Friday, January 29, 2010

Writing a Critique

I have covered how to accept a critique or criticism. Now, it is time to learn the art of writing a critique. This is a skill that many writers take for granted. There is a wealth of things that you can learn from taking the time to review other works that are not of your making.

Before we begin on the methods of how to write a critique, I am going to try to impress upon you the value of critiquing as I have experienced. This may not be truth for everyone. These are my experiences. At the end of this blog post, I will provide a wealth of information on what others think. For now, I will pursue my own thoughts and opinions.

1: The Value of the Skill

In order to critique, you must be a critic. You must look at writing with a new eye and judge every word. Every word must bear value and weight. The story must retain the simplified elegance that intrigues and captures.

If you can write a good critique for others, you are well on your way to being able to critique your own words. This is the true value of the skill.

When you see errors in other works, you will begin to identify those same errors in your own works. This is another added value of the skill.

When you correct grammar in someones work, you will begin to see how your own grammar is flawed. If you find a sentence that does not flow well, you may even search google to find out why it does not flow well, in efforts to teach the person you are critiquing. In turn, you learn a great deal more of the craft that you would if you had not taken the time to help someone else out.

As if these things were not benefit enough, there is a sheer, simple joy in sitting down and reading. You can see the starts of a story blooming before your eyes. If you are so fortunate, you can follow the story's progress towards a publisher. Should that great day come where that story is then published, you can bask in the glow of knowing you had helped that author along the way in some form or another.

To me, there is great value to the skill, and great value to the act of doing a critique or edit. There are days I sometimes wish to quit writing and become an editor just so that I can enjoy these benefits day to day. It would not be a bad life. However, I love telling stories even more than I love editing.

2: The lasting effect on others

When people set out to write a critique, it is often forgotten the lasting consequences of their critique on writers. Writers are often flighty folk who wear their heart on their sleeves. Even the most thick skinned of us fail at keeping some particularly stinging critiques from temporally crushing hopes.

In the worst of cases, these temporary emotions turn into permanent scars.

It saddens me to even acknowledge that I know a few former writers who have quit because of a critique written in such a way where it was meant to bring harm to the writer.

When you write a critique, you are supposed to be helping the person, not beating them down and crushing their hopes. Their words are not personal to you. Do not personally attack someone because of what they have written.

On the flip side of the coin, a writer *does* need to make efforts to believe that the critique is not a personal attack.

Karma comes and it goes. I hope for your sake you're on the right side of karma. A person who purposefully writes a hateful critique tends to get a slap to the face later down the road.

3: How best to benefit from writing a critique -- both as a receiver and a giver of critiques.

Like I mentioned in point #1, you benefit from writing a critique almost as much as the person who is receiving said critique. However, I find that I have to write a critique in a certain method in order to make the most of having written the critique.

I would like to call this the top ten list on things you should remember when critiquing.

While I often use 'you' in these points, please note that this is how *I* handle critiques when I write them.

First, I must find both the good with the bad. Finding the good may be harder in some pieces for others, but it forces me to focus and dig deeper into the point of the story. The same may be true for finding the bad in particularly good stories. It is sometimes actually harder to find 'bad' things about a good story than it is to find good things about what you view as a 'bad' one.

Second, you must learn diplomacy. You are allowed to be opinionated. You are allowed to be honest. However, learn to watch your mouth. I am opinionated, honest and stubborn all in one nice little package. That does not give me the right to Lord over someone as if their work is inferior to mine. There will always be someone more talented than you at writing in some form or another. You are critiquing to help someone else -- as well as yourself -- improve at writing. You are not critiquing to get a happy-good feeling. It will not kill you to be kind. It just means it may take a little longer to write that critique.

Third, you must take care with your words. This is not the same as diplomacy. If you are writing a critique on someone's writing, are they really going to take you seriously if you write: "Nice werk u did great job. U haz mad skillzors! Ur grammar here doesnt seem rite. Plz fix!"

Oh dear heavens, it hurt me just writing that. Unfortunately, I've seen it. And it made bits of my soul cry in agony. If I am critiquing someone, I should be writing at the best of my ability. The author I am writing the critique for deserves that much.

Fourth, do not waste their time. The time of an editor, agent and publisher is precious. When you submit to them, we do not wish to waste their time. The same applies in reverse. When you are critiquing, don't waste your time and do not waste theirs. This time is better spent correcting errors, critiquing new works, and improving yourself as an author.

Fifth, it takes one million bad words to write a good one. Writing a critique is writing. Ever word, every effort that you put in, goes towards improving your art at the craft. When you find a section of a story that seems 'off' or 'wrong' to you, try your hand at rewriting a suggestion for them. This allows you to practice your craft. At the same time, you may be able to help them overcome their issues with that section.

Sixth, confirm the use of your grammar before you lecture. If you spot a grammar error, hit google or another reference site and confirm that what you *think* is correct actually *is* correct. This will go a long way towards reinforcing your skills at the written craft without guiding anyone astray by accident.

Seventh, accept that they may not take your advice. A writer will often reply to a critique and thank you for the work you have done for them. Sometimes they will be rude and will not. However, accept the bitter fact that your advice is just that: it is advice that they can choose whether to accept or not.

Eighth, unless you are a paid editor, do not expect any favors (or cash) in return. Writers can be temper mental creatures. When you write a critique, do not expect anything in return except for what you learned as you tried to write the critique. If you get a critique in return of your own writing, be happy. Do not expect the same amount of work you put into your critique from them, however. This sets you up for being bitter in the end.

Ninth, do not hold a manuscript or story hostage. It concerns me that I feel the need to mention this. However, when you are writing a critique for someone, they are putting their trust in you not to expose their manuscript to harm. Treat it as you would their own. Do not steal from them, do not post your comments on public forums unless that is what they desire. The benefit to this is knowing not to make the mistake before you make it.

Finally, approach every story with an open mind. Critique genres that you are not used to critiquing. Explore new worlds. If you are a fantasy author, reading and critiquing a romance can be extremely valuable to you. After all, romance and love are emotions that people feel and experience. Why should your characters be any different? Exposing yourself to new things is never a bad thing. Your critiques of these genres may not be as useful at first, but they can make a significant difference to your own writing. Even if your critique lacks the sparkle of experts of those genres, the person receiving the critique will most likely respect the effort that you put into critiquing their manuscript.

4: How to Write a Critique

Onto the meat of this post. How exactly should one write a critique?

There are so many different ways to write a critique that I do not dare even try to go into them all. That is what the handy dandy list of critiquing methods and commentary from others at the bottom of this post is for.

What I will do is explain how I write a critique. In order to do this, I will expose you to a rough draft sampling of my epic fantasy piece. It is a small sampling which has not seen much sunlight or edits.

I hope you enjoy watching me tear new holes into myself critiquing my own writing. I didn't think to ask for a volunteer for a small passage of their work. The passage I have selected is one of my favorites. It was an experiment with writing about someones reaction to sudden deaths of those he knew. It was meant to set the tone for future parts of the novel as well. I apologize for the font differences.. Blogger is making fun of me as I try to do this. :(

All the background that you need is that a blizzard swept through a village with an environment rather similar to the tropics. I will put my self critiques in bold italics for easy spotting.

They continued their search. The brothers investigated each home with a detachment that Bion could not share. Every home told a different tale of death. Some were like Petrin’s, a calm release into a sleep that they would never awaken from. The first five homes they searched told that same tale.

I need to show Bion's lack of detachment, as well as the brothers' detachment rather than telling you about it. Things like, "No emotion showed on the brothers' faces as they peered into the ruins of the homes." should be added. A less 'fact by fact' tone needs to be taken with this paragraph to give it a deeper sense of being there.

It was the sixth that revealed the true horror of the killing cold.

Bion had gathered the courage to be the first to enter the home. In part, it was due to the fact that he was not intimately familiar with the couple who lived there. Riran and Marrany had been reclusive, quiet people. They had shown kindness to their neighbours, but respected distance and privacy. While older than Bion’s twenty four spans, they had not yet had children.

Show vs Tell, shame on me! (Egads, I did a lot of telling... I want to go pick a different section now. Mommy!)

Direct thought would be a good addition. For example,

I can do this, Bion straightened as he tentatively strode towards the door of Riran and Marrany's home. They do not have children. I do not know them well. This cannot hurt me.

Or so he hoped. Guilt at invading the privacy they had so carefully maintained warred with concern. Could they, unlike the others before them, still be alive?

Riran’s body lay close to the door. His limbs were sprawled, as though he had thrashed on the floor as he died. Unlike the others, his eyes were wide open in horror, ice crusting over most of his face. The roof had all but collapsed. Snow had fallen into the home, dusting Riran’s body.

I should probably describe wind sweeping in from the open roof above, blown snow drifting over the corpse rather than "the roof had all but collapsed..."

Bion stepped over the body, eyes searching the room.

Eyes searching the room is so cliche. Be gone, cliche! Be gone!

If Riran’s body had been disturbing, Marrany’s was grosteque. She had died naked, her hands clawing at the window as though she sought escape. Blood had frozen on her nails from where she had tried to claw through the wood and had only succeeded in tearing her fingers. Her body was pressed tight to the wall, one hand still clutching at the window sill above her head.

I like this paragraph. I will need to think on whether or not I wish to change it. At this moment in time, I do not.

Bile rose in Bion’s throat. He had enough dignity to make it outside before vomiting beside the house. His body shook from shock and cold. His vision blurred as he knelt in the snow. His hands clenched into fists, his breath coming in short, ragged gasps.

“We can stop,” Halens’ voice lacked all smugness, the short man opting for sympathy.

Change it to, "Halens' voice lacked his typical, high handed smugness. Scratch opting for... it is revealed in the following dialogue.

“I don’t want your sympathy,” Bion violently shook his head and forced himself back to his feet. Wiping his mouth on the back of his glove, he turned back towards the home in steely determination. “I’m not the one who is dead.”

I like Bion's reply here. It really shows a change of personality. He comes across very meek until this point. This is when the character starts standing up for himself.

It is harder to critique yourself than it is to critique someone else. I suggest you try to practice on yourself, as I have done here. You will learn a lot. If you can roleplay it better than I, talking to the author as if they were not you, you may be able to go far with it!

I will add the good with the bad as I go through the story. I add line edits, just as I did here. However, I make a point to mention brad points and *good* things at the *end* of the critique, and a disclaimer that I mean to make no offense.

That is my critiquing style in a nutshell.

Onto the resources! More resources are welcomed. If you know of any, please add a comment and I will edit them into this post.

On Writing Critiques:
Writing World - Links
Creativity Portal
Suite 101 Article
Help with Writing Critiques
Experience Festival - Writing Critiques

Critique Groups:
Critique Circle
Critters Writing Workshop
Internet Writing Workshop

1 comment:

  1. I have to agree; the more critiquing of others' work I do, the better my own becomes.