I was at a manuscript revision retreat once and before we got started, a new writer privately said to me, “I have no idea how to critique someone’s work. I’m completely new at this. I don’t know what to say!” Well, I’m heading down to another revision retreat in a few days, and this lovely person’s remarks came back to me. Which is why I want to talk about critiquing.
When I attend SCBWI “critiquenics” (what the Los Angeles chapter termed their events in the park where they brought food and did critiques—critiquenics—a cross between a critique and a picnic), we follow what we call the hamburger method (and no, not all critiquing involves food, although it does make some comments go down a little easier).
The hamburger method starts with the bottom bun—saying what we liked about the story, and naming specifics—everything from big picture items like plot, characterization, structure, dialogue, etc. to the little things like specific word choices, scene descriptions, etc.
Next comes the meat—suggestions for improvement. We talk about any specific questions or concerns we might have and offer up revision suggestions. Again, this could be big picture items like above, or specific ones (although if the big picture items are way off, there’s not much point to making small stuff suggestions because they’ll likely get changed in the big picture revisions anyway). This is the material that a writer needs to focus on to improve his work so it’s important, albeit sometimes painful, to hear.
And last comes the top bun (complete with sesame seeds!)—an overall view of the story’s best features. In other words, ending on a positive note by sharing what is working well. This is just as important as the meat of the critique, because a writer needs to know what NOT to change and as well as what to change. For example, the writer did a nice job of creating a likable character. The writer had fabulous scene descriptions that really “put us there.” The plot was intriguing and made us want to read on.
Another critique method I love to use is one I learned from Kathleen Duey when I heard her speak years ago. She said it's as simple as remembering “B-C-D.” This works great for anyone who has never done critiques. I even use this when I read my unpublished work to students and I want their opinion. Yes, it’s so simple even a kid can do it (not to undermine kids—they’re pretty sharp when it comes to ms critiques).
Okay, B-C-D. It’s an acronym. B stands for Bored. Are there any places in the story where you’re getting bored? If so, then the plot is dragging, the action has slowed or the dialogue is going on too long. Revisions are needed.
C is for Confused. Are there any places that are confusing to you? If so, this means that the writer needs to clarify what he’s written. Maybe he’s assumed a certain knowledge on the part of his audience that isn’t there. Maybe he’s covered things too quickly and not explained what’s happening well enough. Whatever the problem, he needs to re-read with a fresh eye and revise.
And last is D, or Don’t believe it. Are there any parts of the story that you don’t believe or just don’t buy? If your readers won’t believe it, then you’ve lost their trust. This means back to the keyboard. Now, it’s understood that with certain genres (fantasy, sci-fi, amongst others) there will be certain aspects that will be out of the realm of reality, but even with these, the story reality still has to be believable. For example, you can’t have a story about a unicorn that at the end of the story suddenly bites people and sucks their blood (okay, bad example, but you get the idea). Or have a reality-based story about a cat that halfway through the story begins to talk. The writer must lay the groundwork for these things to happen—otherwise, it’s not believable.
Regardless of how long you’ve been writing, you’re still a reader and have reactions to someone’s work. And as far as reading children’s stories, we were all children at one time. So, don’t be afraid to dive into a manuscript and offer up your opinion! You never know what that one little bit of advice or opinion will do for another writer's work.