How, when, where and why to critique (from Ron and Sheila’s talk)

Ron and Sheila’s talk on critiquing

began with some questions. 

  • Our Website describes us as “writers helping writers.” How do we help each other?
    • Information – from speakers, form each other
    • Encouragement – from snack time, just from meeting, or from encouraging comments…
    • Feedback – from critiques
  • We get all three of these from critiques: For example”
    • A poem in this month’s contest mentioned a bird with angel wings. Someone commented that angel wings are a deformity in birds. The author was probably very grateful for that piece of information.
    • Another poem received a fairly serious and informative critique. Whether the author was an accomplished poet or not, that would be very encouraging.
    • Sheila asked Judy to critique a horror story (probably not her genre). Judy gave her feedback where she envisioned something completely differently from how Sheila imagined it. Clearly it wasn’t as well described as she’d thought, so she could
      • Choose to ignore the comment
      • Or check what she’d written
      • And change.
    • Which is how we can always react when we receive critique – choose, check and change!
      • Sheila shared the occasion when a critiquer wrote “This writer doesn’t know how to tell a story.” Norm shared when another author used his story as an example of how not to do something. Occasionally critique will hurt, but we move on.
    • Do we all need critique/feedback? Yes
      • If writing for grandchildren, We’d prefer they actually read
      • If writing to get published, ditto
      • If writing just for ourselves, chances are we still want to write better so we don’t hate what we’ve written when we look back.
    • Can we all give critique/feedback, given that we’re such a mixed group?
      • Judy’s critique of Sheila’s horror story was invaluable.
      • “I’m confused” is valid critique – author decides if they mind that they confused you.
      • It’s always good to see through different eyes, hear through different voices, etc.
    • How do we offer this as the Writers’ Mill?
      • Group critique –Typically broad feedback on a story fragment, though we have done a poem and some very short stories on occasion.
      • Critique groups – we have at least two, probably more running at present. Meeting weekly allows critiquers to read a whole novel a chapter at a time, offering deep individual feedback with lots of back and forth.
        • One group meets on Friday afternoons at a coffee shop – we socialize and critique
        • Another meets monthly at Robin’s home (TV highway and 185th)
        • One meets just to write, at a coffee shop.
        • Are there more?
      • Contest critique – contest comments offer a sort of beginners opportunity to critique and receive critique

But how do we / can we critique?

Ron had lots of great pointers

First, why do we think we can critique anything?

  • We’re a diverse group, but science (as in the Wisdom of Crowds) has shown that 23 non-experts, as long as they know something about the subject, will usually produce a better solution to a problem than 3 experts who know almost everything. So we, in our diversity, can and should give great critiques. Even if the genre is not “my field”—perhaps especially if the genre if not “my field”—we can always critique

When do we need critique?

  • A critique is not a developmental edit. It comes before editing. You hire an editor for that
  • It’s not a chance to check spelling and grammar
  • It happens while we’re getting the manuscript ready

Who benefits from critique?

  • The author
  • The critique leader
  • The listeners (the more effort we put into being more than a listener, the more we will gain)

How we critique is somewhat dependent on what we’re reading.

  • Read the submission twice
    • First just to get the feel of it
    • Second (and more) to critique it
  • Find something nice to say about it
  • In a story, look at:
    • Characters
    • Dialog
    • Plot
      • Are there too many subplots in a short story
      • Do subplots need more attention in a novel
    • Backstory
      • Too much backstory
      • Is the backstory an information dump? Could the information be better woven into the whole pice?
    • Point of view
      • Does pov shift, and do shifts make sense in context?
      • Whose is the key point of view? Does their view engage the reader, or should we look through other eyes?
      • Does the author create a good contract with the reader – There are things I won’t tell you, but I’m not going to cheat.
    • Show vs Tell
      • Look for sensory input which anchors reader into the reality
      • Rather than sensory input that distracts
      • Tie sensory information to point of view
      • Use senses to frame the action.
    • In Poetry
      • Is it personal? Does it rise above the individual to become more relevant?
      • Does the title add to the piece
      • There are lots of forms and structures. One may be more appropriate than another. E.g.
        • Sonnets are a great form for offering contrasting views, but not for narration
        • (Did you know the art of storytelling began with poetry?)
        • Doesn’t have to be a traditional form. Does have to fit the poem. Sometimes free verse is best
        • Make sure form complements content.
      • Rhyme
        • Couplets and quadtrains are difficult to write but smooth to read.
        • Rhymes can be serious or mixed – doggerel can be the perfect form and rhyme.
      • Meter
        • Doesn’t have to be regular, but what fits this poem?
        • Creates the music of the poem
        • Do line breaks and verse structure fit the poem
        • Does it sound right when read aloud. If it doesn’t, there’s probably something wrong with the meter and line length.
      • Structure is not the same as poetry.
    • In all critique, look for the following and make sure they’re appropriate:
      • clichés.
      • Superfluous adjectives and adverbs
      • Remember, all rules are optional, but you probably have to know them if you’re going to break them successfully.

How do we receive critique?

  • It’s not personal
  • Remember, it’s not about you; it’s about words.
  • The purpose is to help you write better words
  • So you can do what you set out to do
  • So… listen

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