Tuesday, June 10, 2014

How To Critique Someone's Writing

“A brave man is a man who dares to look the Devil in the face and tell him he is a Devil.”—James A. Garfield

Writers need help. Its hard to see your work for what it is. But a bad critique can make you confused and miserable, and the vapid reassurance of a pat on the back can be worse than no critique at all, leaving you without any sense of direction, more uncertain about your writing than when you handed it out, because you know it's not as good as you want it to be, but can't figure out why.

When you sit down to talk with someone about their work, try this:

1. A brief description of the story. One or two sentences free of evaluation. This can be difficult with poetry or novels that resist a concise summary, but your impression of the work is sufficient. This is a conjuring trick. It draws a shape around you and the writer in the form of their story and says, we're starting. It also gives the writer your snapshot of what they've written, which hopefully they recognize.

Ex: “This is a moody piece, mostly about a young woman with a troubled past. Older now, and perhaps stronger, she returns home for her mother's funeral, confronting the demons of her family and former relations.”

2. Tell them what they did well. Anyone who gives you their work is looking for validation, even if they swear they want you to tear their work apart, so validate their good work. This is not a matter of what you liked, though your preferences are worth discussing.  The reason you found something effective is a far more valuable insight. Help the writer see where their strengths are. This can be difficult because you may have to set context aside, but if the ending of the story, screenplay, or poem seemed like a real ending, tell them so. Do this every time, even if you're reading a revision for the third time. Hopefully you'll have more good things to say each revision.

The goal is to coax the witter into lowering their defenses, and helps put them in a mindset to participate in the critique rather than brace for it. You're not trying to hurt them. If they've done anything well, there's hope.

3. Highlight problems and pose questions. This is the real meat of the critique, and will likely take the most time because it lends itself to discussion. Keep in mind you don't have to diagnose the writer's work with surgical precision, nor do you have to have the remedy for the problems you find. You're only trying to help someone understand their work and figure out where, if not how, to begin improving it. If you do have suggestions, by all means, offer them. You might consider making a list of the biggest issues in the work, and work into the details from each of those.

When posing questions, do not ask the writer what they were trying to do, or meant by a particular passage without first telling them what you thought based on what they wrote. If you don't know what to think, try to describe what about the given passage defeated you.

Trace your experience as a reader. Show the writer where the story and their writing went astray for you in contrast to where it was tracking well. This is valuable information. You don't have to walk them step by step through their entire story. The longer the work, the more taxing this would be. Keep to the broader strokes. What you leave out, they should be able to pick up based on your conversation and their freshly marked manuscript.

4. List bad habits to watch out for going forward. Just as you drew the writer's attention to their successes, point out the reoccurring weaknesses. You'll undoubtedly touch on these as you go through the story, but it's valuable to reiterate.

5. Final summation / marching orders. For any writer, dealing with the pros and cons of their work can be a taxing experience. Help send them on their way by reminding them of the strengths of the work and underscoring the major aspects you feel (and hopefully the writer agrees) they need to develop. This should take no more than a few minutes. Thirty seconds if you can help it.

At last, hand the manuscript back, tell the desperate fool, “Good riddance,” and wash your hands of them. Or thank them for looking to you for guidance. Whichever seems more appropriate based on their reception of your critique.

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