Critiquing is a tough business.
How do you know if what you write is any good?
If you’re like me, and why wouldn’t you
want to be, you have a few options:
Trust your gut. Guts are great for processing all kinds of things: food, whether that person at work is really just interested in you or is a psychopath (I suppose the two aren’t mutually exclusive), and if you should trust your GPS or unplug the thing before you end up driving 90 miles out of your way. But when it comes to your own writing, guts are funny things. It’s hard to discern the Pulitzer Prize winning stuff from the What-Was-This Writer-Thinking stuff. Why? Because we worked hard getting those words out of us and we are generally attached to them in the way that super glue gets attached to skin.
Trust your family and friends. Totally bad idea. Unless you want only positive feedback (assuming your family and friends like you and encourage your writing). Remember, these are the people who tell you, after you’ve been a complete jerk for [fill in the reason], that the other person was the real problem. The same people who told me I should publish my short stories also told me (after my head was shaved for my brain surgery) that I look awesome in a buzz cut. I didn’t.
Trust your blog readers. “Readers” is the critical word here. I wonder how many people who press the “like” button, or even comment, actually read every word we write and process it enough to have an opinion about how we wrote it (not just what we wrote about). Plus, in this bloggity-blog world, most people want to be nice to each other for any number of reasons. For some reason, telling people how to improve their writing, even when they specifically ask for a critique, is seen as a bad thing. So many bloggers play it safe and act like family and friends–they love everything you write.
Of course, if you have extra cash lying around, you can always pay a professional to look over your work and give you pointers. These editors don’t give their skills and talents away, nor should they.
And it’s hard work to thoroughly critique any piece of writing.
I’ve done a fair amount of critiquing (all for free), both as a college professor and as an aspiring author with an online group called the Critique Circle. It’s free to join, but (of course) the upgraded paid membership offers more benefits. I learned a lot during my two-year association with this group. Let me share some critiquing guidelines that work for me:
1. Always include what the author did well along with what needs improvement.
2. Remind the author that you are only offering your suggestions and that, in the end, s/he needs to evaluate what works best for the piece.
3. If a section needs improvement, offer an example of what you think would improve it. (Don’t just say, “this section is confusing.”)
4. When you see technical problems (typos, grammar issues, etc,) highlight them or fix them, don’t just tell the author that you found a lot of mistakes. Critiquing should be a helpful process, not an exercise in frustration.
5. Ask questions if you are confused. You are a reader. If you have a question about an element of the story, other readers will, too.
6. I always found it easiest to copy and paste the manuscript and comment where the issues are–an in-line critique (rather than make a list, then the author has to search the document to find the problem area). Make sure the author is okay with this.
7. Either begin or end with a summary of what you believe are the author’s and the manuscript’s general strengths and weaknesses. Give the author a platform on which to build, not just a list of “dos and don’ts.”
And for those seeking critiques of your work, a few words of advice:
1. Please consider carefully whether or not you want a real critique. Some writers don’t. That’s okay. Just don’t ask someone to spend a long time pouring over your work just to ignore their efforts because all you wanted was praise.
2. Please parse your work out in small segments–no more than 1000-1,200 words. You can learn a great deal from having even a part of a larger piece critiqued.
3. Be willing to return the favor.
Because this is a post on critiquing, I will share with you a resource I find useful. It helps you evaluate your writing, not for the ever-present typo or grammar gaffe, but for style, pacing, cliches, use of repetitive words, and the like. If you want to tighten up and clean up your manuscript, this little gem is wonderful. It is also free, but has enticing upgrades that allow you access to more reports and more flexibility. AutoCrit is an online service and I am using it now to help me evaluate chapters in my new book. I swear I get nothing for promoting this tool except the good feeling of helping other writers.