Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Critiques, Critiquers, and Critiquing

I’ve released a new book on the craft of writing, called You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. To celebrate the release, I’m sharing a excerpt from the chapter on Critiques. Here's part one, part of the intro plus advice on getting a critique from family or friends.

Why Get a Critique?

If you are not writing for publication, and you don’t care about improving as a writer, you don’t need to take criticism from anyone. That’s fine; it’s totally your decision. But if you do hope to publish your work, or if you simply want to learn to be a better storyteller, you’ll need to get feedback at some point. Few people are good at analyzing their own writing, so getting critiques is an important part of editing and learning how to improve your writing.

Getting critical feedback can be painful. Sometimes this comes from the critique partner being unnecessarily harsh. At other times, it comes from the writer being overly sensitive. If your manuscript is your “baby,” you might not appreciate any comments that suggest it isn’t perfect. But praise alone won’t help you improve your writing.

Try to keep in mind that a critique isn’t an insult. It’s a way to help you make the manuscript even better. Also, it isn’t about you as a person, or even you as a writer. It’s about this particular manuscript, at this moment in time. If the manuscript is flawed, that’s all right. In fact, it’s usually a necessary part of the process. Most writers produce horrible, ugly, embarrassing manuscripts in the early stages. It’s the editing that makes those stories wonderful. A quote contributed to several different authors is “You can’t edit a blank page.” Get something down, and then figure out how to make it better. Getting a critique can help you figure out how to make it better.

Finally, any critique advice is a matter of opinion. If several people are pointing out a problem, there’s likely a problem. But if only one person makes a comment, and it doesn’t resonate with you, it’s fine to ignore it or get a second opinion. Ultimately you have to write something that pleases you; it’s not your job to change your manuscript based on every piece of advice that anybody cares to give.

You can get feedback in several different ways. Today we'll look at getting critiques from family members or friends.

I help!
Family and Friends

You may have family members or friends who are happy to read your writing. Usually these people are not experienced writers. That means they may not know how to identify story problems or give advice about them. Still, they might be able to offer opinions from a reader’s perspective.

When getting critiques from family and friends, it’s best to keep your request simple. You might ask your readers to mark any place they:

  • Are bored
  • Are confused
  • Don’t believe things would happen that way

That’s simple enough for anyone to follow, and it should point out trouble spots in the manuscript. For a little more detail, Freelance Editor Karen R. Sanderson offers this list to provide guidance to your critique partners:

Critical: Please provide an honest response, not only compliments.

Real: Does it feel real and does the dialogue read like people actually talk?

Imagery: Can you imagine the scenes, places, and people?

Timing: Did the timing of events, chapters, and character introductions make sense?

Interesting: Did it capture your interest or were you ready to put it down after the first paragraph?

Questions: Did you have questions? Were you unsure of what was happening or why?

Unique: Is it unique or is it like a dozen other books you wished you hadn’t purchased?

Engaging: Were you engaged in the characters, the scenes, the events?

By giving a little direction, you emphasize that you truly want feedback (not only compliments), and you encourage people to look at the bigger picture and not just mark any typos they notice. Otherwise you may only hear good things. Praise is delightful, but when it comes from people you know, the rave reviews do not necessarily mean your work is wonderful. It could mean those people don’t want to hurt your feelings. It could mean they don’t read enough in this genre to tell good from bad. Or it could simply mean that they like you and are predisposed to enjoy anything you write.

The latter issue is especially common with reading stories to your children, grandchildren, or students. They enjoy the attention and it’s fun to hear stories read aloud. People who know you well may also recognize family stories, which would not have the same appeal to an outside audience. For example, if you base a story on the antics of your family’s cat, your children may love it, but it may not resonate the same way with strangers.

Many professionals warn against taking feedback from non-writers too seriously. Editors and agents do not want to hear in your query letter that your children, grandchildren, students, etc. loved your work. That’s meaningless and might be taken as a sign that you are not a serious writer.

On the other hand, sometimes family members and friends offer blunt, even brutal, criticisms. Some people seem to think it’s OK to be rude to a loved one in a way they wouldn’t behave to a stranger. Some people may even be secretly trying to discourage you, so you’ll spend more time on them and not your new hobby. Others may honestly be trying to help but not know how to give balanced, encouraging feedback. Or maybe they don’t understand the kind of writing you are doing. Someone who only reads epic fantasy novels for adults may not be the best person to give feedback on a picture book for young children.

In short, feedback from friends and family can vary greatly in its helpfulness and hurtfulness. It can be especially crushing to hear negative reactions from a loved one. If someone’s comments make you feel sad or discouraged, maybe you don’t want to share your stories with that person in the future.

Of course, if you are not really ready to hear any criticism, don’t ask for it. It’s fine to share your work with family members or friends and let them know that you do not want comments, you simply want to share. If they insist on trying to provide criticism anyway, interrupt them. Make it clear that’s not their job; you only want support.

What challenges have you faced in getting feedback from family or friends?

Over the next few weeks, I'll be looking at getting feedback from other writers – including critique group challenges and characters – as well as taking classes and hiring a professional editor.

You can get this whole essay, and a lot more – including a chapter on Advanced Critique Questions – in You Can Write for Children: A Guide to Writing Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. In this book, you will learn:

How to explore the wide variety of age ranges, genres, and styles in writing stories, articles and books for young people.
How to find ideas.
How to develop an idea into a story, article, or book.
The basics of character development, plot, setting, and theme.
How to use point of view, dialogue, and thoughts.
How to edit your work and get critiques.
Where to learn more on various subjects.

Order for Kindle, in paperback, or in Large Print paperback.

Sign up for Chris’s Workshop Newsletter for classes and critique offers

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