The Art of Critiquing

The Dos and Don’ts of Critiquing by J.Z. Sharpe

CRITS! ERWA’s authors crave them as much as they crave chocolate (okay, sometimes chocolate wins out). Every weekend, a new crop of writing is posted on the Storytime list for our members’ enjoyment, and most authors ask for commentary. As Ed Koch, the former Mayor of New York used to say, “How am I doing?” You, the reader, play a valuable role in answering this question.

Where to Begin?

What’s important in a good Storytime crit? Here are a few tips:

“I don’t feel qualified to comment.”

Nonsense! You don’t need a degree in English or a resume of publications to provide helpful commentary. In fact, if you’re reading this article, you’ve got all the tools: the ability to receive and send e-mail, and the ability to read a story. Did you read a piece that produced a distinct reaction? (This reaction can manifest itself in your head, your loins, or both.) If you answered yes, there’s an author waiting to hear from you right now.

“But what do I say?”

Lots of things! Tell the writer about your reaction. But don’t just throw away your reaction with a “one-liner”. Although writers appreciate commentary, simply saying “I loved it! Thanks for posting.” doesn’t tell us much. What did you love? The writer wants to know, so they’ll do it again in another piece.

For example:

  • Maybe you were turned on by the action in the story, the prurient activities. Which ones? Why?
  • Maybe the characters came alive for you. Who? Why?
  • Maybe something evoked an emotional reaction, made you laugh or cry. What was it? How did it make you feel?
  • Maybe it portrayed a personal sexual fantasy. You don’t need to go into intimate detail, but when I’ve brought someone’s deepest dream to life, I’m always thrilled.
  • Maybe the story made you think. Perhaps it stayed with you, even after you stopped reading. You don’t need to know why or how that happened. The mere fact that it did is a boost to any writer.

The Devil’s in the Details

“What about grammar, punctuation, story details — you know, the little things?”

You mean the “nits”? Some people don’t think they’re worth mentioning, that bringing them up smacks of that English teacher you loved to hate. But nevertheless, they’re important, especially if the author intends to submit the piece for publication. Editors nowadays don’t have time to proofread, so making a story free of technical errors is entirely up to the writer. You don’t need to go over every one, but do mention that they exist (perhaps offer to go into more detail offlist). Pay special attention to those spelling errors that spell-checkers miss, the ones where the word is spelled correctly, but may not be the right one for the context (for example, “manger” where the author meant to say “manager”). Those errors are slippery little devils, and you can save an author a lot of embarrassment if they’re caught in time.

It’s All a Matter of Taste

“I didn’t like that story. Should I comment?”

Ah, that’s when critiques get sticky. After all, Mom used to say that “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” On the other hand, if you say nothing, how will the author ever know that the story needs work? Writers aren’t mind-readers, after all. Besides, your mother is probably not a member of this list.

So how do you handle this situation? First, be sure you understand your reasons for not liking the story. Was it poorly written? Or was it just not your “cup of tea”? Remember, the writer didn’t write it just for you. Don’t come down on an author just because they’re not writing the kinds of stories you want to read. Chances are that other ERWA authors will be more to your liking. (This also applies to stories that don’t fit your political, religious, or social viewpoints.)


However, maybe this time, the author just missed the mark. Or maybe the story was written by a beginner who’s desperate to improve. How do you help?

The key word here is “help” — and to truly help a struggling author, you need to know what didn’t work in the story, and why:

  • Maybe the action was boring, repetitious, hard to visualize, or just plain impossible (if someone is blindfolded, it’s rather difficult to see the throbbing purple-veined cock on the hunk across the room)
  • Maybe the characters had no life, or maybe they came off as stereotypes.
  • Maybe the writing could have been better. Did all the sentences sound alike? Did several sentences in a row begin with “He” or “She”? Did the author miss opportunities to “show”, not “tell”, to make the story come alive?
  • Maybe the story was filled with erotica cliches. You know the ones: the flaky blonde with the 44DD’s, the guy with the ten-inch perpetual hard-on, lots of “Oooooooooooh!!” in the dialogue. The more erotica you read, the easier it becomes to recognize those clichés.
  • Maybe the point of view was unclear, or confusing. All stories are told through someone’s eyes. Some authors stick with one character’s point of view, while others move between two or more. Did you always know who was telling the story, or were you confused? Might be a point of view problem!

When writing a critique on a less-than-perfect story, try to keep it constructive. Don’t use this as an opportunity to assert your superiority or to be sarcastic. While you’re at it, find something they’ve done right and praise them for it (there’s always something).

For a critique on a story that needs help, you may want to sit on the crit after you’ve written it, rather than posting it the moment it’s done. Remember – although stories are only posted Thursday through Saturday (and Flashers on Sunday) there’s no statute of limitations for critiques! Post ’em anytime!

Tips for Writers

There’s nothing more satisfying than reading a mailbox full of praise for a piece you posted in Storytime. And a critique that helps you improve that story is worth its weight in platinum. How do you get the comments you want, and what do you do with them?

Let’s start from the moment you post that story: if you want comments, be sure to ask for them. (Some people won’t comment otherwise, no matter how badly they want to.) Be specific! Ask your readers to make suggestions on trouble spots. “Does the dialogue sound okay?” “I’m thinking about submitting this to Clean Sheets — would it fit in?” Readers will be happy to scratch your back if they know where the itch is.

Don’t expect comments within minutes — or even hours — after posting your story. Good comments take time, just like good stories. Give folks time to read and digest your piece, especially if it’s a long one. (Give them time to receive it in the first place — some ISPs are slow!)

Grow a thick skin. You’re going to need it anyway, if you want to succeed as a writer! Remember that some crits may be less than diplomatic. Some commenters have an axe to grind, which is their problem, not yours. Some crits will carry more weight than others. Know your critiquers (read their own writing). You don’t have to agree with every comment — in fact, you don’t have to agree with any of them! But try not to let those comments ruin your day, or your art.

Wait until the comments die down before doing a major rewrite of your story. It may be tempting to fix the story based on one critique, but restrain yourself. Work on another piece instead.

Find a way to thank your commenters. Yes, even the ones you don’t agree with. You don’t have to make a big deal out of it. I write a personal message to anyone who comments on one of my stories, even if it’s just a “thanks for reading”. Other people thank their readers publicly, and that’s fine, too. Just don’t let their hard work go unnoticed.

Of course, the best way to say thanks is to return the favor. Keep track of who comments on your pieces and do the same for them. Want a critique from someone in particular? Ask! They’ll be flattered you think so highly of their opinion. Be respectful of other members’ time limitations, though. I’m always happy to read other members’ work, but I can’t always promise to get to it on a deadline.

Commenting on stories is handled pretty informally here at the ERWA. Unlike some Internet writing groups, we don’t have any “quotas”; members are not asked to write a minimum number of comments. We prefer to leave it up to the good sense of our readers. But remember – for our authors, those comments are so valuable. That’s why they’ve joined ERWA in the first place. So speak up! Let us know what you liked, what you think we can improve. Believe me, if we could kiss your feet in gratitude (or maybe some other more appealing body parts), we would.