Thursday, November 4, 2010

Writing 101 - Critiques

One of the things a writer is often asked to do is to critique another’s writing – or ask for one. Sometimes this is a direct request, however more often than not it is an implicit agreement – such as another writer posting to a forum a sample of their work for review. There are generally two types of forums – a strictly voluntary forum such as we have with most of the MySpace writing groups, and a forum run more as a reading group for writers. The former tends to provide overviews whereas the latter reading group is more into line editing. For either situation, there are ways to provide a great critique, and even more to deliver a terrible one.

The simple rule is the one that works. In this case, “be constructive” is your prime directive. Better that you say nothing at all if the best critique you can give is derogatory in its approach. Simply telling a writer that they suck is hardly going to help anyone – including the reviewer who will be looked on as little more than a literary troll. Even the starkest wake-up call can be couched in language that doesn’t have to insult.

Let’s talk about the more common critique – the overview. This method is favored simply because it takes less time. The objective of an overview is usually confined to one of two goals – a litmus test or identification of poor writing habits/patterns. The litmus test just wants to answer the question – can this person write well or not? For me, it is best applied in one of two situations – when the writer is abysmally bad or damn good (ready for a publisher). These usually end in either a wake-up call or a push to submit to a publisher. The more common overview for me is the latter – pointing out consistent errors, be it poor sentence construction or too much telling verses showing.

Line editing is time intensive. This is a careful inspection of each sentence, and is exactly what you get when you hire a professional editor. Most of the time, these kind of critiques are reserved for private writing groups, but you can see them on the MySpace forums as well. If you receive such a critique, be grateful.
Regardless of the type of critique, I try and follow the same guidelines.

1. If I read something that works well – tell them. It is as important to the writer to know what works as what does not.

2. If I make a correction, unless the correction itself is blindingly self-explanatory, I explain why I made that correction. I never simply say “this is wrong” without telling them why.

3. If the writer is making fundamental mistakes, guide them to a resource that will help them. Usually, this means imbedding links to books they can purchase or articles they can read.

4. I try and provide a general synopsis at the end of reviews. I prefer to keep it upbeat and never insult or discourage.

5. If I am in a “wake-up call” situation, I try and be firm without being demeaning. Give them resources and let them know they can do better if they are serious about their craft.

6. I will not critique a repeat offender – if the person keeps on submitting the same mistakes without any sign of learning, it is best to leave them be. Either they don’t want to learn, or are a form of literary troll to be avoided. No sense casting pearls before this bunch.

7. The last thing I want to do is pummel a writer. If the best I can do is tell them how bad they are, and do so in such a way as to paint them as being an idiot, then I simply won’t do a critique. I don’t want to be seen as a literary bully, because that leads to people questioning me both as a reviewer and a writer. People don’t buy books from those they don’t like.

If you are on the receiving end of a critique, remember one thing. It took time out of someone’s life to provide the review. Do not ask for a critique unless you are putting your best writing on the table. The same goes for your not wanting to hear anything but how wonderful you are. Unless you are the hapless victim of Rule #7, your first reaction ought to be one of gratitude no matter how seemingly brutal the critique was. You should also take the advice to heart, especially if more than one reviewer touches on the same subject. There is no reason for being defensive. Let me repeat that. There is NO reason for being defensive. Two common (and equally wrong) reactions are “You don’t get it.” or “I am doing this for a reason.” Sometimes it is hard for a writer to realize that it is not what they think that counts – it is what the reader perceives. An acquisitions editor certainly won’t care about your artistic license for one moment. Of course, there is my favorite reply – “This was just a rough draft.” or “This was something I did last year.” Guess who won’t be reviewing any more of your work. This leads to a few guidelines I might suggest regarding asking for a critique.

1. Do not call down the lightning if you can’t stand the thunder.

2. Submit only your best.

3. Listen and apply lessons before submitting anything else.

4. Don’t spam critique requests across boards. This only drives off reviewers.

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