16 July 2011

Helping Fellow Writers – Critiquing Writing – Part 1

Now that we’ve gotten out of the cave and found a group of like-minded writers, we find a new wrinkle to smooth in our quest as a social writer. Someone handed us a copy of THEIR writing and wants us to offer our opinion.

Feeling better? Smelling salts does that to the head when you faint.

I realize that the feet don’t feel fully stable on the ground of your own writing. To now take someone else’s writing and poke its weak points doesn’t feel right. However, I have a secret for you. Finding a fault in another’s writing will help you detect faults in your own writing. You’ll be better able to identify issues. Over the next few posts, I’ll take you through critiquing another’s writing. With this post, I’ll introduce you to my thought process concerning critiques.

There must first be one ground rule placed on any critique that you do. The writing is your target, not the writer. Even the most hated of enemy asking for a critique needs to have some hope of an honest critique. So when you read anything, forget WHO gave it to you and just worry about the writing on the page before you. With that ground rule in place, let’s move on.

I have found that two situations exist where you may find yourself asked to review another’s work and give your opinion. The first situation happens at almost any time. You’ll be talking with another writer about your latest project. Your conversation partner whips out their manuscript, or portion thereof, and asks for an opinion on the spot. This may also happen at a writer’s group, at the beginning of the meeting when everyone arrives. In this situation, you won’t have time to delve deep into the story minutiae. A few quick reads of the piece and they want your answer.

The second situation contains a bit more planning concerning your time and opinion. Perhaps through email or snail mail, a fellow writer may send you a manuscript with a request to dig into it. With the writing group, you get a writing piece from a group member prior to the next meeting. Sometimes it’s a day or two, sometimes you get a week or more.  Either way, the piece is in your hand for an extended period. Now is the time to pull out resources about plot, characters, and genre to challenge the manuscript at hand.

In both cases, you want to do your best to offer the other writer insight into what they gave you, without changing the story to your style. That’s a Big Important Thought, so I’m going to repeat it.

Offer help and insight without changing the story to your style.

It’s a temptation to look at a sentence and say “That’s not how I’d word that.” However, that’s not your job as a person critiquing the manuscript. Your job is to find the rough spots, the glaring errors, the show stoppers that causes a reader or editor to slide to a stop and refuse to proceed.

Don’t be afraid to look at a piece and not find anything wrong. Honestly, a writer may hand you a story that reads like a great piece, with nothing so glaring that a spell checker wouldn’t locate it easily. It’s rare but it does happen. In that instance, tell the person! Don’t TRY to find something wrong, because then it becomes rewriting to your style.

Over the next few posts, I’ll cover the actual technique of a valuable critique. I’ll even offer a few thoughts on critiquing poetry, since poets will ask for help as much as story writers.

Just remember, your support means a stronger story for both yourself and your critique friend.

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