Since last week’s post, James and I returned our critiques to their rightful owners.
Again, I learned a great deal about my writing—and how to improve it—from James’s astute observations. Specific lessons will come in a future post: first, it’s important to lay the foundation and explain the processes which have proven most effective both to the writer and the one critiquing.
A critique is not a review. Whereas a review explores the general sense of a story or novel, a critique concentrates on the inner workings, the how’s and why’s a particular piece works or not. Consider it this way:
You want to sell your family vehicle, so you pen a description:
1971 VW Camper Van, sleeps 4, a lot of storage, roof rack, kitchenette table.
That’s the review—general and vague.
The critique may go something like this, with pictures:
1971 VW Camper Van, only 10k on rebuilt engine, runs great, new battery and alternator, recently tuned up with oil change, 5 like-new tires, tow hitch.
In the literary sense, a review deals with the reviewer’s opinion if you should read the story or novel, whereas a critique considers the “particulars,” the nuts and bolts of prose and purpose.
The job of the critique is not the same as that of an editor, though there may exist an overlap. Nor is a critique what you would ask of a Beta Reader—more like the reviewer mentioned earlier, except without the goal to convince an audience either way.
A critique is not criticism, even though each is derived from the same root word: criticism is most often thought to be negative (though not necessarily), whereas a critique is affected by an attitude of assistance.
The creator may “feel” items pointed out are negative, but should refrain from an emotional attachment. Instead, face suggestions within an analytical framework—the point of critiquing (like self-editing) and being critiqued, deals with the separation of the two mindsets. It takes practice to improve.
Nonetheless, know this at the outset: being critiqued is rejection’s first cousin.
Critiques hurt. At times it resembles having your heart broken, complete with phases of embarrassment, anger, confusion, and doubt. The pain eases in time, and if we learn from the experience, we can become better writers, better lovers and partners, and the pain is substantiated by improved future endeavors.
James Scott Bell, when referencing how to handle rejection, says to put on the Rhino Skin. Don’t allow the pain to conquer the will to write, to improve, to reach the maximum level of your abilities. By donning the Rhino Skin, you give yourself a gift—the ability to learn.
Honesty is key: gentle, never harsh. Praise where a description works or a good bit of characterization helps influence the protagonist’s motives and goals; conversely, correcting poor grammar, a disruptive verb tense, or pointing out a viewpoint switch is part of the critiquing purpose, and thoughtful suggestions assist the writer.
When I get a portion of James’s novel, I read it through to get the story flow. Only brief notes about plot questions initially concern me.
Secondly I go through the entire manuscript word-by-word, line-by-line, correcting grammatical and contextual errors. This process is the meat and potatoes of the critique, and the phase taking the most time. I estimate to properly critique 30,000 words takes between 4-6 hours.
It is time well spent.
The third stage incorporates both the first two by editing individual notes I made to guarantee suggestions are clear and concise, and that I am not nit-picking.
Not nit-picking is a matter of attitude, one that needs to be approached with care. Remember that in the same way you agonize over word choice and syntax in your writing, so does the person whose story you are helping improve. Here I would add that it’s unwise to critique a first draft, that too-raw version.
When I finish the three phases of the critique, I write a synopsis of what worked and what didn’t as a whole. Rather than pointing out each passive verb, I highlight a few in the manuscript and then comment in the synopsis what I viewed as an overuse of passive voice (or repeated phrases, words, etc.). In this way, I concentrate on problems of tension (or lack thereof), awkward phraseology, or the use of nouns and pronouns to improve the story’s readability.
Writing, and therefore critiquing, requires discipline and a focus on the rules of the craft, but each writer has their own style and voice. As the one performing the critique, take care to not attack the intended voice.
A critiques’ purpose is to help the writer improve; there is no place for ego or the black and white of right and wrong. You will not correct all the things mentioned in your manuscript, nor will they.
You have undertaken this task to help the writer concentrate on what you perceive as shortcomings—phrases that stopped you or did not seem consistent with the rest of the prose— and to improve your own editing skills.
A word of caution: Do not undertake to critique a writing style or genre you are unfamiliar with; this does an injustice to the writer, and you want more for them.
Next post will detail a few specific suggestions James made to my manuscript.
See you on the next page,
As promised, here are a few links to critique groups.
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