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Suggestions for Critiquing

No one likes to hear that her work isn’t absolutely perfect, and that’s particularly true when the work in question is our life’s blood–- the stories we’ve dreamed and sweated over. But our own blindness to the value of our creation is even stronger than our feeling that our children have no faults. It’s literally impossible for an author to see his or her own work in a completely neutral light, because when we read what we've written, we remember what we were thinking as we wrote, and so we can't tell if all (and only) the necessary information is actually on the page. That’s particularly true when the work is still fresh.

Subjecting our work to the eyes of another or to a group, however, is not only frightening but sometimes dangerous.  A good many stories have died before ever being completed because they were read by too many people, every one of whom had a different opinion. In this situation, the author, confused by all the ideas, either tries to implement them all, ending up with (and in) a stew, or throws up her hands in despair and does nothing at all.

These are the critiquing rules which I suggest to the romance writing groups I facilitate. They have helped dozens of prospective romance writers discover the strengths and weaknesses of their stories and their writing –- what works, what doesn’t, and what direction they might want to take as they revise.

1. Remember it’s easy to make suggestions when you’re not the one who has to implement them.

It’s easy to look at a painting and say, "It would look so much better in blues and greens instead of mauves and grays," but it’s another thing entirely to repaint it. The truly helpful critiquer will work with the strengths of the story and the author, not with what she herself would do with the idea and the characters.

2. The story belongs to the author, not to the critiquer.

No matter what the advice, it is up to the author to choose what action to take. The responsibility of the critiquer is not to rewrite the story but to point out strengths and weaknesses and make suggestions for capitalizing on good pieces and improving what falls short. The responsibility of the author is to resist the temptation to defend the piece or explain why she did something a certain way. The author also commits to listening carefully not only to the critique but to the message behind it, then to considering the suggestions before choosing her own way to solve the problems which have been called to her attention.

3. Begin with what you like.

The first reaction of the critiquer should be to the good things about the piece. "The opening really caught my attention." "I like the heroine’s spunkiness." "I laughed out loud at this line."

At this stage, the author should listen but say nothing. The goal of both critiquer and author is to focus attention on what works and can be built upon. If the author gets caught up in thanks and self-congratulation, it’s easy to be sidetracked.

4. Continue with comments and questions about what you found unclear, uncomfortable, or confusing.

These things aren’t necessarily wrong, but the words may have had an unexpected impact upon the reader, and the author needs to know when her story hasn’t come across in the way she intended.

"I wasn’t quite sure what was happening till the third page." "I found myself liking the heroine’s friend more than the heroine." "I wondered why you chose to start the story at that moment." "I was turned off when the hero giggled."

At this stage, the author is allowed to answer questions but not to defend or explain. The goal of both critiquer and author is to bring problem areas to the author’s attention. If the author defends her work or explains why she made the choices she did, she’s missing the point that the way she chose isn’t working as well as she’d have liked.

5. Consider the possibilities for the story.

Here’s the critiquer’s chance to make suggestions for the improvement of the story.

"I’d like to see you tone down the heroine’s sarcasm because it’s difficult to like her when she’s talking like that." "Could you get the information about the stolen jewels in earlier, by foreshadowing it in the conversation between Betty and Jane?" "Would the love scene work better if it happened before the encounter in the restaurant instead of after?"

Wherever possible, the critiquer should phrase these comments as questions. "Can you make the hero more likeable?" is much more apt to get the desired results than "Kill the hero!"

At this stage, the author is allowed to both ask and answer questions, but she is not allowed to argue points or explain why a suggestion won’t work. It might not work–- but if she remains open-minded and listens, it may spark a different idea which will work for her story.

6. Finish the critiquing session by summarizing no more than two of the most important areas for the writer to work on.

Nobody can deal with an infinite number of suggestions and make any sense of them. Often if the most important problems are dealt with, other niggles will take care of themselves. But a writer in the midst of a critique may not be able to determine for herself which are the most important points of the many which may have been called to her attention.

For the same reason, the critique session should focus on the overall picture and not get sidetracked into nitpicking. If there are copy-editing issues – punctuation, spelling, paragraphing – by all means mark them on the manuscript for the author’s later use. But the critique session is intended to deal with the sense of the story, not with the packaging details. It makes little sense to fuss about commas if there are questions about whether the entire scene is working, or even if it's necessary.

This exercise is copyrighted material and is offered for the individual's own use. Further distribution or sale is not permitted without permission of the copyright holder. Copyright 2013 Leigh Michaels.

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