Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Critique Writing Tips

While getting critiques is an excellent way to improve our writing, giving critiques can be just as effective. Providing feedback on another person's work allows us to objectively read a story and watch carefully to see how it ticks. It will help you improve at:
  • Spotting story-ruining plot holes
  • Locating areas where characters act outside of their personality
  • Realizing story and rhythm flow that either keeps you engaged or pushes you away
  • And more!
My personal cycle for keeping my writing-brain fresh is to read a lot, critique a lot, and of course, write a lot. Here are some things I think about when giving critiques that keep me on the right track:

Give reasons behind the suggestions. 
It’s easy to say “don’t use adverbs”, “don’t use dialogue tags other than said”, or “this is confusing”. It’s harder - for some reason - to say why beyond just “these are the rules of writing” or “because reasons”. It’s important to let the writer know (as an example) why you don’t think it’s a good idea to use an adverb in a sentence: “the adverb ‘thrillingly’ made the sentence a bit long, breaking the flow for me. ‘Thrillingly’ is also implied by his grin whilst jumping out of the airplane in the prior line, and so removing the word could tighten the prose and keep flow going.” Or: “Your use of dialogue tags is distracting me from what’s being said, as oftentimes your description of how they say something is longer than the actual dialogue.” Or: “This is confusing because in the last chapter, Rochel was a man - not a manbearpig.”
Point out what’s good.
Writers are prideful creatures - we can’t help it. Ever hear the phrase starting with “a spoonful of sugar”? If you’re hesitant to provide praise just for the sake of a person’s ego, provide it instead as positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is the act of creating a positive feedback loop in the hopes someone (or a pet) continues to do what they are praised for. Pointing out what’s good in a work often encourages the creator to do more of it. Many times, it’s as effective - if not moreso - than pointing out the flaws. Plus it’s nice.
Mention how - overall - the work is meeting its objective as an X (short story, novel, poem, etc.). 
Providing an overall assessment is useful to the writer. Aside from character development, plot progression, and exposition, how did the piece function? For instance, when critiquing a first chapter, I try to touch on how effective the hook was, how attached I am to the protagonist, how well the initial conflict was displayed, and if -by the end - I would be willing to move forward as a reader. You might comment on how a piece worked as a short story, or flash fiction, or poem. Paying attention to the structure of the piece and what method the author used to tell the story is an often not-touched upon, but useful piece of feedback.
Accept style differences. 
Everyone writes differently. There are published books that have adverbs, some that have none, some which demonstrate flowery prose, and some that stick to minimalistic enigma. It’s important - and crucial - to recognize a writer’s style and respect it. This is in the same vein as “recognizing the author’s intent”. Before critiquing a work, get a feel for the writer’s style. Who is their audience? Their message? What is the effect they’re looking for? It is unfair to - as an example - suggest that a minimalist writer with an ambiguous piece write more descriptions, or cut to the point, when that is obviously not the intent. Read Hemigway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and as an experiment, imagine someone telling him to just frickin’ tell (show) us what the two characters are talking about because as is it’s terribly confusing. It would be a little odd, as the whole point of the piece is that uncertainty.
Try (really hard) not to insert your own prose. 
It’s easy to read a sentence or a paragraph (or hell, even an entire work) and just know how you could make it better. In these cases it’s tempting to illustrate your case to the writer you’re critiquing: “Here is how you can make the line ‘And I did.’ a little different. Ahem. ‘The sun glistened through the window, illuminating the room and casting my spirits in a glow of pure enamour, and so in the end, I decided to do what my loveliest pet Darma asked me to do.’” Usually one decides to rewrite something because they didn’t like an aspect of what was written or see where improvements can be made. Touch on those points rather than write a paragraph long demonstration for them. In the end, the writer needs to create something in their own voice - this is what is satisfying, as well as effective. While your prose may illustrate your point, it might not do so as effectively as pointing out what the issues were in the first place, and then allowing the creator to make the changes themselves.
So what things do you all try to do every time you critique? What do you focus on or stray away from, and what do you think is important in feedback?