The Art of Critique
Lately I’ve been asked to beta read and critique for a number of writers in quite a few genres, not all of which I am familiar with.
Beta reading is rarely done by professional editors (unless you happen to be personal friends with some) but is often done by other people with an interest in writing or reading.
Critiques similarly may be done by people well published, unpublished, or who are primarily readers not writers or a bit of both.
When picking someone to critique you need to think about what it is you are looking for? That will help you find a good match.
I’m trying to do the best I can to give people feedback that will help them make their work shine and say what they want it to say. I consider myself both a writer and a reader with a high level of training in written and spoken communication.
To do these critiques I am looking deeply into the magic of their story and divining its capacity and then having to work out from my point of view is it at full capacity or could it do more. I want them to do well, to succeed.
I’ve experienced plenty of critique, from writing groups in community settings and at a university level, from lecturers, teachers, family members and creatives friends as well as through telling stories to an audience (children are exceedingly honest if they are enjoying or hating something!)
Sometimes it’s left me astounded and happy at how much my work develops and other times it has made me want to never go to that class again as I feel demoralised. I have learnt to have a pretty thick skin now, roll with the punches and only take on board what helps build my skill and confidence in writing, as well as to have a truer empathy with readers. ‘It’s all about the readers,’ in the end is it not? Or is it? [Think writing for therapy.]
There’s something unique about people reading early or unfolding drafts of work and more polished sections in small portions and I’m discovering both the strengths and pitfalls of this.
Showing early drafts of work can lead to critiquers focusing on elements of your writing you would normally iron out, but it can also put you on a pathway that is more constructive for your story and knock out some bad habits. It’s a catch 22 situation, do I show it now and get some feedback or do I wait until I have it more fully polished and advanced. I think this is one of those case-by-case basis decisions; I’m still making my mind up about whether this is a helpful thing to do.
I once showed a film for early critique and it was savaged, but when the whole film was finished everyone loved it! It was a tricky thing to go through as I could have probably have held off and shown a stronger later draft but was so keen to get feedback a mentor said to me, ‘June you should have held onto that just a little longer.’ However I received some essential information in that early draft that I would have found so hard to find out at the end of the process.
I’ve found showing drafts of recent picture books as been massively helpful as I am so new to this genre. After three picture books taken through around 4 drafts, I am now getting the hang of the genre and hopefully future works held up for critique will be much better the first time around.
As I observe the way others critique I think about their techniques and styles and what I love in what they do.
These are my conclusions.
As a receiver the most rewarding critiques are those that:
1. Start with something or more than one thing the person loves in the writing (be sincere) letting you know you are on the right track with those elments
2.Give constructive and specific suggestions on how to improve that you can immediately see making the story stronger
3. Find small errors of any kinds that you might unintentionly be making a lot and helps you to eradicate them (but doesn’t dwell on this.)
4. Suggests specific parts where the story could be expanded or cut back
5. Let you know what they want to know as a reader about the story and if you are not giving them enough or giving them too much.
In giving a critique I’d like to do for others as they do for me (so all of the above applies), but in addition to this I want to:
1. Understand the genre they are writing so I can see how they are going with fulfilling conventions in that genre, or how well or brilliantly they are breaking the mould.
2. Suggest some cool authors writing in a similar way or treating the same subject in a different way to inspire them. This is because sometimes they could innovate and experiment with things like point of view and seeing an example of this would broaden their horizons. The beauty of this is that exemplar text does this, not you the critiquer.
3. If I am confused by anything make sure I let them know and they need to find out if other readers are confused by the same things. If lots of us are they really need to urgently fix the text so it does precisely what they want it too. There’s no point being able to tell me as a reader what your text does because you won’t be there to talk to the reader. You have to do it on the page.
4. Guide books on Traditional Grammar can be helpful, as can Strunk and White but also handbooks and posts in the genre help both critiquer and reviewer draw on specialists in the area to both give and receive their critiques in a way that is constructive. For instance in speech grammar rules often have to be broken because people do not speak in a grammatically correct way.
Having a very grammatically correct character could be a clear way of identifying them for the reader as a certain kind of person. Things like contractions in speech are often needed a lot in fiction (can’t for cannot, don’t for do not) and so you have to forget what you have been told in other forms of writing, such as essay writing. In school and university essays I know I was told avoid them.
I have to admit I don’t find grammar and formatting nazis easy to get along with. But this is only if that’s all they ever speak about and don’t do any of the above things that I’ve mentioned. If the story is rollicking along these things can be well and truly ironed out and in my experience often quite quickly without giving a writer the third degree on it, but if you find a typographical, a missing word, or a piece of punctuation that has altered the meaning of what I want to say in a piece of work I’ll love you for it.
This is possibly my poetry background where formatting and grammar can often be more free flowing, but which again can have conventions in set forms that you have to follow or the work is not crafted properly.
In all writing, there is both the technique and the spirit of the story.
Writers balance themselves delicately between technique and content in such a way as to attract readers beyond themselves into what is hopefully a lifelong relationship.
(c) June Perkins. This first appeared on earlier this month Pearlz Dreaming