If you’re a working writer, you already know how difficult it is to judge your own work. The mental image we have is of what we meant to say; sometimes that may not have been achieved. If you’re part of a writing group, critiques are an integral part of the process and you want the same helpful feedback you’d like on your own work. In analyzing other’s work, you educate your own eye and become a better editor. And brainstorming solutions for the problems other writers face gives you a chance to apply those to your own work.
Of course, sharing your work means taking a risk, just as reading another’s is risky, too. You don’t want to offend, but without an honest response, the writer has no way to evaluate the quality of what he’s done or how to improve it.
It’s destructive to identify critique with criticism, as though your intent is only to identify what is wrong with a piece of writing. Making a long list of negatives can quickly cause the entire group to fold and is a reason many writers leave traditional workshops and classes. So how can you be helpful while still being honest?
Replace the words read and critique with listen and respond. When you read someone’s work, picture the writer reading her work. Your goal is to identify the story she’s trying to tell. This sounds obvious but it’s important, so take notes. Every writer wonders if others will understand the story they’re trying to tell.
The next step is to concentrate on the images, voice and style of the work. These elements determine not just what the story is but how it’s told. Ask yourself questions along the lines of: What kind of feeling does the story give you? What themes and/or larger issues does it explore? Write down your impressions.
Then think about the parts of the story you admired most and what are this writer’s strengths. Is he a whiz at dialogue? Does she know how to set a scene? List the best elements in the work. By highlighting these strengths, the writer can build on them.
Finally, write down the aspects that you had trouble with. Was there too much description that slowed the pacing? Maybe a scene seemed confusing, or there were gaps in information the writer probably has in his head that didn’t make it to the page.
This where a helpful critique comes in. Think about the problems you’ve identified and how you would address them. If you feel there’s too much description, highlight places the writer can condense or cut. If you feel a character needs more development, give your colleague ideas about how to make him clearer.
By brainstorming in this way, you’re not only helping your fellow writer, you’re practicing the same skills you’ll need for your own writing. Brainstorming to provide solutions is the key element that distinguishes feedback from critique. This is the method my own writing group has used, and it has been so successful we wrote about the importance of writing groups to keep a writer writing along with the need for helpful feedback in our book, Writing in A Changing World. I happen to write mysteries set in England; others in the group write young adult, chick lit, and historical sagas. All of us have grown and published, and our writing has blossomed by following this type of method.
Critics don’t think about improving the pieces they read; they merely point out what they didn’t like. For your colleagues, whether or not you like something is beside the point. You might not care for bloody vampire scenes but plenty of readers clamor for them. Your job is to tell the writer whether or not she has succeeded in telling the story she set out to tell. To paraphrase Robert McKee, the goal is “original stories, beautifully told.”
Marni Graff is the author of the Nora Tierney mystery series, set in the UK.
The Blue Virgin is set in Oxford and introduces Nora, an American writer living in England. She becomes involved in a murder investigation to clear her best friend as a suspect, to the chagrin of DI Declan Barnes. The Green Remains follows Nora’s move to Cumbria where she’s awaiting the publication of her first children’s book and the birth of her first child. When Nora stumbles across the corpse at the edge of Lake Windermere, she realizes she recognizes the dead man. Then her friend and illustrator, Simon Ramsey, is implicated in the murder of the heir to Clarendon Hall, and Nora swings into sleuth mode.
Graff is also co-author of Writing in a Changing World, a primer on writing groups and critique techniques. She writes a weekly mystery review at www.auntiemwrites.wordpress.com. A member of Sisters in Crime, Graff runs the NC Writers Read program in Belhaven. She has also published poetry, and her creative nonfiction has most recently appeared in Southern Women’s Review. Her books can be bought at Amazon.com or at www.bridlepathpress.com.