When friends ask how I’m coming along with writing, there is often not much to say. I mean, how many times can one talk about “I saw the blank screen in front of me and sweated for each noun or verb that I jotted down?” So life as a writer ticks along, with some days productive and others not. Creating stories are fun, but sharing how it’s done is monumentally difficult.
Enter the critique group, a place where the brave bring their art in its “diamond in the rough” shape. Our group encourages its members to bring ten pages weekly of a current project. You read your offering out loud and collect both written and verbal critiques. Each person receives between one half hour and forty minutes of attention then walks away with the best critique efforts of the rest of us, in notations on the shared copies of his or her work. The copies are usually a five to seven dollar investment for three hours of emotional engagement. Take that, twenty-dollar movie tickets!
Here’s the catch–best critique efforts are defined internally and differently for each writing group member. And those critiques can fit like the three bears–some too harsh, some too sweet and a few just right.
I often miss the boat in critiquing, even when I try my best. I’ll miss a subtle sub-plot or have other “10-page syndrome” problems. We switch tables each week so there is no consistency (read “rut”) in reading or critiquing.
Now, I have had some horrid critiques in the eight and a half years I’ve been a member of our group. Someone once ripped my work so harshly (and unfairly) that another member came up to me afterwards and apologized for our “friend.” Some people come wanting praise, not critiques and have their feelings crushed to the point of not returning.
So this leads to the question:
HOW DO YOU CRITIQUE ANOTHER’S WORK?
This is not English 101, where whatever you say about a story doesn’t matter because the book has been in print (usually to critical acclaim) for several years, written by some dead guy who can’t hear your sacrilegious verbal abuse anyway. This is the delicate new bloom on an effort that may or may not find its way to your local Barnes and Nobel some day.
Plus, what goes around comes around. Your own pages will be on the chopping block as soon as you get through that ten pages of wasted trees from the person who cannot find a verb in a gladiator match to save his life. Be strategic. Be nice.
A good general rule if you’re critiquing in a writers’ group is to first find something genuine and nice to say before going into the harsher areas of what could be improved. How do you find that nice thing? Ask yourself these questions:
- Is there a character who grabs your imagination and gives you an emotional reaction?
- Is the writing clean, without too many OMGs! and f*^!s thrown in?
- Is the plot moving forward–is there good tension and conflict that forces the reader to flip the page?
- Once in the reading, do you stay there? This is called verisimilitude–achieved by keeping a consistency of time period, dialogue patterns and genre tone. It’s a lot more difficult to make happen than it sounds.
- Is the writing clear?
On the flip side, these questions can also help you find the “challenges” in the writing. I often add in punctuation problems just because that doggone comma keeps giving me problems and I want to improve my command of the punctuation mark.
Sometimes I think people want to prove how smart they are. They point out every challenge more to be cool and clever than with any spirit of hoping to help. These are the writers you know are aspiring to have their picture taken in front of the Harvard Law school, with patches on their tweed jackets and pipes in their mouths. As a writer, it’s good to be aware and take their critiques with a huge grain of salt. Other critics seem to subconsciously want to make every writer sound like themselves and give samples of how they would say things. They’re just being different, not better.
As a writer, you also have to be generous about receiving critiques. Just keep in mind that critical skills are often as underdeveloped as writing skills. Know that most people are trying to help, no matter how the criticism may need a little polishing of its own.
Gotta run. I have four copies of Chapter 14 that I need to review the critique remarks on.
Hope you have a weekend of critical acclaim.