The best way I’ve found to become a better writer is to have my work critiqued by other writers. It can be painful, disappointing, even infuriating but it’s been absolutely essential for me and contributed immensely to the small measure of success I’ve had.

It’s ironic that the best advice is also the least expensive.  The price of a critique is paid in time not cash, which makes it more practical than conferences, online courses, night school, or creative writing programs.

To get the most from the experience I adhere to a few guidelines. Here is my Critiquing W5.

WHAT to have critiqued.

I send my best work. Critiquers aren’t editors nor are they book doctors. They aren’t there to write my story only to comment on what I’ve written. To send in less than my best is disrespectful, not to mention unprofessional to those taking the time to read it.

I submit the beginning, the end, or anywhere in between, but no more than 3,000 words, about ten pages. I get the most response (on-line) when my submission is short enough to read in one sitting. If my critiquers are sitting across from me I go shorter still. It’s very discouraging to see stifled yawns and fidgeting half way through reading aloud your opening chapter.

WHERE to critique.

I prefer on-line critique groups since I get more and varied responses. Not only are there several different perspectives, but the critiquers can take their time and give me a considered and in depth opinion. In your face critique groups are, by definition, spontaneous and can be confrontational.

Local chapters of the RWA likely have a critique group but other sites include:

Scribophile  http://www.scribophile.com

Writer’s Digest  http://community.writersdigest.com/?p_PageAlias=Community

Romance Writers Community (RWC)   http://www.charlottedillon.com/RWC.html

WHEN to critique.

I don’t submit work until I’ve completed a second draft. By that time I’ve corrected most spelling and grammatical errors as well as plot glitches in the first draft. Most importantly, I fully understand my plot and characters, which allows me to consider if the comments I receive are relevant. By this point I’ve also invested too much time to get sidetracked by criticisms that address the story and not the writing.

I use to rush to submit. It was embarrassing. Now I let my writing rest and revisit it a week or so later. I’ll also read it aloud before I sending it.

WHO to critique.

Ideally, you will give and get critiques from people writing in the same genre and at the same level of skill or better. I find it difficult to fully critique genres that involve werewolves or vampires because I’m not steeped in their culture. Sending erotica to someone who writes inspirational may not only be personally insulting but also professionally a waste of time.

WHY to critique.

Having my work critiqued by other anonymous writers provides two essential things – an objective opinion, and instruction. The person analyzing and assessing my work doesn’t know who I am and has no vested interest in pleasing or displeasing me. Equally important is that the criticism is coming from another, ideally better writer, who knows more about the craft and the pitfalls than I do.

When I was a kid I use to watch Dick Clark’s American Bandstand – yes, that’s how old I am. One of the features on the show was “hit or miss” where Bandstand regulars would rate a new record (yes, record, not CD). After jiving up a storm the teens would gather around Dick and rate the song out of ten.

“It had a good beat, you know,” a young man with skin-tight pants and a Brylcreamed waterfall would volunteer. “I’d give it a seven.”

“The words were groovy,” a pony-tailed, bobby-soxer would swoon. “It’s a nine for me.”

“Only a four, it was hard to dance to. ”

Thus the new song was “critiqued”.

In the beginning, my critiques were reminiscent of this. On one hand, coming from a reader they were honest and important, but on the other hand, coming from a writer they were superficial and unprofessional. Because I’ve learned so much from the well-considered and knowledgeable insights of magnanimous strangers I wanted to return the same. I wanted my critiques to be of value so I began to read books on the craft of writing to learn how other writers addressed the issues I was seeing in the submissions I read (see a short list at the end).

Some submissions I critique are from beginners. In those I try to explain Point of View, Goal, Motivation and Conflict, and Showing instead of Telling. I do this in broad strokes and try to be patient. Regardless of how sensitive I think I’m being some people still get their feelings hurt.

When I submit a work for critiquing I assume it’s going to be criticized. After all, that’s why I sent it in. Even after several rewritings it’s still not perfect, I seldom get it right, and for sure it can always be improved upon. In my opinion, a critique that’s not critical is an oxymoron.

I have to admit sloppy submissions do make me crazy. Poor punctuation, bad grammar and repetition of errors leads me to believe the writer is either not serious or not skilled enough to take this step at this time.

A submission from an accomplished writer can be intimidating. I usually look for subtleties and nuances like voice, the characters’ and the author’s; pacing that involves a variety of sentence lengths; plotting including leaving room for the readers imagination; and, character development – consistency and believability. I’ll often comment on language – a more appropriate word sometimes makes all the difference.

When I submit my work and begin receiving critiques back, I remind myself of two things: everyone is entitled to their opinion; and, unlike almost any other situation I can think of, all opinions have some validity and should be appreciated. I watch for common threads in the criticisms because that’s likely where the work is needed. And though it might make sense to defend my work to an editor, it never does to a critiquer.

This mental task of addressing the errors and weaknesses in other people’s writing makes mine better. The adage that ‘to teach is to learn twice’ has no other better application than then when it comes to critiquing other writers.

Here are a few books on the various aspects of writing fiction including the writing experience. I’ve found these books educational, entertaining and, not surprising, well written.

Things Feigned and Imagined – by Fred Stenson

Self-editing for Fiction Writers – Renni Browne and Dave King

Stein on Writing – By Sol Stein

The Fiction Writer’s Guidebook – by Edwin Silberstang

Show, Don’t Tell – by William Noble

Make that Scene – by William Noble

 

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