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#TBT: The Down-and-Dirty Guide to Critiquing

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Throwback Thursday

Sometimes, I’m late jumping on a bandwagon. But when I do, I jump on (in) with both feet and take up the banner. Here, instead of posting old photos, #TBT will be looking back at the 1,760 posts from the past eight years (yes, I’ve been blogging for EIGHT YEARS!) and sharing one chosen at random every Thursday.

If you want to join in the #TBT fun, share a link to your #TBT post in the comments section below!

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Throwback Thursday Post of the Week:
The Down-and-Dirty Guide to Critiquing

Originally posted: July 31, 2007

For a more comprehensive discussion of critiquing—from how-to, to working with crit partners—go to the Writing Series Index page and scroll down to Critiquing.

I always hated math classes. I was good at math—great at math. But I hated sitting there for an hour (or longer) listening to someone drone on about the concepts. Aside from Geometry in 9th grade (where I finished the year with a 108% A grade—you know, all that visually oriented stuff), the only time I ever really enjoyed using “higher” math consciously—I know I use it subconsciously every day—was when I took Astronomy and the accompanying labs in college. It was taking all of the concepts of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry I’d memorized over the past five or six years and applying it to stuff that actually had applications in the real world—figuring out distances from the earth to other planets and stars, planet sizes, the angle of the earth to the sun by measuring the shadow of a flag pole at different times during the day/semester, and so on. Math stopped being “conceptual” and became “concrete.”

In the same way, critiquing makes everything we’ve ever heard about what “good writing” is concrete instead of conceptual.

Becoming a good critiquer is part and parcel with becoming a good writer. Until you learn how to critique others’ writing, you’ll never be able to look at your own objectively. I have learned more about the craft of writing through the critiquing/mentoring process than I did in all of the seminars I took in two years of graduate school in a genre fiction writing program [2014: not to mention the years I worked subsequent to posting this as an editor!]. That’s not to say I didn’t learn stuff from the seminars—just that to me, it was like sitting in those math classes . . . just memorizing concepts. What I learned through the process of critiquing others and understanding and internalizing the critiques given to me on my own writing made it all concrete.

So here’s the down-and-dirty recap of the Critiquing series:

Critiquing Step 1: Becoming a Pot-Bellied Pig
1. Be tough but sensitive. Be tough-skinned enough that you don’t take critiques personally, but sensitive enough to take in the comments so you can improve your writing.

2. Be a good listener. Whether literally (in face-to-face situations) or figuratively (written critiques), listen first. Do not respond until you have heard/read everything the critiquer has to say. It’s so easy to become defensive, whether it’s the first or the hundredth time we’ve gotten feedback on our writing. No, not all advice/comments will be valid or applicable. But if you shut down at the first comment you don’t agree with, you might not find the pearl of wisdom that will mean the difference between a rejection and a request for a full.

3. Be loyal to your “herd.” Your critique group is your herd. You have a role to perform within the group as well as outside of it. Don’t betray confidences, do give support and encouragement. Let your “herd” help you figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are so you can work on them.

4. Be an individual. You cannot be so bound by the critiques you receive that you alter your voice, style, or story to fit what someone else thinks is best. You must remain true to your inner voice and to your story.

Critiquing Step 2: Be a Reader First, Writer Second
The First Read-Through: When you sit down to read the latest novel from your favorite published author, do you do it with red pen in hand just waiting to start marking up the pages? Of course not. The first time you sit down with your crit partners’ work, do so as if you were reading a published novel. Just read it. Keep a pen and notepad nearby to make notes of things to comment on later, but not on the first read-through.

The Second Read-Through: Now is your chance to put everything you know about writing into practice. With your notes from the first reading at hand, read through the manuscript again, this time, marking/commenting on the details. (See the original post for a list of things to read for.)

Critiquing Step 3: Remember the Golden Rule
You’ve completed the two read-throughs and you have your rough notes. Great. Now, set it aside for at least one day, a couple of days if possible. Then, come back to your notes with fresh eyes. As you read each criticism, try to word it in your mind to make it as positive as possible—word it the way you would want to read it if someone were writing the comment about your writing. In other words, “critique others as you would wish to be critiqued yourself.”

Critiquing Step 4: Putting the Crits to Work
You must carefully consider each comment before deciding whether to implement it or not. If you can (if it’s not feedback from a contest or the like where you cannot contact the critiquer), ask clarifying questions. If you find yourself getting bogged down in the critique comments and losing heart, step back and consider the bigger picture. And set specific goals of what you are trying to achieve.

One Comment
  1. Dora permalink
    Thursday, April 24, 2014 9:15 am

    Kaye, you sound a lot like me in high school. I hated math. I just really good at it. I remember my Algebra II teacher saying we couldn’t be this high in math without loving it. I told a friend, no–it is just easy.

    It wasn’t until I was in college that math became a passion, so much so that I have a B.S. in Mathematics. Who would have thought. (Only took math in college, because I was told Calc would be a good idea for grad school.)

    It was later, as I stopped using it everyday, that I figured out I missed it. So much that I returned to law school to completely change my practice to include math–I am studying to be a Tax Lawyer.

    I also discovered, much to my chagrin, that I am somewhat of a nerd and geek. I actually DVR Jeopardy and calculate the number of persons in line ahead of me in line at amusement parks.

    As an attorney, I write in a somewhat different manner than most and have to be conscious of my audience and point. Your steps could help greatly in that area. I am not the greatest “proof” reader of my own work and have to have another person read through my work, as well as my own read throughs.

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