Your critique should not be structured to try to convince the writer to write the story you would write or the one you would like to see written. Determine the story's intent and help the writer by focusing on suggestions extending from that.
Reading the manuscript should feel like watching a movie -- rich with images, movement, sensory details. You should be pulled into the moments, feel as though you are there, witnessing, privy to characters' thoughts and pasts, feeling anxious, guessing at coming events, longing to know. Nothing should seem out of place (characters, setting, events, language, tone, voice).
All action should be well motivated; acts might surprise, but certainly never seem faked or wrong. The narrator's voice should create a mood, suit the story, captivate. You should feel as though you know this person; is it girlfriend, brother, mother, God? The dialogue should earn its space, seem natural as it reveals character and moves the plot along.
No part of the story should seem too slick, too easy, too sweet; in other words, no sentimentality or excessive cleverness. You should simply feel enthralled observing unique people doing fresh and interesting things, the events progressing naturally to their logical end.
1. What is the story's focus; what is it really about? Do all elements work effectively to present this central idea?
2. What does the narrator's voice tell you about his/her character? Are there any lapses in diction or syntax? Is the point of view appropriate to the story?
3. Does anyone act out of character; if so, is this action simply surprising or is it unbelievable? Does each character have depth, complexity?
4. Do the images and actions of the characters reveal personality and establish motivation for later events?
5. Is the dialogue natural, efficient, and used to further plot?
6. Is there a balance of power between the main characters?
7. Is the setting used effectively to set a scene or establish mood?
8. Is the language compressed yet literary, tension-filled, energized?
9. Are there enough details to sustain the fictional dream? Are the metaphors, similes, and symbols fresh, accurate, unobtrusive?
10. Does the plot progress naturally and efficiently from conflict, through complications and crisis point, to resolution?
11. Is the emphasis correctly placed on action rather than narration?
12. Is the ending satisfactory, appropriate?
Participate by voicing your reactions to each story. No one person should dominate, and all group members should speak out. Everyone is learning, and each person has a fresh perspective that enriches the discussion.
Every manuscript will have qualities you can admire; begin with those. Then, locate the story's focus and determine if the story revolves on that axis. Follow with comments regarding characterization, plot development, voice and diction, dialogue, etc.
The discussion should have nothing to do with impressions of the writer or the writer's intent, but should address the story's inherent purpose and movement. That vital distinction will ensure constructive comments, feedback that honors the work rather than attacking the writer.
While the works of other writers may espouse philosophies you do not share, no critique should engage in personal criticism, nor should critiques attempt to limit writers by their other group affiliations, levels of experience, or personal characteristics. Everyone's role in the group is that of peer.
When a manuscript is being discussed, its author is to listen with a willing openness to the responses of the group. It is essential that the writer be open and sensitive to the effect his/her story is having on the others.
End by summarizing the group's consensus, with suggestions for making the story the most entertaining enlightening, well-crafted piece it can be.
[Adapted from guidelines used in writing workshops sponsored by Gemini Ink, 513 S. Presa, San Antonio, TX 78205.]