In reading your own work, you of course, understand everything that you meant to say, know the underlying motives of all the characters, know how the furniture is arranged, and can see the beauty of the landscape. But how does it translate to the reader?
Writing groups are a great venue to try out your writing on someone other than yourself. If you want compliments, share with the family and close friends who love you. If you want honest feedback, work with a writing group. I’ve been with my current writing group with three other writers for four, or maybe five, years. They were instrumental in drafting my first novel, Life in Spades, and have been just as insightful for my upcoming second novel.
In a previous post, I talk about how to form a writing group: who to include, when to meet, and all those type of logistics. Now, what happens when you all get together? Let’s first talk about how to offer critique; in a future post, I will talk about how to accept it.
Rule #1 and the most important step: read the submitted work. Allow time to read the submitted pages and make thoughtful comments. Even better if you can read it a second time. On a second read, something that you questioned the first read might make more sense or you might catch something you completely missed the first time.
The correlating rule: follow your group’s rules on submitting work. If you are supposed to share 10 pages by Tuesday at noon, don’t send 25 pages on Thursday night and expect that everyone has read your pages by the time you meet on Saturday morning.
As you read, offer useful and constructive criticism. The purpose of a writing group is to make your writing better, not to get beat up by fellow writers. Something like “I don’t like this paragraph” is not useful. Instead, provide more guidance, such as “this event seems out of place in the flow of the chapter.” Consider other useful comments, such as the following.
- The character’s motive isn’t clear or her action isn’t consistent with what she did in the previous chapters. She walked into the coffee shop, threw a cup of water in her best friend’s face and walked out. You want to know why. She has never thrown water in anyone’s face before, it doesn’t seem like something she would do.
- The meaning isn’t clear; the wording is awkward. The syntax is off or is cumbersome.
- This is too long of a description and I skipped over it (yes – this is useful to know!), or the inverse – This is too short and rushed, I want to know more.
- The point-of-view switched right here and became confusing. You want to know who is talking or how does this person know what’s going on in the other room.
- I don’t understand what this word/phrase means. If the writer is using jargon, foreign words or technical terms, you may not understand the particular word, but the context clues should help, especially if that word seems important. If not, point that out.
- This is not factually correct. Did the characters go to Sunday brunch to celebrate the first day of the new millennium? You might point out that Jan 1 2000 was a Saturday.
- This can’t actually happen. As writers, sometimes we make characters do things we, in real life, have no idea how to do. And sometimes we get it wrong. If your writing group member has a character knitting a sweater with a crochet hook, changing a tire with a wrench, or paddling a yacht and you know better – tell them.
As well as critiquing what’s printed, look for what’s missing. Sometimes there’s nothing essentially wrong with the writing – its clear, its grammatically correct, the story flows, but there still might be something missing. Ask the writer questions about what isn’t there.
- What does the character look like?
- What did she say, what was her reaction?
- Where are they? I don’t understand the setting – are they at the beach, at the bar, in an airplane – or how they got there.
Along with things to do in critiquing, here are a couple “don’ts’.”
Don’t waste time with fine-tune editing. Its probably an auto-response for writers to check spelling and grammar. You can’t help changing “their” to “they’re” and putting in that comma. If you must, go ahead. But don’t feel compelled or spend a lot of time on it unless it’s a glaring error. There will be so many changes before getting to the final and there will be the time for fine tune editing later. If however, you notice that the writer makes consistent mistakes, for instance they always uses “lay” and “lie” incorrectly, offering the correction could save them time and re-writing later.
Don’t try to fix or re-write the story. As you mark areas of question and offer critiques, don’t feel like you have to fix it. If a character’s motive isn’t obvious, don’t rewrite the section to make it so. Likewise, if you don’t like Juliet falling in love with Romeo, don’t suggest she find another dude. Allow the writer to take back your comments and figure out what she wants to do with it.
And lastly, one last “do” – Do provide compliments. Although most of my points have been on giving critiques, also note the things that you like in the writing. Draw smiley faces, scribble “LOL” or other inspiring notes to indicate some of the good points. We all appreciate hearing that at least one line on those 10 pages is pretty good.