family members are forever thinking your characters are really them or resent that you use other family members instead of them.

I'm fortunate to have a writing mate, an Australian who looks over everything I do (and vice versa). Until Sylvia says a piece is done, I don't consider it finished. She ferrets out the scene that doesn't fit, the phrase that doesn't work, the plain old-fashioned typo, the character who has blue eyes in the beginning and green at the end. We may never agree on commas, nor prepositions, which we chalk up to the difference between American and Australian English, but it does short circuit drawer time for our writing. It took us years to build up both our critiquing abilities, but at the same time it helped us both develop as writers. Since we are both fanatic writers, we also boost each other when we have had a rejection and celebrate each other successes.

Sometimes there are writing circles or groups. The success of depends on how good the critiquing is. If members are out to prove how bad everyone else but themselves is, then you won't get the help you want. If members can't articulate why something is good or bad, it may offer some help in identifying that there is a problem, but not what the problem is. Comments like that comma should be a semicolon certainly don't go deep enough when you want to know if Marcy was believable when she left Jack or did you need more foreshadowing.

A few years ago I came across a helpful grid. The original was developed by English writer Alex Keegan (author of the Caz Flood mystery novels and originator of a writers' boot camp that was a hard-driving self-help group). A later incarnation of the gird, the one used below, was used for critiquing for submissions to the World Wide Writer's magazine and is available on my website at www.wisewordsonwriting.com or www.worldwidewriters.com.

Although all critiquing is subjective going through the list helps focus anyone who is critiquing another. I wish my writing mate and I had it in the early days. It would have helped show us what to look for. It is a tool you can give to people when you want them to evaluate your work with more feedback than saying "I liked it," or "I didn't like it." It also allows them to be a bit more objective in their criticism.

Learning to critique another's work helps you learn how to critique your own, although to some extent you will always be to close.


  • Superlative opening to a first class story 25
  • Original and inventive - attention catching 20
  • Intriguing start 10
  • Room for improvement - not best feature 5
  • Slow-pace for short story - picked up later 0
  • Flat, lacked pace and punch -5
  • Needed re-writing, an early letdown -10
  • Suited the story 10
  • Needs improvement 5
  • Try again 0
  • Strongest part of the story - Memorable 30
  • Confidently handled - an assured touch 25
  • Demanded and deserved full attention 20
  • Original but not totally convincing 18
  • A familiar situation but well handled 15
  • This scenario has been overdone 12
  • A touch superficial for the effort involved 10
  • Strained credulity 5
  • Neither important nor entertaining 0
  • Effortless and well constructed 25
  • Good control and well edited by the author 20
  • Deteriorated after a promising start 15
  • A re-write might improve the flow 10
  • Struggled for control 5
  • Too involved for a short story 0
  • Too many unanswered questions -5
  • Anecdotal - Lacked a good narrative -10
  • Strong, confidently drawn and believable 25
  • Easy people to understand and to recognise 20
  • A mixture - some good, some sketchy 15
  • Main character fine - lesser personnel flat 10
  • Stock types, one dimensional 5
  • Hard to believe these people could exist 0
  • Much more work needed on characterisation -5
  • A joy to read - Brilliant 40
  • Quality writing throughout 35
  • A page turner - as the Bookseller would say 25
  • Good, but slightly run of the mill 20
  • Some merit - competently told 15
  • Might appeal to a minority 10
  • Difficult to recommend 5
  • No merit 0
DIALOGUE (if applicable)
  • Vivid and crisp, in period, idiom and character 25
  • Story well told in the words of the character 20
  • Good, with one or two crisp exchanges 15
  • Good, with one or two crisp exchanges 10
  • More variety would have helped 5
  • The idiom failed to match the theme 0
  • Weakest point in the story -5
  • Effortless style, sensitive feeling for words 30
  • Smooth and easy to read 25
  • Flashes of originality gave it extra sparkle 20
  • Stylish but parts could be polished 18
  • Fluent without being striking 16
  • Good command - lacked memorable phrases 15
  • Good story slightly let down in the telling 10
  • Little feeling for words 0
  • Totally apt 25
  • Room for improvement 15
  • Add up all the points. It is interesting to see how several people score the same story.
  • Max Score 230
  • 160+ is a good score
  • 108 is average


1. Take a short story that you have never read before and use the grid to critique it. Then give it to a friend to do the same and compare the results.

2. Give the grid and one of your short stories to at least two people you trust and ask them to grade it without telling them it is yours. Then compare the results.


1. If any reader would like a FREE sample copy of Writers Forum please e mail your name and address to writintl@globalnet.co.uk of write to Writers forum PO Box 3229 Bournemouth BH1 www.worldwidewriters.com then check on manuscript checklist.

2. My writing mate Sylvia Petter's short story collection, "Past Present" is available on Amazon.

3. Alex's website is http://www.btinternet.com/~alex.keegan1/


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