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Critiquing The "Write" Way

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I figured this would be the best place to go for this topic, since I am seeing a kind of buzz around the exchange. So, for those who are relatively new to critiquing, I figured some advice should be in order. (I'd link to Dean W. Smith's blog/book, but I don't know the address to do so.)

Though I state these are rules, they are not. They are merely a loose idea of what I have found works for me to make a good critique.

Do not just tell the author what they are doing wrong. Tell the author what they are doing right as well.

This is quite often a rule I used in the writing center that I worked at. You can't just tell the author/writer what they are doing wrong. This will lead to some people believing they are either not good at writing or junk a decent piece of work which is still in development. This is why I go by the "Good News, Bad News" way of doing critiques. This way, the author/writer can actually see what they did right that I loved and what they did wrong that I think need to be fixed. I know Dean W. Smith also states this in his primer...tell them what they did right.

Be constructive, not critical.

I used to mentor tutors in the writing center and this was one of the hardest things they had to learn when giving a critique of another person's work. It's easy to say what's wrong, that's for sure. However, you need to be constructive afterwards. This helps the author/writer to build a useful tool kit to use when they write the next draft as well as when they're revising this draft. Just telling me, "Hey, your dialogue didn't work for me," doesn't tell me why it was that way or how I could fix it. Speaking of how to fix things...

Be directive, but not too directive.

You cannot tell the author/writer how to write his story. Period. End of story. Fin. Doing that is now inserting your voice into his work (and you might as well put your name on the by-line next to his).

So, you may be asking now, "Well, how am I going to show them how to fix it?"

Well, there is an answer. In a face-to-face critique, it's easier to follow the Socratic method (asking leading questions to get the author to understand the way to fix the dialogue). However, in an online critique, you miss this face-to-face socratic chance (since a question online can lead to several answers and a ton of e-mails massing over several weeks). Therefore, you need to be a bit more directive, but not too much. Tell the author/writer a technique on how to fix the work, not how to fix the whole thing.

For example: Some of your dialogue didn't work for me. It seemed a bit awkward and almost a bit too poetic. One thing you may want to consider is take the dialogue and put it into a script format. Then, get a bunch of your friends together and read the dialogue aloud. I've found that helps me whenever I need to fix my dialogue.

In that statement, I accomplished (1) what I saw as a problem and (3) how to fix it.

I know what you're saying. "Where's number 2?"

Give an example of the reader's problem.

Yes, that's number 2. It's best to give the reader an example of what the problem looks like. You can't say to a mechanic "Hey, my engine's sounding funny." and have him tell you "Well, it's the starter coupling." You're going to be a bit curious where the starter coupling is at, aren't you? Same thing with critiquing. At least give the reader an example of where he/she made the mistake. This helps them visualize where the problem is at and where they have made the mistake again in their work.

And if you think it's a one time instance, well...

An author will make the same mistake multiple times.

Yes, an author will make a mistake multiple times in the story. This is why critiquing/First Readers are used. They spot the things authors/writers cannot see when they write a story. I mention in Rule 4 to give an example so they can learn to see these mistakes in drafting and revision to correct them.


Do not list all the times a writer made the mistake.[/quote]

As authors, we have learned not to repeat sentences over and over again in close proximity. Why? Because it shows you don't trust the reader. The same way, you cannot list all the instances of when a writer made a mistake (or what you see as a mistake). You need to trust the author to make the right decisions and, through your advice, learn how to correct the mistake their way.

And the words "their way" are very important...

[quote="Rule No. 6":259qyx59]Re"graft," don't redraft.

This rule is mostly for authors/writers after they have received a critique.

This is the largest contention point I have with Dean W. Smith. Smith states he only does three drafts and if the third draft does't work, he tosses it and starts from scratch. I, personally, see that as a waste. Reason being: I submitted a work to Baen's Bar once that wasn't selling to see what editors could be seeing as problems. When I got back their critiques, I found out not only the areas where I needed to fix were at, but also the areas which were good. To use an old phrase, "Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater." Yes, there will be problem areas people will see. But, they also read good portions of your story they told you about. (I explain this in greater detail on my blog linked below, but I will provide you with a condensed version).

Step 1 - Delete the problem area. Does the story still work? If not, proceed to step 2.
Step 2 - Rewrite the area. Does the story still work? If not, proceed to step 1.

I do agree with Dean W. Smith in the fact that many authors/writers use the critical side of their brain in revision. However, editors will use the critical side of their brain when they read your story to see if it will sell. The critical side of the brain lets you know where you need to buff out the scratches and places where the wax is heavy. This is where the advice another author gives you on how to fix this hang-up comes in handy. You are, therefore, using a different method and the creative side of your brain to come up with a solution for the critical side of the brain.

Be kind, please rewind.

Yes, I know, it's kind of corny, but when I was working in the writing center, we had to fill out reports on each session. In these reports, we had to SUMARIZE what we talked about and the good/bad things we worked on. Therefore, at the end of a critique, be sure to sumarize and hit the highlights. This helps people see the general problem in a clearer light and recover what was said better when they do revise.

The Golden Rule.

Lemme guess. You're probably asking "What the heck is the Golden Rule?" It's as follows: "Do unto others as they would do unto you." Essentially, critique others as you would want to be critiqued. If you are going to be rude, undescriptive, and unhelpful, then when you have a critique done by them, they will most likely be the same way (even if they see something major that causes your story to fall apart). Be as gentle and as helpful as you can be. You'll find it will make all the difference.

Experience means nothing.

Dean W. Smith would probably be enraged when I say this, but it is true. Experience means nothing. My First Reader is not a writer at all...he's a Sheriff's Deputy. But, he's honest about what he would like to see out of the story. I asked him if he wanted to be a writer and he said he had no interest. But, his advice helps me out immensely. And he's below me on experience level. This is because what we see as working for me someone else AT or even ABOVE my level may see as working for me to. This is why experience means nothing. This method merely points out where a reader's hang-ups are at and how you would fix it. People with more experience can therefore share what they have learned to those who are younger authors. And people who are more experienced can also learn different techniques from what younger authors are doing that they like. It's a win-win situation.

There are no rules.

"Wait, we just went through 9 rules just to get to this? What the..."

Look, as I said before, these are merely loose guidelines to what I use in my critiquing process. You may have something else that works for you. Or, as an author/writer, you may not agree with what the reader commented on. That's why I say "There are no rules." Ultimately, it is the author's decision of what to take to heart and what to stand firm on. And, for readers, this is merely a general idea on how to give a good critique. You may have something else you do that works for you, just like an author. Go with it.

Michael Beers
Blog: Write To Live
Latest Out: Detroit Ex Nihilo at AESciFi
Now Available: Zion in For All Eternity: Tales of the Seven Deadly Sins (Dark Opus Press)

Topic starter Posted : July 9, 2011 4:32 am