Critiquing can be tough. My writers’ group is full of amazing authors packed with talent and more and more pieces come in where all I can really spot wrong is the odd typo and maybe an awkward phrase. I was starting to worry that I didn’t have any critiquing skills, and that if I lacked them, how could I ever successfully self-edit?
I’m going to the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival next week (stay with me here, I’m not just running off on a tangent, I swear) but only for workshops during the week. One of those workshops is a fiction writing master class with MJ Hyland. In preparation for that participants send in the first 1,500 words of a short story or novel and everyone else attending critiques it. Critiquing the pieces I’ve been sent so far has taught me something.
Like with my writers’ group some people are really great and there’s not much to say, but some other works are unfocused (the person has a great story, but the plot jumps all over(yes, in the first 1,500 words!)), others have great characters but no story. There are problems – and I can spot them! So I don’t suck at critiquing, it’s just that my writers’ group is too full of talented people(you know who you are ;p ).
So, with these newer, younger writers I’m critiquing now I have choices to make. I can’t go and throw every error they’ve made at them, I might hurt the fragile artistic spirit all of us creative types have. So I have to pick out one or two of the most important things to mention and pass on my knowledge.
I also have to be careful, I don’t want to seem like a know-it-all, after all, I’ll be there to learn too. If I honestly thought I did know it all I wouldn’t be going to a workshop now would I? So I’m walking a thin line between providing as much help as I can without damaging fragile hearts or seeming like a Hermione.
Some of these pieces have a lovely story at their core, just their craft needs polishing and it reminds me that I’m the same. I’ve got a long way to go before I’m where I dream of being, so I have to keep working, keep polishing, and keep critiquing and being critiqued.
These are the things I have learned from critiquing these last few days.
All well and good to keep in mind the fragility of creative types… but there does come a point, if you want to succeed that is, where a writer has to toughen up – grow a thicker skin, take the gloves off, or to use the academic parlance, “Crack open a can of Harden the F*** Up” :p – or else they’ll probably just sit there and sulk about the first rejection or first bit of hard-to-handle critique, and never try again because one little crack shattered their whole glass castle.
One critiquer in our group, who I’ll refer to as T, is harsh. This person is also constructive (they could phrase things in a more ‘I’m doing this to help you’ way, though). Unlike someone in my other writer’s group, who I’ll refer to as J, who JUST tells you everything that’s wrong about your work, but doesn’t offer any positives or any way of fixing it up (from what I’ve had looked at so far, which isn’t much).
Striking a balance between doing what’s right by the piece, and not breaking a writer down into tears, is tricky. If you’re too rough, or if they’re too soft, there WILL be tears. How do you get around that? By saying stuff that’s maybe hard to hear, but doing so in a Complement Sandwich? That’s probably the solution to 99% of dilemmas critiquing has inherently built in.
The other 1% of the time, maybe you do need to let loose with everything you’ve got. That should probably be a last resort, though. Like, for when the author is being ridiculously stubborn (and probably egotistical, too).
Maturity is key in all of this, I think.
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A problem with bringing up everything wrong with a piece, particularly with a newbie would be you’d be drowning them in info. You’d be telling them about the importance of plotting and structure, stakes, using a consistent tense, avoiding adverbs, steering clear of passive voice and the importance of theme. If you’d never heard of half of these things you might give up writing not from the hurt of being critiqued but because it doesn’t look like any fun if you have to learn all that. It seems daunting, but as you learn it all little by little it becomes second nature.
I’m lucky, our good friend ‘T’s critiques (and everyone’s really) don’t hurt me because I have a thick skin thanks to working in retail since FOREVER. When you’re used to being screamed at for half an hour over something you can’t fix and that wasn’t your fault anyway, you can take helpful criticism so easily – after all, I can fix it and it was my fault ;p . There is a fragile creative spirit somewhere deep in my stony armadillo shell, but what tends to hit it hardest is my own self-doubts when they come to plague me.