Monday, June 16, 2014

Having Your Writing Critiqued

“There are only two people who can tell you the truth about yourself – an enemy who has lost his temper and a friend who loves you dearly.”—Antisthenes  

Shut up and listen. That's the first and best thing you can do for yourself when sitting down to hear someone's critique of your writing. You've given them your work to see what they think, so give them free rein to tell you.

There is nothing gained by defending your work against someone who is trying to help you. Every critique is a learning experience, a chance to better understand your writing, flaws and successes alike. Treat it as such.

If you have specific questions for your reader, write them down ahead of time and wait until you are well into what should be a one-sided conversation before you bring them up. Don't ask your reader to watch for anything before they've read your work. You don't want to influence their reading. They have to come to your writing fresh, just as they would anything off the shelf. Say as little as possible to them about what you've written. It is for them to tell you what you have done.

With that in mind, keep your questions open ended. First ask, what did you think of this character, before specifying, did you find them funny. The most of what you should say during the critique is why, why not, and can you tell me more about that.

Not everyone offering you a critique is a master at the craft. Even editors and writers with endless bestsellers and lavishly awarded works can be uncertain what needs to change in a given draft, or how. The best readers will critique your work with an eye for helping you achieve your vision instead of manipulating it into something they want to see. If your reader does not appear to make an effort to understand your intent, consider the value of their advice accordingly, but do not disregard their reactions.

Your reader's reactions to your work is the single most important feedback you can ask for, whether or not they have any interesting suggestions. Faults may not be where a reader thinks they are, but that does not mean nothing is wrong. Sometimes a moment would otherwise work if it were better supported earlier in the story. But if your reader was confused, or put off, or bored, it falls to you to discern why that might be and what you can do about it. Every comment is a question you have to answer to in your writing. If you don't have good answers, you have work to do.

There is such a thing as bad advice. Listening to everybody is as mindless as listening to nobody. What you do with your work is up to you, but the better you know your work, the easier it will be to tell the good advice from the bad.

As a last word on intent, what you first wanted from your writing is not always what needs to happen for it to be the best it can be. Despite what your intentions may have been, not only may your execution have been poor, but the intentions themselves may lack merit. What is most interesting about your work is not always what you assumed. Sometimes you have to do what is right for the story, not your ego.  

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

How To Critique Someone's Writing

“A brave man is a man who dares to look the Devil in the face and tell him he is a Devil.”—James A. Garfield

Writers need help. Its hard to see your work for what it is. But a bad critique can make you confused and miserable, and the vapid reassurance of a pat on the back can be worse than no critique at all, leaving you without any sense of direction, more uncertain about your writing than when you handed it out, because you know it's not as good as you want it to be, but can't figure out why.

When you sit down to talk with someone about their work, try this:

1. A brief description of the story. One or two sentences free of evaluation. This can be difficult with poetry or novels that resist a concise summary, but your impression of the work is sufficient. This is a conjuring trick. It draws a shape around you and the writer in the form of their story and says, we're starting. It also gives the writer your snapshot of what they've written, which hopefully they recognize.

Ex: “This is a moody piece, mostly about a young woman with a troubled past. Older now, and perhaps stronger, she returns home for her mother's funeral, confronting the demons of her family and former relations.”

2. Tell them what they did well. Anyone who gives you their work is looking for validation, even if they swear they want you to tear their work apart, so validate their good work. This is not a matter of what you liked, though your preferences are worth discussing.  The reason you found something effective is a far more valuable insight. Help the writer see where their strengths are. This can be difficult because you may have to set context aside, but if the ending of the story, screenplay, or poem seemed like a real ending, tell them so. Do this every time, even if you're reading a revision for the third time. Hopefully you'll have more good things to say each revision.

The goal is to coax the witter into lowering their defenses, and helps put them in a mindset to participate in the critique rather than brace for it. You're not trying to hurt them. If they've done anything well, there's hope.

3. Highlight problems and pose questions. This is the real meat of the critique, and will likely take the most time because it lends itself to discussion. Keep in mind you don't have to diagnose the writer's work with surgical precision, nor do you have to have the remedy for the problems you find. You're only trying to help someone understand their work and figure out where, if not how, to begin improving it. If you do have suggestions, by all means, offer them. You might consider making a list of the biggest issues in the work, and work into the details from each of those.

When posing questions, do not ask the writer what they were trying to do, or meant by a particular passage without first telling them what you thought based on what they wrote. If you don't know what to think, try to describe what about the given passage defeated you.

Trace your experience as a reader. Show the writer where the story and their writing went astray for you in contrast to where it was tracking well. This is valuable information. You don't have to walk them step by step through their entire story. The longer the work, the more taxing this would be. Keep to the broader strokes. What you leave out, they should be able to pick up based on your conversation and their freshly marked manuscript.

4. List bad habits to watch out for going forward. Just as you drew the writer's attention to their successes, point out the reoccurring weaknesses. You'll undoubtedly touch on these as you go through the story, but it's valuable to reiterate.

5. Final summation / marching orders. For any writer, dealing with the pros and cons of their work can be a taxing experience. Help send them on their way by reminding them of the strengths of the work and underscoring the major aspects you feel (and hopefully the writer agrees) they need to develop. This should take no more than a few minutes. Thirty seconds if you can help it.

At last, hand the manuscript back, tell the desperate fool, “Good riddance,” and wash your hands of them. Or thank them for looking to you for guidance. Whichever seems more appropriate based on their reception of your critique.