How to Provide Specific Criticism for Manuscripts

Fiction workshops are extremely valuable to writers, both for their own work to be evaluated and to practice evaluating others' work. Through the close reading of others' writing, fiction writers discover in what areas their own work succeeds and fails.

When workshopping another writer's work, however, it helps to keep a few things in mind: point of view, voice, scene, character, plot, setting, style, and symbolism. Below, you'll find helpful questions to ask in each of these areas while workshopping a short story or manuscript.

Specific Criticism in Fiction Workshops

One of the most frustrating experiences for writers is hearing a comment that is too general to be productive. When reading through a manuscript, take notes and leave comments about everything you're feeling in each part of the story and what works and what doesn't. Then, when discussing the piece in a group, use your notes to provide specific lines, scenes, or examples of why something isn't working.

Instead of saying "I don't like the ending. I'm not sure why though," be specific. Saying something like "The ending felt rushed, especially when John left without explanation. This seems uncharacteristic of him," will provide the writer with important information he can choose to use if he wants.

Point of View in Fiction Workshops

When reading fiction, pay attention to the point of view from which the story is told. Ask yourself the following questions while you read:

  1. What point of view is the story told? First person, third person limited omniscience, third person objective, or second person?
  2. Does it work?
  3. How would the dynamic of the story change if a different point of view was used?
  4. Voice in Fiction Workshops

Pay attention to the way the story is told, asking yourself these questions:

  • Does the narrator have a compelling, story-telling voice, an urgency to tell the story?
  • Is the voice appropriate for the subject matter? Is it too light or too serious?

Scene in Fiction Workshops

The scene in fiction refers to the time, place, and setting. Pay attention to how well each works with the plot of the work of fiction, asking yourself these questions as you do:

  • Are we put in a particular place on an actual day? How soon? Do we stay there?
  • Where are the paragraphs of exposition/explanation that take us away from that scene into the abstract realm?
  • Is there enough sensual language for us to see, hear, and feel we are there?
  • Has the author been selective in choosing these sensual details?
  • Do the details contribute to the story, or are they empty description?
  • Is there immediate action taking place?

Character in Fiction Workshops

Characters are arguably the most important part of any story. Characters transport readers into a different world and provide them with insight, so characters should be carefully evaluated:

  • Is the protagonist complex?
  • What is his or her underlying drive or yearning?
  • What is the desired goal at the end?
  • Are other characters convincing?

Plot in Fiction Workshops

Write a sentence or two of what the overall action of the story is. Next, ask yourself each of the questions and decide how they relate to the plot. Mark areas where the story might need revising or the adding or removing of information.

  • What are the obstacles standing in the way of the story's goal?
  • Is the antagonist (another person, environment, aspect of self) a worthy opponent? Too difficult to overcome? Not a real opponent at all?
  • What is the conflict? Is it evident early enough?

Setting in Fiction Workshops

Ask yourself how the setting works in the story by asking yourself these questions while reading:

  • Is the setting grounded in the concrete?
  • Fully realized?
  • Enough?
  • Too much description?

Style in Fiction Workshops

Style is as important to readers as the story itself, and it can affect how the story is received by readers. Pay special attention to these components of style:

  • Are the diction (word choice) and syntax (sentence structure) appropriate for the story's voice, tone, and intended audience?
  • Are there words or phrases used that are uncharacteristic of the protagonist?
  • Is the language fresh? Metaphors vibrant? Be sure to mark clichés.

Symbolism in Fiction Workshops

Symbols are an important part of literature, but it can be difficult to weave symbols into literature organically. Check the following when workshopping fiction:

  1. Are the symbols heavy-handed? Are we hit over the head with it?
  2. Are the symbols too subtle?

Remember to keep fiction workshops friendly and constructive. This isn't to say that negative feedback shouldn't be shared, but be sure the criticism is beneficial to the writer and his or her work. Share what does and doesn't work about the story, but remember the most important part of the game: always be specific.