You Dare Critique Me?

Published October 18, 2012 by Laitie

grassandcitrus asked: Do you have any suggestions for critiquing creative non-fiction?

We certainly do have some suggestions for critiquing creative non-fiction. Creative non-fiction can be difficult to critique, and certainly takes much time and energy, but there are many tips and tricks to doing it right.

But first, let’s take a look at the definitions of creative non-fiction and critique.

Creative Non-Fiction: Creative nonfiction (also known as literary or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives.

In order to critique a creative non-fiction piece, it is important to know exactly what it is. Creative non-fiction is a piece of non-fiction written in a literary—or creative—way. In other words, Creative non-fiction uses facts from history or other areas of non-fiction to tell a true story in a form other than a simple biography. Examples include memoirs, literary journalism, and personal essays (x). Even blogging is considered literary non-fiction (x). Anything written artistically that is about factual events, practices, etc.

Critique: Evaluate (a theory, practice, or piece of creativity) in a detailed and analytical way.

When giving a critique, it is best to know exactly what a real, fair critique is. If you’re looking for a critique, do not go to your family members. A critique is an unbiased criticism of an artist’s piece with the intent to make it better. Carol Benedict brings up another great point about critiques:

“…the most important guideline for a critique is to give an honest, constructive, and polite assessment of the writing. All comments should be about the words written, not about the person writing them” (x).

All too often, critics will forget about their job and begin to insult the writer or his/her writing. It is important to remember that you are working to better the person’s writing, not bring them down by pointing out only their mistakes.

Here are some great tips on critiquing creative non-fiction to bear in mind:

  • Make sure the facts are correct.When critiquing non-fiction, creative or no, it is important to make sure the writer has gotten the facts right. before critiquing non-fiction, it’s always a good idea to do some research of your own on the subject.
    • This can be difficult with memoirs. You don’t know what the writer has experienced. Neither can you be expected to go and interview everyone in the writer’s life. In this case, be sure that the events and facts make sense. If the writer mentions historic events and/or research-able facts like Adeline Yen Mah does in her memoir, Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Girl, make sure these events and/or facts are written at the correct times and places (i.e. in chronological order).
  • Mechanics, mechanics, mechanics. Always, always, always critique mechanics. Even the most seasoned writers make spelling and grammar mistakes in their first and final drafts. Your job as the critic is to find these errors and point them out to the writer in a tactful way.
  • Be sure to point out the good along with the bad. The importance of recognizing the good is easily forgotten, especially when your job is to point out the bad to make the piece better, but in order for the writer to better their work, they also need to know where they’ve excelled. Melissa Donovan explains this in her article Tips for Critiquing Other Writers’ Work:

    When you are  giving a critique, always start by emphasizing the good … By doing this, you’re kicking things off on a positive note. Also, it’s much easier for a writer to hear where they have failed after they hear where they’ve succeeded.

    As Donovan points out, writers are people, too, and so are as sensitive as you and I. It is important to give the writer a bit of confidence to hold them through their failures.

Here are a couple examples of good critiques of creative non-fiction:

  • The voice is fantastic, and I love your word choices! But back in those times, Paul Revere would not have said “the British are coming,” because the colonists still considered themselves British. Instead, he would have called them “the Redcoats.”
  • Your facts are wonderful. Everything you mention is correct according to my research and knowledge. However, you struggle greatly with the mechanics. Look at the inline notes where I have fixed them.

As you can see, critiquing creative non-fiction is quite the labor-intensive job. But it is certainly worth it to better a writer’s piece and even contribute to your own education of the topic. Always remember to check the facts, watch the mechanics, and point out the good and the bad.

Further reading:

Thank you so much for your question!

Rachel

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