Thursday, October 10, 2013

Constructive Critiquing

by Katy White

A few months ago, I entered a contest on a popular writer's blog where I entered the first 250 words of my MS.  The prize was that an unnamed agent would instantly request a partial from you if she liked your first page.  No painstakingly crafted, thoughtfully personalized query letter, no stress about whether or not my formatting would somehow go wonky in cyberspace, leading to a form rejection.  There was no gatekeeper to getting noticed.  Just me.  And 250 flipping words.

Fifty people were chosen at random to be part of the contest (including me!  Squee!), and the entrants were required to comment on other entries.  I was disheartened when I read the feedback from my fellow contestants.  I mentioned the weather in my first paragraph!  Had I lost my mind?  Didn't I know that was the ultimate no-no in any novel?  Form rejection, dummy!   Even with skin thickened by eight older brothers, this was a little much.

Well, I won the contest (the compliments came after that).  The agent requested pages.  And she posted on my entry that the reason was my dialogue.  I had two teenagers, my main character and her best friend, talking in a hallway, just messing with each other, but I could feel when I was writing it that it worked.  The confirmation from the agent that it worked gratified and encouraged me. 

Interestingly, none of the other entrants mentioned my dialogue.  They only mentioned what they thought sucked.  And it was awful!  I felt stupid and small and defensive and like they were trying to convince me that I clearly didn't have any business in this business when I felt like I did.

The agent ultimately rejected me, but she gave me incredible feedback about my pages.  She told me the things that she loved, like my main character (phew!), voice, and dialogue.  And she told me the things that didn't work, too.  She showed me some big, gaping flaws that I hadn't noticed after hundreds of read-throughs.  But she gave the feedback in such a way that I felt confident I could fix the problems she'd identified.  The feedback was specific, blunt-but-not-jerky, and very badly needed.  She did me a kindness by telling me the good and the bad.  It was empowering.

This experience made me realize that critiquing is as much art as it is the "science" of writing.  And in that vein, I'd like to suggest a few tips on constructive critiquing*:

-Be honest.  You're of no use to your partner if you can't tell her where the story or characters or plot don't work.  She needs to know that the big reveal on page 232 directly contradicts every plot point that led up to that point.  Care enough about your CP to tell her the truth.

-Be encouraging.  Find the things that work about your partner's style and writing, and frame your feedback and suggestions around those strengths.  If someone writes long, beautiful, descriptive settings, but those are just filling the pages, don't tell her how boring it is, help her see how using that skill is more powerful when it's used at the right moments.

-Be humble.  You probably know a lot about writing if you're being asked to critique another person's work, but your partner knows a lot about her written world and what she's trying to accomplish.  So if you've given the feedback that you think 2nd person future POV is awkward to read and she chooses to stay with it, help her find ways to make the story work within her chosen parameters.

I'm sure I'm overlooking a lot of tips, but I'd love to hear some of yours.  What do you look for in a critique partner?  What do you look for when you're critiquing?  

*Always confirm with your CP the level of critique that she wants.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent advice and reminders. Also, along with humility, recognize that your way is not the only way.



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