13 August 2011

The Extended Critique – Critiquing Writing – Part 3

Your critique skills are growing stronger, grasshopper. Now that we’ve developed the speedy critique, it’s time for the critique that takes time. Someone gives you a manuscript and asks for your opinion, with more than a day to tear the document apart.

Quit rubbing your hands together. This isn’t time for you to play Evil Editor.

As with the quick critique, I’m recommending the spare paper to make notes on as you go. If you work better with the manuscript on the screen, open a second file to make your notes. The quick critique could probably fit all its notes on one page. The longer critique could easily span multiple pages, depending on what you find. You might be putting more explanation on the page than you did before, as well. So be prepared for the extent of the work.

Also for this type of critique, if you have any form of writing library, I’d gather it together so you can reference their concepts. I’ll explain why as we go through the steps.

Okay, we’ve gathered our supplies, so let’s get to work.

Step One: Read the story. If you’re comfortable with it, read it aloud.  Make notes on the spare paper about your initial impressions. Because you will be doing so much more with this critique, feel free to leave this section sparse.

Step Two: Second reading. This reading goes looking for the glaring show stoppers. A show stopper of this nature jumps off the page and grabs you. It won’t let you go. It could show up as grammar and sentence structure, poorly created or one dimensional characters, or any of a large number of things.  I can’t say more other than you’ll know what I mean when you spot it.

The problem may be so bad that it hurts even your inner editor. (It’s amusing watching that little creep curl into a ball, I know.) Make notes on each find, including a mark of some form within the manuscript, if the author permits it. Personally, I’d use a pencil to mark a physical document, in case a question early in the document gets answered later, so you can erase. If you’re working on screen, make sure you highlight in a different color, to make your notes stand out from their base text.

Now that we have hacked the surface issues, let’s see what’s below the surface.

Step Three: Third reading. Seek plot holes, character glitches, story problems.

Your eyes may start to cross from looking at the same story by now, but the extra readings become necessary. You needed to break through your reader’s eye to the editor’s eye, and as a writer, it sometimes takes an extra pass or two for that to happen. If you are writing a few of these in a day, once the first is complete, the subsequent might take less passes.

Plot holes come in two forms, really. Some appear in the show stoppers section. If they do, don’t mention them twice. It won’t help your fellow writer.  Others will be smaller, less obvious. Maybe early in the story, the main character picks up a 9-millimeter semi auto pistol, but in scene three, it’s a Colt 45 revolver. (I exaggerate, but it’s possible.) In both cases, the character still had a gun. Readers will pick on a small detail like this and poke holes in the story because of it. They will count shots taken, compared the count to the gun and its capacity. It affects the rest of their view of the story. So catching these before they get to print is important.

A character glitch might come from something about the character’s motivation. Perhaps the character willingly bashed the heads of puppies for three pages with spiteful glee. However, the henchman offering a puppy for such treatment doesn’t get a splash of puppy brains. The main character ignores the puppy. Did the writer explain the reason for the change of heart? If not, you’ve found a glitch. 

A change in the character’s name also counts as a glitch. If the author refers to a character as Joe for five pages, then you find him called George, note it. The writer may have changed names mid creation, but they never went back to make the change in the rest of the document.

While I don’t condone it, grammar errors are found during this pass.  Extra or missing punctuation, missing objects of verbs, passive sentence structures all get mentions here. Some of these may occur higher on the list of your critique checklist. A run-on sentence, to me, is a show stopper. To others, it could fall down to the third reading. Mostly, grammar is not part of the critique process unless you’re a final reader before the publisher or agent gets their hands on it.  Depending on what version of the draft the writer handed to you, some of these grammar issues may change with the next edit pass.

I’m going to repeat a Big Important Thought here. Once a problem is noted, try not to repeat your find multiple times. The harp is a beautiful instrument, but not when reviewing the writing of another.

Step Four: If you want to make one more reading, it’s done here. Most people I’ve spoken with tend to catch so much with the first three readings, they don’t need the fourth reading to know what they still have awaiting a comment.

This last read is a fine tuning read, beyond all the rest.  Check for sentences that just don’t feel right. Again, I can’t tell you exactly how to spot these sentences, you will just know.  Perhaps it’s a piece of dialogue that catches you just the wrong way. A turn of phrase that dates the manuscript might be worth a note as well. If you read it aloud earlier, find those bumpy spots in the reading. Read them aloud again, making notes on where you hit the pothole.

With your notes in hand, it’s time to return to the writer who asked for help. In a future post, I’ll cover the process of presenting a critique.  Just remember that an extended critique will take more time to review than a quick review. This isn’t a problem, but be sure to allow for the additional time. Remember to encourage.

With these two posts, I’ve offered thoughts on examining a short story or article. I’ve placed the points of order in how I go through the writing. As a matter of course, feel free to rearrange as is comfortable for your work process.

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