Asking the Right Questions

Critiquing, like editing, is somewhat of a subjective business. What floats your boat may sink someone else’s ship, so to speak, but the thing I’ve found in common in all great critique partners and editors is the ability to ask the right questions.

The one thing you never want to do when critiquing or editing is to impose your vision on someone else’s work. You are not the writer; if you were, you would be reading an entirely different story. So what’s the point of critiquing or editing in the first place, you might ask? As a beta reader or critique partner or editor, you have been bestowed a lot of trust by the writer, and you are sort of honour-bound to provide the best feedback possible.

What does that feedback entail? In my case, it’s 85% questions, 15% opinions. It’s crucial that the writer and the critique partner/editor are in sync with each other in terms of where the story is headed; when I was working as an editor, I’ve had writers down my offers because our visions didn’t align. In the end, we weren’t well-suited because our ideas for where the story ought to go were different and I don’t begrudge them for signing with another publisher.

Those who have been on the receiving end of my editorial eye will note that I tend to ask a barrage of questions, the most common of which begin with Why? Why does the character do this if the text has shown him to be like this? Why does this thing happen when three chapters before it wasn’t possible? Why does this event occur even though the implicit rules of the world you have built state otherwise? Why is the most important question to ask as an analytical reader. Not what or how. Why is also the most important question for the writer to answer because the string of answers you get from all the why questions thread together the emotional logic of a work.

What and how are easy questions to answer: they are logistics, facts, incontrovertible things that must happen because plot. BUT. The critique partner or editor’s job is to find the narrative thread that links two plot pieces together. For example, say a character is on the run from the government. She’s just broken out of a high-security prison and her first act of freedom is to walk up to an old man and shoot him in the head. At first glance, those two events might seem related—there is bound to be some sort of body count in a high-stakes escape. And yet, there is nothing connecting those two events emotionally. This is where a good critique partner would ask whyWhy did your character shoot the old man in the head? Was it because she was so hyped up on adrenaline she couldn’t see straight and didn’t know what she was doing? Or was it a case of revenge? If it was a case of revenge, how does the old man’s death affect her emotionally? Is she regretful? Grateful? In shock? Disbelief? We need to see how the old man affects her emotionally before she shoots him in the head so we have a better sense of context, and so we can better understand her character. Etc.

Questions are good at opening up discussion. There are no right or wrong answers; questions are there to get the writer to think, and to come up with answers that fit with what they are trying to write. At first, it may seem like a good critique partner or editor has all the best comments, but if you take a second look, you’ll find that most of the comments come from the writer, lead there by the excellent questions asked. 😉

What do you think? What do you value in a good critique partner?


3 Responses to Asking the Right Questions

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Apr 1 2014 at 9:21 am #

    I’ve never had a critique partner, so I can’t answer the second question. I will agree that the prime question is Why, though. My own writing process is to follow the logic, so why something happens is the most important thing. ‘Why’ *is* the story. Without a ‘why’, the story is nothing but things happening.

  2. Carrie-Anne Apr 2 2014 at 2:05 pm #

    A good critiquer is honest yet friendly, perhaps sandwiching comments/suggestions. Say, “I love how you describe the setting, but you need to work on more natural dialogue. I’m sure you’ll get better at it as you continue to develop as a writer.” I question any critiquer who only says negative things, and despise this trend of ripping work apart even if it’s not all that horrible. Constructive critiquing is about more than just harping on what you didn’t like or understand. You have to praise what you liked as well.

  3. Traci Krites Apr 6 2014 at 7:21 pm #

    I LOVE my critique partners as well as my beta readers. Sometimes it hurts to get the crits back, but if they didn’t point things out to me, they wouldn’t be helping make me a better writer. I try to do the same in return. The crits aren’t harsh or personal attacks, they’re simple this works, this needs looked at, big pic deals. I value each.

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