Writer Wednesday: How on Earth?

Welcome to Part 5 of my Critique Series. If you haven’t already, check out the earlier posts in the series: Fresh Eyes, 10 Qualities Of The Perfect Critique Partner, Where, Oh Where, Has My Little CP Gone?, and Match Made In Heaven, Or Hell?

With all this talk of crits and CPs, some of you have to be wondering exactly how you’re supposed to learn to critique someone else’s work. You might assume that if you can write, you can crit. Not so. Critting is an art in itself, and takes practice to learn to do well. A good crit is as valuable to a writer, especially one who’s still learning, as a good dictionary. We aren’t talking about your cousin’s “I loved it! Great job! Keep it up!” sort of crit.

Many beginning critiquers feel they have nothing of value to offer, but this far from the truth. Any reader who makes the effort can give tremendously valuable feedback. A beginning critter can tell you what worked and didn’t work for them, how the passage made them feel, if there were parts they didn’t understand, their impressions of characters, etc, just like any reader can. Never feel as if you have nothing to offer just because you aren’t an expert with grammar, or don’t know how to spot intrusions of authorial voice. Honest feedback from a lay reader can help the writer more than an expert crit with some issues.

Learning to crit as a writer, rather than strictly as a reader, takes time and practice. There are so many levels and elements to learn that it just won’t happen overnight, or by osmosis. If you want to get good at it, you have to do the work. I haven’t found any shortcuts – and since I’m lazy, I’ve looked. 😀  There are several things you can do to learn, and IMO, they work best if you do them all in conjunction with each other, not just concentrating on one at a time.

First, find some websites where writers share work for others to crit. Familiarize yourself with the site, then get to work. Read a passage, and as you read, take notes in a word processor document about your impressions of different parts of the writing. Does the grammar seem okay? Are details consistent? How do you feel about the characters? Why? And so on. Keep your notes to yourself. Read the other members’ crits of the passage, and compare them to your notes. Did you spot any of the issues the other critters did? Copy and past the crits into your document, and go through them carefully and find what they’re talking about in the passage. This will help you learn to spot issues, and no what the problem is. If you like, you can offer your input as a reader. As you become better at critting, offer your feedback.  *A word of warning: Make sure you’re tactful with your feedback and crits. And be aware that even if you are, some writers are only interested in hearing how lovely their work is, and may argue with your crit, or try to begin a flame war, etc. You don’t want a rep for arguing with the writers you crit, so your best bet is to just say “Sorry you didn’t like my crit” and bow out. If you see that writers on a particular site often attack critters, or vise versa, you might want to move on and find another crit site, rather than risk appearing unprofessional.

Practice critting your own work, just as you would another writer’s. When you’re comfortable your work is as good as you can make it, post short passages on crit sites for others to to crit. Remember to thank those who take the time from their busy schedule to help you. If you have questions about the issues they point out, ask for clarification in a way that doesn’t imply resentment on your part. If a critter engages in a personal attack on you, or is rude, keeping your response to a simple thank you is probably the wisest course. Also, remember, not everyone is going to like your work, and most won’t think it is as brilliant as you do. Part of being a writer is developing a thick skin. It’s fine, and normal, if your feelings are hurt or if you’re angry. Cry, vent to an offline friend, write out everything you’d like to tell the critter, then DELETE it. You don’t want a rep for being precious or speshul about crits.

Read everything you can get your hands on, particularly in your genre, both good and bad. Analyze what you read. How does the author deal with the issues that you struggle with? What works and doesn’t work? How could the author have improved the work? Rewrite passages to make them better using your crits.

Work to improve your own writing, and to understand and use all the tools and techniques possible. Don’t depend on just writing for that improvement. You need to learn new techniques and methods, and how to use them well, in order to improve. Find a couple of *good* writing websites or blogs and follow them closely. Use sites like AbsoluteWrite.com to understand different aspects of writing. Be careful whose advice you follow. Someone who has read a great deal about writing, but hasn’t been writing long, or hasn’t written much, won’t have as much to offer as someone who has been writing a few years and reads good writing info, etc.

Keep at it. As you learn, crit work  you’ve already critted, to see if you can spot elements you didn’t see earlier. Revise your own work from crits, being careful to use just what works for your story. Constantly challenge yourself and your skills. You’ll grow, both at critting, and at revising your own work.

Are there other ways you know to improve your crit skills? Other tips for dealing the giving and receiving of crits?

Next week, we’ll look at some ways to communicate your crit with your potential CPs. We’re nearing the end of the series, with two more posts planned, unless someone wants more information about a particular aspect of critiquing. I may not have the answers, but I might at least know where to look. The last post of the series will have a number of links to resources with more info about crits, and sites to post work and critique others’ work. If you know of a crit site, or another site with  helpful info, please post the link in comments.

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Writer Wednesday: Fresh Eyes

As writers, we should all be aware of the importance of feedback on our work. Over the past couple of weeks, it’s become obvious to me that some writers have no idea of how crucial constructive criticism is, or how to find it.

I see it over and over on writing communities. A new member posts about how everyone loves their writing so much, so why won’t agents agree to represent it, editors agree to publish it, readers buy it, and myriad other such questions. After a few pointed questions from others, the new member reveals that the readers who loved her work were all friends or relatives.

There’s a secret that takes some of us a while to learn – friends and relatives aren’t usually the best people to listen to for honest opinions of our work, for several reasons. They like us – or they should – so they’re likely to say they love it no matter what, to keep from hurting our feelings. They may not be readers of the genre we write, so the brilliance, or lack thereof, of our writing might escape them; they may not even read very much at all. They probably aren’t writers, so the finer points of writing craft will escape them – which is perfectly fine when we no longer need feedback that tells us why things aren’t working and how to fix them.

What’s a writer to do then? Find a way for other writers to critique your work. For some of us, it’s a real-life writing group in our local area, with regular meetings, where member work is critiqued by the group. The method has limitations, but is perfect for some. Getting a large piece of writing can take a very long time this way, as each member has a turn to have work looked at. It can be several weeks between having a chapter critiqued, and the group seeing the revisions. And your work may not be compatible with the group due to skill level or content.

If you’re like me, you might have to drive 2 or more hours to reach a group that will consider your work. The ladies group of the local church encourages its members to write, but I just can’t see them comfortably critiquing my Paranormal Romances with explicit sex scenes. “Mrs. Jones, how do you think Ardrianna will react when King licks her … you-know-where? Would she moan, arch off the bed, bite her lip… Mrs. Jones, are you okay?” as Mrs. Jones slumps from her seat onto the floor. Riiight. Not happening.

In that case, you’re pretty well limited to the internet – which is a fantastic limit to have. Imagine having no access to anyone outside your immediate community for feedback. The opportunities are extensive online to find readers qualified to critique your work and help you improve it.

I started out by posting a short passage on the Share Your Work section of a tiny little writing community, and read and commented on other members’ work. They returned the favor. There was one writer whose work I really liked, and she liked mine. We decided to exchange a few chapters and critique them for each other. It wasn’t long before we were established Critique Partners (CPs) working closely on both our stories. A couple of other writers occasionally joined us, then went their way when they had helped us and we had helped them. Now, A. and I are best friends, and still CPs. Both of us have grown exponentially in skill as writers and as critiquers – we often crit other writers’ work. Our skills, both in writing and critting, complement each other. We both seek other feedback as needed, but we always return to work together.

That path is but one of many possibilities. When you’ve found someone you think you might like to work with as CPs, how do you approach it? And how do you critique another writer’s work? In the coming weeks, I’ll be exploring these questions, and more, about giving and receiving constructive criticism, and putting it to work. Keep checking back for updates in the Writer Wednesday Critique Series.

What’s your experience with constructive feedback, giving or receiving? Have you found someone you can work with on a regular basis? What works best for you, if you’ve tried more than one way? If you had the opportunity, would you change anything?