E.M. Kokie's debut novel, Personal Effects, will be published by Candlewick Press in 2012. She is represented by Chris Richman of Upstart Crow Literary, a member of the Apocalypsies, and can also be found online at Twitter, Facebook, or hanging around the Absolute Write forums. Stay tuned for the impending launch of her website http://www.emkokie.com.
The Importance of Critique
by E. M. Kokie
Thanks to Marissa and Martina for inviting me to do a WOW Wednesday post.
This was surprisingly difficult to write. My path to publication seemed so similar to so many others - a lot of revise, query, revise, query, lather, rinse, repeat. But in thinking about my path, I realized that the critique I received along the way made it a little easier and a little less lonely.
Sharing my work in progress with trusted writing friends was the best decision I made. Joining a group of experienced critiquers helped push me to write so that I could submit something every time it was my turn to submit. Because I was getting effective critique as I wrote, my first draft was stronger than if I had been writing in a vacuum. Critiquing others' writing helped me improve my ability to self-edit. And something really great happened in the middle of all that critique - I began to trust my story and my ability to write it.
At every step of this process, effective critique made all the difference for me. So, here are some of my thoughts on critique - first as the recipient, and then as the critiquer.
Good, effective critique can be a gift to receive, but not always easy to read:
- Self-editing. In my experience, most writers can learn to effectively self-edit by reading books on craft, revising their own work, and working with critique partners and beta readers. Learning to self-edit can be the key to finding an agent or selling your work.
- Not all critique is equal. Sometimes you will receive critique that is not very helpful or that is just plain wrong. But trusting that innate sense of what is right for your story can be tricky - it can lead you to ignore helpful critique, or it can help you hone in on those parts of a critique that can most help you improve your story. I've found it's better to analyze a critique before making any changes. Look at the critique as a whole: Does the critiquer's view of the story and characters gel with your view? Are there aspects that feel more on target than others? Are you having an emotional response that is getting in the way of being analytical about the comments? Ultimately, it is your story, but look for ways to make your story more effective.
- Subjective comments. Objective comments (grammar, punctuation, spelling, tense, etc.) should be verified by consulting other sources and then addressed throughout your story. But when someone comments that a character is unlikable, a plot point isn't plausible, a character's voice is off, etc., those more subjective comments are often harder to access. When faced with a subjective comment with which you don't immediately agree, try focusing on the identified issue, as opposed to any suggested correction or interpretation. Before rejecting the entire comment, consider what the comment is focusing on at its core. For example, a comment may suggest your character's actions are not plausible and suggest a different action, one that feels wrong. But the real issue might not be the character's action at all. Maybe the character's motivations aren't clear. Maybe the action needs to come later in the story. Maybe another character needs development or the pacing of a scene is off, making the action seem too abrupt or delayed. By considering the issue, rather than any suggested fix, you may be able to strengthen the story in a way that only you could see.
- Ignoring Destructive Critique. It can be counter-productive to ignore critique. But if a critique is so critical that it is in danger of sapping your ability to write, stick it in a drawer until you feel ready to deal with it or get some more critique from other sources.
- Facing hard but accurate critique. It's funny how often the critique that hits us where it hurts the most is the most helpful to improving the story. That character based on a favorite aunt, a favorite scene or subplot, your favorite slang and sayings creeping into dialogue, etc. - often our favorite bits are those that most need to go - we just can't see it because they are our favorites.
- Don't be lazy. "It will be soooooo much work" is never a good excuse to ignore critique.
- Take it to the next level. Don't assume that because something is unmarked it is good as is. If you receive comments on your mechanics, or voice, or some other aspect, review the whole manuscript for those issues.
A lot of beginning writers are nervous about critiquing others' writing. But even a beginning writer can give an effective critique:
- Be a reader. If you are not confident in critiquing the mechanics of another's writing, then focus on plot and characterizations and pacing, much as you would in discussing a published book. And don't be afraid to identify a sentence or paragraph you had to stop and reread, a scene that didn't flow smoothly, a bit of dialogue that felt unnatural, etc., even if you don't feel comfortable suggesting a correction.
- Triage. It took me a while to realize that if my critique is overwhelmingly negative the recipient might not be able to focus and might even become convinced nothing about the submission is worth saving. When faced with a submission that requires a lot of work, I try to focus my comments on the areas that can most help the writer get the submission (and her writing) to the next level. For example, if there are oodles of mechanical issues, maybe give some general comments about the plot or characters but then explain that the mechanics are distracting with examples of specific issues. If a character's voice feels off, maybe focus on some specific instances where the word choices or construction feels off. But it's important to communicate where you will focus your critique, so the recipient has context to review your comments.
- Critique the story as written, not as you wish it had been written. When I was just starting out with critiquing others' work, sometimes I felt myself rewriting the story or suggesting changes in plot or character to make it more appealing to me. It's important to put aside our personal preferences and focus on helping the writer make their story better.
- Sandwich Method. "Sandwiching" critical comments between more positive ones can give enough encouragement to help the recipient focus and not feel overwhelmed. If you are pointing out places where the word choices or dialogue are less effective, try to find some more effective places for comparison. Provide general positive comments on the plot or character or humor or a scene, etc., in addition to focusing on suggested revisions. It's not helpful to give a false impression through an overly-positive critique, but even a few positive comments can soften the blow of a strong critique and help provide focus on what is working.