Friday, December 14, 2007

Successful Critique

Finding the right critique group and partners can enhance your writing skills. Somehow I’ve managed to hit the lottery on both counts. I’m very thankful for that. And I’d like to share a few hints on what’s worked for me (though one of my critique partners would cringe at my starting a sentence with ‘And’). That’s what good critique partners do—force you to look at your bad habits. Once upon a time a sheet of dos and don’ts was passed out in our group (Lesser North Texas Writers—run by Benign Dictator, Carol Woods, Thursday nights at 7pm at B&N Park & Preston). I’m not sure if everyone read the list, but I’ve tried to pay attention. I’d like to share some pointers here. But, as with parenting advice, the people who really need to heed this either won’t read it or won’t think it applies to them.

Group Critique

First, find the right group or create your own. Find serious writers who have no agenda other than honing their craft (well, and maybe getting published). How do you find a group? Attend the Writer’s Guild of Texas meetings (every third Monday at the Richardson Library-7pm), visit online writer’s loops and websites, join the Writer’s League of Texas, or ask one of your writer friends how they found their group.

Bring a reasonable amount of pages to read. Every group has their own guidelines, but in ours, ten pages seems to be a good number, fifteen is pushing it. Read slowly and clearly (do as I say, not as I do!)

When the writer is being critiqued, the writer does not respond (unless to ask for clarification). This is a tough one. You want to jump in and say, “No, that’s not what I meant. It’s brilliant because THIS is what I meant.” If more than one person is confused by what you meant, you haven’t done your job. Period. Take the advice and when the person finishes talking say, “Thank you, I’ll work on how to say that better.”

Focus on what’s right as well as what’s wrong. No, you don’t have to drivel out fluff. But let the writer know if something worked. This serves two purposes: Pushes the writer to write more of the same brilliance and to not cut the best parts out. And try not to be hurtful (oops, I meant: Try not to be hurtful). “I was bored to tears” is not productive. “The reader needs more tension to stay in the story” is a kinder way of saying almost the same thing, but with advice on what’s missing. As Donald Maass says, “Include tension on every page.”

Unless it’s a rare occurrence, don’t show up, read your work and then leave before others have read theirs. Seems logical right? Nope, I’ve seen it happen. It’s perfectly acceptable to show up, NOT read, and leave early. In fact, it’s unusual, but actually very generous to give to your group and not expect anything back.

After you’ve been in a group for a while, you’ll know whose advice you trust and whose you don’t. This is not to say that you only listen to people who love your writing. Or that you discount someone who is not a great writer (hopefully, she's still a great reader). You can learn as much from what is not being written well as what is. (Now, that sentence needs work!).

One on One Critique

First, find the right partner(s). Find someone whose style you like (even if you don’t read the genre), who reads a lot, who is serious about writing. If you write everyday and your partner writes when they have the time, say, once a month when he’s bored, it’s not going to work.

Commit to a reasonable deadline and meet it. If something comes up, let the person know.

Devote the time and attention you would want for someone to read your work. That is, don’t do a quick read and say, “Loved it!” with no comments.

Decide how you will share your work. If you email chapters, use the track-changes feature on Word and make comments and edits right in the file. Don’t be discouraged if your pages are marked up like an F English paper. It means someone took the time to make it better. Use the comments with which you agree and consider seriously those remarks with which you don’t. (One of my partners is an English major—so I write like this now.) You’ve already found a great partner (as described above), so you know she’s not being hurtful.

Now, time for me to get back to my novel. I’ve placed that ridiculous rewrite-deadline of January 31 and need to meet it! But let me share what I think sums up the beauty of finding the right critique partner(s). One of my partners wrote to me after an agent requested my full manuscript: “I don't want to hog your glory, but I do feel vested here and I share in the joy of any success that comes your way.” How nice is that?!


pamela hammonds said...

The feeling is definitely mutual. I sometimes feel that it's a wonder I can form a sentence without checking with you and Kim first to make sure it flows well. Just when I think what I've written is brilliant, I send it to you and you make it even more so!

Anonymous said...

As someone just starting out, and coming waaaaay too late to the writer's group game, this is a terrific first read of your blog, and helpful good information. Nice to be pointed correctly instead of wandering around blindly for months (or worse, forty years. Wait a minute...). Thanks, and I'll be reading!