How to Critique: Best Practices for Workshopping

Abstract image to accompany blog post about critiquing stories by speculative fiction writer Cat Rambo.

If you're interested in getting your stories workshopped, click on this picture in order to find out more about My Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction Stories online class. There's also an Advanced Workshop, as well as classes focusing on individual aspects of writing, like description, characters, and fleshing out stories.

Both my Writing F&SF Stories and Advanced workshops offer students a chance to critique and be critiqued. To my mind, the latter is actually more useful, because being forced to articulate one’s position on an aspect of writing can be enlightening and instructive. With that in mind, here’s some best practices for such workshops.

Overall:

  1. Start with what works. Let the writer know what you see as the story’s strengths and how they might capitalize on them.
  2. What keeps you from connecting with the story? What don’t you understand? Sometimes the most useful thing you can give someone is a brief synopsis of what you think is going on in the story, because it may not match their intent.
  3. Critique big ticket items, not little nitpicks.
  4. It’s more important to point out what’s broken than to make suggestions how to fix it, because that fix will differ radically from writer to writer.
  5. How do the beginning and ending work together to create a satisfying story? Is the story that’s provided the one the one promised in the beginning? Is the ending set up in a satisfying way? Is it the result of character actions?
  6. What’s missing? What don’t you understand?
  7. What seems extraneous, unneeded or distracting?
  8. What’s the pacing like? Where does the story drag and where does it skip too quickly through details?
  9. Where are the info-dumps and how can that information be spread out?
  10. How well does the title work? If not well, what possible better titles can be drawn from the story?

Characters:

  1. Are the characters likeable?
  2. Are the characters acting or reacting?
  3. Does the character have a point of identification with the reader, such as a problem, situation or want that both of them hold?
  4. Where can we go deeper into the character’s head? Does the reader know what the character wants? Where don’t we understand what the character is doing?
  5. Are there too many characters? Can any be combined?
  6. Is the dialogue interesting and informative of character?
  7. Is the point of view consistent?

World:

  1. Is the world clear? Does the reader know where they are?
  2. Does it feel generic? (Is it?) How can it be made more specific and evocative?
  3. Does it make sense?
  4. How important is the science of it? Are the facts right?
  5. Where should we know more?
  6. Where can the world come forward more?
  7. Where can more sensory detail be worked in?
  8. Is the culture interesting and also make sense?
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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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