Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lessons in Critiquing

First off I feel compelled to state the temperature, which proves I’m a true Saskatchewian because we comment on the weather frequently in this part of the world. It is minus thirty-one degrees Celsius, minus forty-one with the wind chill. I can’t take it ANYMORE! Thank goodness for Chase and Lily (hero and heroine in my wip), writing exercises ;), and this blog because otherwise I don’t know what would happen to the last of my rapidly receding good humor. Is it ever going to WARM UP?

My apologies on the mini-rant, now on to writerly things.

At the last Saskatchewan Romance Writers (SRW) meeting we discussed critiquing portions of each other’s work. I’ve come to understand how important critiquing is to a writer’s work and how valuable a service it is to provide to a fellow writer. Feedback on your writing is invaluable when given correctly.

I have recently become a frequent visitor at Miss Snark’s First Victim and Flogging the Quill. Both blogs create an opportunity for writers to submit portions of their work that are then open to comments from readers and the blog’s founders. I’ve learned a lot about what needs to happen on that all important first page thanks to those brave posters. The commenters are by and large positive and honest. If someone slips up and posts a comment that is less then positive the blog bosses are quick to step in, restate the rules and get everyone back on track.

Critiquing is something I’m interested in but have never done so I decided to do a little research on how to be an effective and positive critique partner. Here’s what I learned from researching the Internet.

Be positive. Remember the old adage ‘If you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all’? It applies to critiquing. Someone suggested starting with a positive comment and ending with a positive comment. Good point, the world already has Simon Cowell.

Honest commentary is crucial as long as it is delivered in a constructive manner. Do not write, text or IM a comment you would not say in a face-to-face meeting. Across the board, a good rule of thumb. Some of us are fragile, handle with care.

Remember you are speaking to an adult. Mutual respect is always a good thing.

Respect a writer’s voice. It is not cool to rewrite large chunks of text in your own words. A comment should never start with the words ‘I would write it like this’. Got it.

Do not pull out a magnifying glass and comment on every little thing. You are writing a critique not marking a test paper. Fortunately I don’t know enough for that to be a problem.

And finally and perhaps most importantly, ask. Is the person looking for general comments, grammar correction, or are they looking for you to be completely nit picky. I recently had a critique done and the person asked what I wanted, very wise of her, and she delivered exactly what I needed. She included lots of positive comments, pointed out weakness, corrected grammar but did not overwhelm me by commenting on every problem.
At a time when I was having trouble seeing the forest for the trees, the critique gave me a new perspective. It enabled me make changes and move forward.

“Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.” Frank A. Clark, writer

Do you enjoy being a critique partner? Any tips or advice you wish to share on critiquing? Have you had a bad critiquing experience? Good ones? Share your stories with us.


Tara Maya said...

I'm trying to find a balance between being a vapid cheerleader and saying too many harsh things which distort how I actually feel about a piece. (Generally, I crit stuff I like to begin with.)

Where I'm hopeless is trying to crit outside a genre I know well. There's nothing more useless than my telling a horror writer, "I didn't like this piece because it's too scary."

Captain Hook said...

I have been accused (sometimes) of being too harsh a critter. Blunt honesty of both the good and the bad.

When I first joined a crit group, I got a lot of useless, fluff crits at the beginning. I promised myself I would never do that to someone. As far a rewriting parts goes, I refuse to ever put something in a crit without an example. If the sentence/paragraoh is horribly weak or makes no sense, I will explain why then rewrite it to show what I mean on how to make it better. BUT I always remind them that it's just my opinion. It's their work and they are the only ones who can decidewhat's right.

And the people who ask me to crit their work know I'm a major nit-picker. If they ask me for a crit, I assume that's what they want because they know me.

I also never crit something I don't like because it comes through in my crit even if I dont' say it straight out.

Joanne Cleary said...

Wow what a great post. I am looking for a crit partner (or two) so if anyone has any ideas on where I should look, I would be most grateful.

Karen said...

Hi Tara Maya,
Great point. No point in me critiquing outside my genre when I'm still learning about my own. And it must take practice, like you say, to find your critiquing stride.

Karen said...

Mornin' Captain Hook,
Another good point. Be honest about your style and how you deliver feedback so the person knows what to expect.

Karen said...

Hi Joanne,
A place to start might be local writing groups in your area. I know there are online groups, I'm thinking here of the RWA who have online chapters. These are places you can develop relationships and find possible critique partners.

I'm sure my fellow chicks will be able to provide you with some more ideas!

Janet C. said...

Excellent post, Karen. Critiquing is a learned skill, just like writing a great novel - and to learn those skills we need to be involved (listen, read, write - like Connie said yesterday). As an ex-teacher - I critique, it's in my nature. And I love to do it - but always state that everything I say is my opinion and you must take what resonates strongly with you. If you re-write based on someone else's opinion, you lose your story AND your voice.

I'm going to jump in and suggest to Joanne that she check out RWA Online. They are an amazing group of women from around the world who band together to become better writers. They have a crit forum where you can post snippets for in-depth critiques and a section where you can request a crit partner (and there have been some amazing partnerships). You do have to be a member of RWA to join though.

Good luck finding a crit partner - and you never know, someone reading here today might get in touch.

Great post, Karen. Looking forward to more Chase over on the other blog.

Janet (who is long winded this morning)

Karen said...

Hey Janet,
Thanks for the website!

I guess its about asking for suggestions which a writer can then choose to act on or discard. I have to watch myself because I can be kind of sponge like with suggestions.

nichol said...

i'm new to your blog but i did go back and read EVERY entry - i love the whole premise !
thanks so much for this post - you've renewed my faith in fellow writers. a few years ago i joined an online group-looking for support, encouragement and some helpful advice. the people on that group fell into every pitfall you mentioned ! it was very discouraging (even just reading how they took apart the work of others ...) and i left. it's taken me two years to realize that my need to reach out to fellow writers is stronger than my fear of harsh crits. i've even gone so far as to post some of my work on a blog - thanks to hayley and you wonderful ladies for giving me that bit of encouragement i needed to jump back in ! ! !

Jana Richards said...

Hey Karen,
Great post and a very timely one for me. Janet helped me a lot with critiques on my novella. She (and other people here in Winnipeg who critiqued for me)provided me with ideas and suggestions and helped me to go deep into the story to truly make it a better story. That's what a good critiquer can do for you.

I agree with Tara Maya in that it's really hard to critique something I don't normally read or like. Horror? I don't think so. The opposite is also true. Don't let someone who is not familar with romance critique your work.

When SRW held the "We Dare you" contest, we always said that our aim was to help build up a writer, not tear her down. Telling a writer what she is doing right is just as important as telling her what she's doing wrong.


Karen said...

Hey Nicol,
Thanks for the kinds words, they really mean a lot to me and I'm sure to my fellow bloggers.

And please, jump! We've got your back here at the Chicks. I'm glad you're on track again. For myself, I'm looking for the same things you mentioned, "support, encouragement, and some helpful advice".

Karen said...

Hey there Jana,
Thanks for the example of what good critiquing can do for a story.

I can see where it makes sense to critique your own genre. Just because you read a variety of books doesn't make you a great pick to critiquing other genres.

Hazel said...

What a great review of the principles of critiquing, Karen. It can be very intimidating at first, from both sides of the equation. Some people never do reach the stage where they can accept suggestions for improvement, yet they want you to look at their work, so you just have to respect that and perhaps give a word of encouragement. All you can do in that situation -- until they actually seek advice.

I have to really rein in my tendency to want to re-word other people's work (it's a legitimate tendency because I do it to my own work all the time), however, the issue of voice and style can't be ignored. I like Captain Hook's mention of doing a small amount of rewriting to provide an example -- which is exactly what I was doing earlier today on a piece for a member of my writers' group. She is a good friend, so I definitely would not want to risk damaging her confidence in her own voice. I added these words to the brief passage I wrote: [When critiquing, do not *rewrite* someone else's work!! Well, maybe just as an example.]

I never thought I would be able to submit my work to critiquing, or "workshopping" as they call it in college courses, but in time you see the value, and also over time you get better at doing it.

Karen said...

Hi Hazel,
I think it would be necessary to 'rewrite' in a situation where you didn't know how to explain what was bugging you.

Also I can see how a person gets better (with practice) at filtering advice received and in turn balancing the feedback they offer.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Excellent post, Karen.

I started critting a year ago and I know I'm so much better at it now than before.

I found my current critique partners (CPs) when I joined the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW). A month after joining, I rec'd an email which included a 'test'. I was asked to critique it changing anything I saw fit to make it better. I corrected the spelling and grammar errors. I also moved things around, tightened it, etc. Then I sent it back. A couple months later after I'd forgotten about it, I rec'd an email from the ACFW listing my new CP's. They are 2 American women who are at the same writing-stage as me. One writes contemptorary romance like me and the other women's fiction. I must admit, it's hard to critique the latter's ms's but the same principles are involved. It might not be as exciting to me, but she still writes a good story. There is no way I would be at the stage I am now with my submissions and contest entries if it weren't for these 2 women. (Thank you Carol and Gwen.) In fact, the experience has been so positive that we've just welcomed a new CP into our fold.

Joanne, at one time, the eharl site also had a thread for hooking up with CP's.

Joanne Cleary said...

Thanks so much for the advice all.

I've joined the ACFW and completed the critique test thingy you talked about, Anita Mae, as my current work is headed towards Harlequin Romance but I have falled in love with Steeple Hill's LIH books.

As we don't get Steeple Hill in England it has taken me a while to find them. Now I am addicted -- to the LI, the LIS and LIH!

Thanks again, ladies, this is a great blog.