Thursday, 18 July 2013

Everyone is a critic!

The Dos and Donts of Critiquing

by Gillian Hamer

There has been a lot of negativity in the past about the pros and cons of online writing sites and writing groups in general. It’s fair to say that it can be a source of tension, and more than once I’ve heard comments from fellow writers along the lines of – ‘so what does he know, he’s not published either’ or ‘so what makes her JK Rowling all of a sudden.’

Critiquing another person’s work can be a minefield. But done well, ie learn the rules of engagement, and it can be a rewarding experience – for both parties.

· Help yourself …

Working with other writers will hone your writing skills – whether you’re the one giving or receiving the critique. In certain dry spells of my own writing, getting involved with commenting and advising on another writer’s work has been instrumental in helping to get my own writing flowing again.

Often, as a critiquer, you begin to recognize faults that crop in up your writing, but were invisible to your own eyes until you saw the same faults in others. You can see from the other side of the fence what it takes for readers to connect or sympathise with characters, and use that knowledge to improve your own work. And for the cost of only your own time, you’ll learn invaluable advice for improving your own work whilst also helping someone else.

However, it can be a wasp’s nest and it’s best to have an idea of the etiquette and skills required to be a successful and helpful critiquer. There is an art form to providing well-constructed, thoughtful criticism, and it’s important to recognize the fine line between personal preference and quality of the writing.

· Don’t judge every book …

Writers are told early on they need to develop a thick skin. And that’s very true. While agents, editors and publishers are unlikely to sugar coat any criticism, as a fellow writer, that doesn’t give you the right to crucify another person’s writing without thought and wisdom behind the words.

Remember, if you’ve been writing for a decade and have achieved a decent level, don’t judge everyone against the quality of a published author’s work. Remember everyone has to start as a ‘Learner Driver’ and use that analogy to encourage and advise in the right manner.

I am a fan of the sandwich approach. If I have to impart bad news, I would rather begin with a positive comment – ‘I really enjoyed the fresh ideas you brought to this crime novel’ – followed by a piece of advice – ‘However, I think you need to put a lot more time into crafting POV’ – then ending with an encouragement – ‘I think you have an original idea here, I’d love to read another draft.’

Of course, not everything can be sweetness and light, but you can see what I mean. There are ways to impart bad news, and personally, I think the most helpful thing you can do for a newbie writer is to give examples or suggest alternatives.

· If at first …

Also, a good critique is a well thought-out review where the writing (rather than the writer) is put under the spotlight. If you have time, try to read the work twice. First as a reader, making notes as you go – then as a writer, red editor’s pen in hand. The more time and effort you put into a critique, the more it will assist the writer. There’s nothing worse than a half-baked list of comments and it’s usually blatantly obvious when the person hasn’t put any effort into their responses.

And if you find you need to impart bad news, which can often be the case and should not send you running for the hills, always try and be constructive. Don’t say – ‘you’re using the wrong words’ – try ‘that word is vague, how about something more compelling like …’ The same with sentence structure. Rather than just highlighting a poorly constructed sentence, why not rewrite it, once or twice, and give examples of how this would improve the work.

· You can’t please everyone …

It’s a sad fact that on some online sites, there are writers who do not want criticism, and when they ask for feedback what they really want to hear is how great they are. You will only learn by experience who they are, and should you review work and find the writer wants to enter into a huge debate, I’d be inclined to ask if they have specific questions. If not, try not to get into a back and forth debate where you feel the need to defend your critique while they try to defend their work! This is never beneficial to either party.

Accepting a critique also carries its own etiquette. Your writing will only improve if you can graciously accept a critique – no matter what its content. Always take from any critique only what connects with you as the writer. Do not go through a manuscript and blithely change every item the other person has raised … but do give every single point due consideration. Remember, this person has given their time and experience to assist you, and even if you don’t agree with everything (or anything!) they advise, always be respectful and gracious. DO NOT enter into a heated debate with a critiquer. They will not change their minds because you tell them too. If you have further questions, by all means ask, but if you cannot agree – then silently leave it at that.

· My top tips for critiquing …

1. Always start with strengths before addressing weaknesses.

2. Make solid suggestions for improvement, don’t be vague.

3. Be positive, even when you’re covering negative subjects.

I have over a decade’s experience on numerous writing sites and have asked some of the best critiquers I have had the pleasure of dealing with for some of their top critiquing tips. There should be at least one little gem here that connects with you.

· What’s the best piece of critique advice you’ve received?

“I would say read as a reader and don't over analyse. Trust your gut reaction, most prose only gets one chance to impress/hold a reader. And things that trip you are likely to trip others. Also take the time to mention the good bits as well as the bad, we all need a bit of encouragement from time to time.”

“Strike out every other adjective and adverb.”

“I can't remember the author now but one well known writer apparently has a bit of paper stuck to their writing desk saying ' BE THERE'. I think this is really great advice as it reminds you to keep the narrative realistic and helps bring the prose alive.”

“Characters based on real people are the least real on paper. It made me chuck away an entire book, and recently scrap two characters completely from the Beatrice series. It's like Roger Rabbit - the mixture of the real and the animated make one or the other stand out.”

“Origami. Don't have your characters asking questions you want your reader to be asking. Your reader should be asking these questions as a result of the unfolding story, and if they aren't, you haven't folded it properly.”

“A tip I was given from a very experienced writer on receiving critiques was, by all means take advice from others on plot, character etc, but always remember that writing a novel is not a team sport.”

“My tip is to read your work out loud. If you start cringing, you know it has to go.”

“Cut the crap.”

· What’s the favourite piece of critique advice you offer?

“SHOW not TELL. It's an oldie but a goody. Don't tell the reader it's intriguing, show them something intriguing.”

“The trick is to read as a reader, not as a writer. I'd add to that, we all know what kind of story we would like to see, but at the end of the day, it's the writer's story, not yours, and it is the job of a critique to bring out the best in the story that is there, not write a new one.”

“A critique should help a writer to find his or her own unique voice, not have it overlaid with the voice of the person providing the critique.”

“When cutting unnecessary words begin with adverbs and adjectives. And the only verb you ever need as a speech tag is ‘said’.”

“End every sentence, paragraph and chapter with the strongest word. Don’t sort of sputter to a halt in a, you know, kind of weak and wishy-washy … erm … way. And mind out for alliteration an’ all.”

“Take what works for you but DON'T feel that you have to take on board every bit of conflicting advice. On the other hand, if all critters are saying the same thing, you should probably listen to them.”

"Cut the crap.”

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