Becky Levine, Writer’s Digest Books, 2010, 293 pgs.
The book is divided into several sections. The first and last sections deal with questions that arise in looking for and/or being part of a critique group: start your own or join an existing group; in-person or online; frequency, structure or format, expectations and responsibilities of members of a critique group; etc. A relatively minor section towards the end sketches a plan for the writer to utilize critique comments in revising and/or rewriting his work. But the bulk of the reference deals with critiquing a writer’s submission; there are separate sections for critiquing fiction, non-fiction (magazine articles, non-fiction book proposals, how-to/self-help, memoir, travel writing), and children’s books. Each section, save the last, concludes with worksheets and examples that also serve as a summary or highlight of that particular section.
Regardless of genre, Levine starts off each chapter within the various critiquing sections with a call to the critiquer to pay attention to his feelings or impressions about what he’s reading; e.g., areas of boredom, lack of tension, disconnectedness, hero passivity, confusing dialogue, etc.: something that either frustrates, confuses, or bores you as a critiquer/reader. Such impressions are basically symptoms that generally signal weaknesses in the writing. After listing the possible feelings you might experience, Levine discusses probable root causes for such symptoms and suggests not only remedies, but ways to “soften the blow” and provide constructive criticism in a positive light. By way of illustration, Levine shows us actual excerpts that “get it right,” followed by a fictitious negative example of writing that falls flat, along with possible critique comments.
The critiquing fiction section seems to have the lion’s share of the book, as there are separate chapters on the different foci of critiquing fiction: critiquing for plot, character, point of view and voice, dialogue, description, and scene structure. The critiquing non-fiction section has a chapter on each of the types of non-fiction writing, and the section on critiquing children’s books has a chapter each on picture books, beginning readers, and chapter books. Irrespective of one’s particular genre interest(s), the reader would benefit from reading all sections rather than skipping the ones pertaining to other genres.
I think this book will prove helpful not only for the person interested in learning how to give a worthy critique, but also for anyone who wishes to improve his writing. Knowing in advance some of the common writing weaknesses can assist the writer in avoiding these pitfalls in the first place. I am looking forward to implementing some of the tips and suggestions I’ve gleaned from reading this book.