The First Draft – General Feedback
If you’re putting a first draft out to be critiqued (especially if it’s unedited), it is best not to ask for things about spelling, grammar, or wording. The absolute best thing to do for critiquing a first draft is what I refer to as general feedback. This is, essentially, a reader’s impression of the story. Do you like the story and the characters? What don’t you like about it? What do you like about it? This is the most important feedback to get in a first draft because first drafts are the skeleton of the story. In all likelihood, you’re probably going to rewrite the story after this, or make some sort of massive changes. General feedback on the story is what you need, because before you can make the prose perfect, you should make the story perfect.
When critiquing for general feedback, do not read this as a critiquer, but rather as a reader. Enjoy the story for how it is, and if you have any complaints about the story – too fast or slow paced, plot holes, character inconsistencies, or things that are outright confusing – those are the things to point out. Those are the things that will be the most helpful for the writer in their next draft. If you get all nitpicky and point out all the grammar and stuff at the same time, it’s going to get overwhelming, and if they’re changing the story anyway, chances are all those grammar things are going to go away for the next draft anyway. It’ll save you time and the writer a bit of a headache.
Now, depending on how bad the writer messed up on the plot and story the first time around, the second (and even third draft, and possibly more after that) could still be like the first draft in that all they really need is feedback on the general story. It isn’t until they think (and by extension you think) that the story has been perfected as well as it can be, that you should move on to different types of critiques.
Next Draft – Prose
Once the story and the characters are the way they want it to be, the next thing they should be working on is their prose. This is different than grammar as well. Critiquing the prose is not about critiquing their style, but rather critiquing the quality. This has to do with pacing of wording (as opposed to plot), flow, telling vs. showing, detail, and whether the words they use make sense. (If something is too confusing to be able to understand in the first draft and you have no idea what’s going on in the story, that’s a time to point it out, but if it’s only confusing to the point of say “this metaphor doesn’t make much sense” but you can still get the gist of the story from the rest of the context, this is the time to go after things like that.)
Critiquing prose is probably one of the harder/more time consuming ways to critique. You have to be reading very closely, and read things over several times as well if it seems wrong. That is a key element: don’t just jump on something the first time you read it if it seems confusing or off. It’s easy to misread things and reading it several times over can clear up initial confusion sometimes.
Last Draft – Copy Editing
Copy editing means checking for spelling and grammar issues. Spelling and grammar should be dealt with in the last draft of the story. With some writers, they already know what they’re doing with spelling and grammar, it’s just that typos and “bad” grammar can happen when you’re initially writing. Maybe they end up revising this stuff in some earlier drafts. The last draft is the time to point those things out because it’s the absolute last priority when you’re writing a story (unless the writer has terrible grammar, they keep constantly misspelling a certain word or using improper grammar or punctuation to the point that you realize they don’t know better, in which case it’s okay to point those things out earlier on so they can know better for the future not only of their story but for everything they write.)
Now, when you’re critiquing grammar, you may have a tendency to nitpick: going after ALL the adverbs, going after ALL the passive voice (was’s and things like that), etc. I say this is nitpicking because, unless it is actually detrimental to the flow of the story, these things aren’t necessarily bad despite what your writing teacher might tell you. Things like this are, essentially, a matter of personal opinion. I’ll talk about that more in a later post.