Writing advice, Writing and Editing

The Art of Critiquing

Art? Critiques? Sure, why not?

Anyone can point out another person’s mistakes, particularly when you are more accomplished and/or knowledgeable about the craft in question. If the work is written by someone who is just beginning their writing career and still trying to learn the craft, finding mistakes will probably be easy. That isn’t the issue. As any good teacher will tell you, what is hard is pointing out a student’s mistakes without discouraging them or making them feel stupid.

This is where the art comes in.

The art is in drawing attention to the flaws in someone”s work while still encouraging them enough that they will continue to try. After all, we want to encourage and nurture writers, not get them to quit. So how do we do that?

By balancing the positive and negative.

When you critique someone’s work, no matter how bad it might be, it is always important to find at least one thing they did well. (There is always something they did well in at least one section of the work). Begin with the things they did well and tell them they did them well. Everybody needs to hear that they did well from time to time. Someone who has poured their soul into a written work and then handed it to your for judgment may need a word or two of praise more than most. After all, they have left themselves very vulnerable. Some people never let others read their work simply because they fear it will be ridiculed.

To paraphrase Hippocrates: first, do no harm.

Now we turn to the mistakes the author made in the critiqued work, the issues she has, the things that could have done better. This is where the art comes in. As the person giving guidance to the writer, it is part of our job (or should be) to determine what the writer needs the most. Are they just beginning and need encouragement more than anything else? You might just concentrate on helping them with one facet of the craft, say characterization. Are they on the cusp of being good but just need a few tweaks to get there? You might go into more detail, on multiple facets. Are they basically sound, but so grammatically challenged they need a line-by-line copy edit?

Only the person reading the work in question can answer that question. It helps if the two people have at least a passing acquaintance with each other, but the work itself can usually tell the reader where the author is in her progress in the craft. Personally, when I give a work over for critique, I usually attach a note saying I want no quarter. If the reader thinks something needs work or could be done better, I want to know. But not all writers have reached this stage.

Use your judgment, but first, do no harm.

Lastly, everyone involved must be aware of one of the primary rules of critiquing: that the criticisms and suggestions made in the critique are the opinions of the person writing the critique. And that’s all they are: opinions. It is solely the original author’s decision whether to accept them and make the changes, or to disregard them. In this regard, it is often of great value to have several people critique your work. If they all dislike your favorite scene, there just might be a problem with it.

Critiques are a great way to improve our own work and an even better way to give back by helping and encouraging new writers. But to be most effective, they need to balance encouragement with criticism in a way that doesn’t force beginning writers away from the craft.

First, do no harm.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Finding Time To Write

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing most writers, especially those trying to learn the craft and/or establish themselves is finding the time to write. Most of us don’t have the luxury of being able to devote all our time to writing, as much as we might wish to. We have bills to pay; children with the habit of wanting to eat at least three times a day and to walk around fully clothed; spouses who sometimes want some (or all) of our attention.

In short, most of us have real lives with all the responsibilities and commitments that entails. We have to fit our writing around and in between those responsibilities. Somehow.

Though each of us is different and have different demands on our time and energy, I have come up with a few tips I think will be of some help.

Decide how much time you can devote to writing. This will be different for every person. Only you know your schedule, your commitments, and how much you want to write. Go through your weekly schedule and write down how much time you spend on each activity. This might take a little research, since most of us don’t really pay that much attention to what we do with all our “down” time. And that’s what we’re really looking for here is time you haven’t already committed to another important activity. We can’t really take time away from our day jobs, our time with friends and family, and so forth. We still need to live our life.

However, if you spend four hours a day watching television, surfing the web, or commenting on pictures of last night’s dinner on Facebook, you could probably spare an hour, or so for your writing. That’s what we’re looking for here, segments of unproductive or “down” time you could give up in exchange for writing time. But again, don’t get so ambitious that you don’t leave yourself any time for rest and relaxation. That is a certain recipe for failure. Just reserve a modest amount of time you can comfortably devote to writing. You can always add more time later.

Identify when you are most productive/creative. Again, everyone’s different. Some are morning people who wake up refreshed and energized, ready to tackle the new day. Others have to be dragged out of bed with a construction crane, but are full of life at midnight. Personally, I am at my most productive between 11pm-2am. I can write at other times (I’m writing this at 2 in the afternoon, for example) but I am much less creative and tend to work harder for whatever I produce.

It only makes sense to identify in ourselves what part of the day is the most productive for us and schedule our writing for that time. Our we morning people? Maybe we could start getting up an hour earlier to devote some time to writing before we have to get the rest of the family started on the day. In the middle of the day? How about brown-bagging our lunches and spend them at the park, writing? Or, as I do, stay up a little later than everyone else in the house and use that quiet time for my writing. Only you will know what works best for you and it might not be what you expected.

Decide how committed you are. What do you want from your writing? Would you like to progress to the point that you could make a living from your writing? Do you want to be a professional? Or is it more of a hobby? Something you enjoy doing, but have no desire to make it the most important occupation of your life? The answer to this question will directly influence just how much time you will be willing to devote to the art.

For our purposes, I’m going to assume your answer to the commitment question is that you want to become good enough at the craft to be consistently published and perhaps even make a living at it. So, you’re committed. You’re willing to devote a portion of your time to learning and perfecting your skills.

Treat your writing time like a job. Once you’ve decided that you are committed to becoming a better writer, you also have to commit the time necessary to achieve that goal. It really doesn’t matter how much time it involves. Forty hours a week, or five, what matters is that you work like a professional. You arrive on time, ready to work and work until quitting time. You treat it just like your day job: no excuses. You work when you’re tired, when you have the sniffles, when there’s a really good movie on television. Whatever time you’ve set aside for writing, you use that time to write.

Get your friends and family to treat it like a job. Express to them that, just like your day job, you should not be bothered with anything short of an emergency. It might take some time and patience on your part, but it can be done. If it’s important to you and you make it clear how important it is, they will respect that.

Create or find a place you can devote to writing. We all have our rituals, whether it’s starting our day with a cup of coffee, or watching the local news just before going to bed, they are important landmarks in our days, symbols of something beginning or ending. Our day jobs have similar rituals. Perhaps the most important of them is the fact that we leave our homes and go somewhere else to “work.” The act of leaving our houses and going somewhere else to work, helps us move all our domestic issues—what to have for dinner, the laundry you haven’t been able to catch up on for two months, mowing the lawn—to the back burner and bring our job issues to the front.

Having a dedicated “writing space” helps to recreate the going to work ritual. Some are fortunate enough to have a home office for this purpose, but most of us don’t. Most of us have to improvise. A corner of your bedroom would work. So would a guest room, a garage workshop, the back patio on sunny days, or a local coffee shop. It doesn’t have to be fancy or necessarily the same place every time. It just needs to be somewhere you go to write. And it helps to have a place that everyone knows is where you go to work, so don’t disturb you.

Even if you can only devote thirty minutes a day, five days a week, to your writing, that’s two and-a-half hours of writing a week. And as you become comfortable with the routine, or you become embroiled in a project, you just might find yourself adding more and more time to your writing period.

Someday, you might even become successful enough that you can make it your day job.

Writing advice

5 Tips For Beginning Writers: Tip # 4

To review: I’ve looked at the first three already. Number one: read a lot. Number two: write every day. And number three: write what you know. Now it’s time for number four.

4. Find and develop a support system.

Writing can be a very lonely avocation. Most of the time, it’s just you and the word processor, alone in the room as you struggle to bring your work to the page. To make matters worse is the fact that, unless you’re unusually gifted, it takes years and years of practice before we become fairly good at the craft. Years before all those hours spent alone working on the craft might reward you with a publishable short story or article. Because of all that it is very easy to become discouraged, very tempting to just give up and try your hand at something else. That’s why it is so important to develop a support system.

Some of us are fortunate to have friends and family who believe in us and our work, to bolster us when we get discouraged and ravaged with doubt. There’s a famous story about a writer who’d sent his novel to something like a dozen publishers, only to have it rejected by each. He grew so disgusted, he threw the manuscript in the trash. His wife dug it out of the trash, cleaned it up, and told him it was a good novel. He needed to keep submitting it. He did. The novel was named Carrie and the writer was an unknown Stephen King.

For those who do not have such support at home it is important to find and nurture a network of people who will give you that support. The easiest way to do that is to meet other writers. They are facing the same challenges you are and understand the peaks and valleys in ways even your spouse may not. Join a critique group, if there’s one in your community. The local library or bookstore will probably know of any around. If there isn’t one, think about forming your own. Attend a writer’s conference. Many of them have networking lists available. Join an online group through Facebook or Goodreads. Take a class at your local community college.

Once you have that network of support, this writing life will become much, much easier.