08 October 2011

The murderer is … the Bentley? – Critiquing Writing – Part 5

Now we’ve written the critique, we need to know how to present it to our fellow writers. If you’re working through email, it’s rather easy. Paste the text of your critique into the body of the email, perhaps attaching a file with the notes/changes directly in the document. You’ll receive a return email with questions for clarification, possibly, but not always.

It’s when you have to sit and face the other writer where things are a little different.

So far, I’ve come across a few scenarios which I’m going to mention up front, to give you an idea of what you’ll possibly face. Younger and/or inexperienced writers will be almost bouncing out of their seat in anticipation of your glowing review of their masterpiece.

Let them down easy.

They will want to defend their choices, their voice. Encourage them to reexamine the issues you spot. They may fight every comment or suggestion. Don’t feel offended. You’re offering an opinion, so they aren’t required to do anything you point out for their benefit. As long as you did your best to offer them constructive help, you’ve done your job.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the experienced writer. If a writer has received many critiques, or gone through the process a lot, they won’t seem to react to your comments. A pad of paper may sit near them, where they scribble notes about the spots you thought needed work. You’ll hear some comments, but nothing overtly like an argument. Otherwise, you receive thanks and that’s about it. These writers aren’t ignoring your advice. Assimilation of the concepts that you offered might require some thought. Perhaps you’ll receive a call or email at a later date asking about a particular comment you made on the story, seeking clarification. You might not. Everyone will react differently.

Now, let’s talk about the actual presentation.

I’ve found that most articles on writing critiques state that you want to offer a positive, then your negatives, then end with a positive. Psychology says that the last thing a person hears matters. Not always true. A bad comment will lodge in someone’s craw no matter where it’s heard.

My suggestion is to couch everything as an encouragement. Consider the attitude of the writer as well. If a writer looks tense, try to offer your comments in softer phrasings, so that they fall into cotton rather than brambles. Consider what help the writer wanted with the story. It’s a good place to start. If they gave no real instruction, start at the top of your notes, with the impressions, and work your way through your notes. As you cover important points, pause to see if you’ve explained it well or if the other writer is confused. A deeper review might be required for the other writer’s benefit.

If you don’t know the technical term for a problem, it doesn’t usually matter, except to the rule gurus. Explain what felt off and why. Sometimes just saying the phrase didn’t work for you during the reading is insight enough for the writer to look at it.

It’s a rare case, but you may have a piece that is so hard to read that you can’t. Literally, the writing just prevents your progression through the text. Don’t feel bad. It does happen. Take a breath. Organize your thoughts. Look at the writer you’ve agreed to help. Then POLITELY say that the piece needs work and why. Try to site examples to help them understand the problem.

Normally, I won’t give absolutes. Today, I’m going to repeat one I made earlier, because I feel it’s a Big Important Thought:

NEVER EVER state that a piece of writing is crap, garbage, or any other euphemism you can think of for horrible.

Imagine the fragile nature of almost any writer. Even with thick skin, when someone completely trashes a piece of writing, while still in the working state, it crushes the writer. Other writers are not our competition, or our enemies. They are our union brothers and sisters. They are compatriots in the march through the gates of publishing. It’s better for us to work with them to better everyone, than to crush someone away from the game.

As another thought, Karma has a way of coming back and crushing your spirit the same way, whether you believe in Karma or not.

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