Critiquing: The Big Picture

- by Elaine Isaak

There’s a great movie called “The Creator” with Peter O’Toole as this rather wacky professor taking on a grad student to help him clone his dead wife.  He claims all of the student’s time, and marks him down as receiving his education in, “The Big Picture.”

I was reminded of this lately when looking at the results of two experiences asking for critique on my manuscripts.  I gave copies of a YA novel to a group of high school students, and copies of a romance novel to a group of local romance writers (all experienced at critique, all wanting to be published authors).

The results from these two groups were startlingly similar.  They noted all kinds of little things–some typos, some personal confusions or unclear sentences.  And almost nobody looked at The Big Picture.

I’ve had this issue before, and should have taken more corrective action in the beginning, when I set up the critiques.  All too often, critiquers get drawn in to details.  They will write long messages about your style, your descriptions, your choice of setting–sometimes with suggestions about how to improve those things.  But they don’t tell you what you really need to know:  is it worth it?  Is this book actually any good?  Did you enjoy reading it?  Were you sorry when it ended?  Did you like the hero and hate the villain?  Did it follow a solid emotional arc and wind up at an appropriate conclusion?

Without knowing The Big Picture, how do I know if I should bother taking the advice about the little things?  It’s not worth polishing my prose if the structure beneath is not sound.  I can write better dialog for that character–but if the reader doesn’t care about him, my energy is better spent correcting that more fundamental flaw.

As critiquers, we are trained in a few specific ways.  We are taught to be specific (which is generally good advice, though it can lead to that pinpoint focus on tiny things).  We are taught to be helpful (which usually means giving suggestions for changes).  And we are actually taught not to say “I liked it.”  This last lesson is usually phrased to imply that you should give supporting evidence for what you liked–as in, I liked your hero’s interaction with his dog.  Which is nice.  It’s good to know.

But as I progress in my writing career, I’ve rather come full circle to that place of fundamental insecurity.  Yes, I want constructive criticism.  Yes, I want to know what you think is wrong and where and why and what suggestions you have, even if I use those as a springboard to find my own solutions.  But it’s actually incredibly useful to know if you liked it!

Next time you are offering a critique to a friend or newbie or another author.  I strongly suggest you start off with The Big Picture.  Give a little summation of the overall effect of the manuscript which will allow the author to place your detailed comments in context.  Chances are, the author will thank you for it.

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