Sometimes you TRY to read a story but it’s so bad that you don’t even know where to start. In fact, it’s so bad that you couldn’t even get past the first paragraph.
Here’s what to do.
1) Always summarize the story you just read for the author. Do this as you read. Stop every page or two and note what happened in the story so far.
You should do this for all kinds of stories, whether good or bad.
Wait, you say. The author already knows what she wrote, doesn’t she? What’s the point of summarizing?
The answer is No. The author doesn’t know what she just wrote.
You’d be amazed at how far apart what you took from the story is from what the author thought you’d take from the story. Summarizing the story for that person tells them how the story looked to you and will also clarify in your mind what is happening. Trust me. The author will be surprised at what you thought the story was about.
2) Note where you were interested, where you were confused, and where you were bored.
These are the things the author needs to know most.
And that’s it. That’s all you need to do to get yourself through to the end of the story and have a useful critique ready once you’re done.
But wait, you say.
What about tense, commas, mood and tone, theme, characterization, showing-not-telling, infodumping, in other words, all that crap I learned in 10th grade English class?
Sure that stuff matters. But pointing it out to the person you’re critiquing will not help their story. The problem is that everyone has a different idea about all those things.
I’m sure Hemingway was repeatedly told in his writing groups that he needed more descriptive words and a stronger setting. And everyone puts in a little infodump here and there. Everyone. Pointing it out every time isn’t helpful; sometimes a little infodumping is required. Everyone tells-rather-than shows sometime. Everyone uses (gasp) the occasional adverb. Deleting all adverbs from the language will not help.
Basically, most of the suggestions you will make to the author trying to be helpful will just cramp their style. This is NOT 10th grade English class. The writer is NOT being docked points for using present tense or adverbs. Leave it alone.
Just do 1 and 2. For terrible stories OR great stories. Either way, the best thing you can tell the author is 1) what YOU thought the story was and 2) where you got bored, where you were interested, and where you were confused.
After all, the real point of critiquing another person’s story is NOT to catch them in as many sophomoric errors as possible. They’ve heard all that stuff before, many times. The point is to encourage them to keep writing more.
Sure, what you are reading is very likely shit. But your purpose as the critiquer is not to tear apart what you’re reading. It’s to give the author enough feedback so that they can get a sense of what’s working and keep moving on. The goal is to get them to keep writing more.
As Hemingway said, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit,” Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
When you’re the critiquer, you’re wading through the shit. But it’s worth it to eventually get to the masterpiece.