Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
October 2011

Rules for Critiquing

I frequently run workshops where critiquing happens, and these are the rules that I have developed to help things run smoothly. I send them out and remind people of them on occasion if someone starts disobeying the rules during the critique. I think they can also be used in critiques groups that become more regular. What I usually do is time ten minutes on my watch (with an alarm that everyone can hear) for the reading, and then ten minutes also timed on my watch for the critique. It's important to me that there is an outside, independent and objective thing deciding when the time is up and not me.

Of course, many people do critiques where the reading has been done before hand, and then you will only need to set a time for the critiques. Be aware that there are some situations in which it is useful to have someone other than the writer read the manuscript, like with a picture book or with poetry where you want to be sure that what you intend comes through. For novels, I tend to prefer the writer reads because it goes more quickly, but that is a personal preference.

For the Critiquer:

  1. Try to find something positive to say. If you truly can't find anything (beyond font choices, etc.), be quiet and let someone else begin the discussion first.
  2. Make sure you don't interrupt others, even if you disagree with them. Wait until they are finished speaking, then say what you have to say.
  3. Write detail-oriented comments on the manuscript itself or in an email to send later. Don't waste valuable discussion time with comments about spelling, grammar errors, etc.
  4. In general, try to make comments that will apply to writing in general, not necessarily only to this manuscript. That makes the critique more valuable to all in attendance, rather than simply the person being critiqued.
  5. Think of examples in similar books and give the names of titles published in the last ten years. This isn't to be a show off. It's to illustrate what you are talking about that is directed at the current market.
  6. Phrase most of your remarks in terms of what you like, not in terms of absolutes. There may be absolutes in writing, but I don't know if any of us real people are unbiased enough to see them when they hit us in the face.
  7. Be humble. Accept that your opinion may not be the only valid one.
  8. Do not argue with other critiquers. They may or may not be as experienced as you are. If someone disagrees with you, allow them to do so and let the critiquee choose what to do with differing opinions. If you have a personal problem with someone else in the critique, you should act in such a way that no one else in the room would have any idea that this is so.
  9. Limit your negative comments to one. If there is time, you can offer another one. Let everyone have a chance to say something. There is limited time and presumably others will come up with things you miss.
  10. Be aware that it can be overwhelming for those new to writing to take in a lot of comments. Look at the biggest problems and address those first (unless they are typographical).
  11. Talk about why you think something isn't working, but don't feel obliged to say how you think it should be fixed. The writer can figure that out on his/her own.
  12. Think about the manuscript in terms of scenes. What is "in scene"? What is "told"? Does this combination work?
  13. Think about your reaction to the main character. Do you like him/her? Is this what the writer wants?
  14. If you have questions that are raised and unanswered in the course of the reading, feel free to write them down. Accept that the writer may deliberately refuse to answer certain questions because they are raising tension. You may or may not agree with this choice.
  15. Check to see what viewpoint is being used and whether or not the manuscript continues to use the same viewpoint throughout. If not, this may explain some of your problems with the manuscript.
  16. Understand that hearing the critique of other manuscripts not your own may be more valuable to you than getting your own feedback. Be attentive and do not act as if nothing matters to you but your own critique. Participate and take notes on what you learn from everyone.

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For the Critiquee:

  1. Do not bring more than you are asked to bring for the critique. If you are allowed ten minutes to read, only bring a maximum of ten pages to read.
  2. Always double space your manuscript pages. You may use both sides of the page to save paper, but leave room for writing comments and be kind to the eyes!
  3. Do not begin your reading with excuses. If you have not had time to read through your manuscript or you feel like it isn't up to your regular quality, do not mention this ahead of time. Like the performer who makes a mistake in performance, pretend that nothing happened and your audience may not notice. It's a waste of time and a delaying technique to make excuses.
  4. Do not bring something to read and then realize that the "interesting" part doesn't start until chapter two. Just bring chapter two, then. (In general, I would recommend not bringing any prologues, prefaces or other preliminary material. And I would not read captions or quotes from the heading, either.)
  5. Do not bring something out of order in the middle of a novel to read to a group that hasn't read anything else. It takes too long to get them up to speed. (Only exception is as above, when chapter two is actually chapter one.)
  6. You may give a brief introduction of your manuscript before you begin reading (or before someone else begins reading) that you would draw from a query letter. A simple description of the genre or market you are targeting, or possibly a one-sentence pitch.
  7. You may answer questions when you are directly addressed, but should otherwise remain relatively silent during the critique.
  8. Above all, do not argue with people who are critiquing you. (Let others do it, for you :)) These people are giving you a gift.
  9. Do not tell your readers that you have already published the manuscript they are critiquing, that you have already had an agent show interest in it as it is, or otherwise negate their comments. This is rude. If you don't need a critique, why did you come to a critique?
  10. If you have a specific question on the manuscript, like whether this or that scene is working, you may mention it before you read, but expect to get a full critique of other things in the manuscript, as well.
  11. When time is up for your reading, you may finish to the end of a sentence and take a few seconds to explain what happened at the end of the scene. You may also feel free to tell what the shape of the novel is like after this section, but do not go on for more than a few sentences.
  12. Say thank you to everyone who offers comments. You can return their gift later, but you don't have to inform them of your plans.
  13. Continue to listen to the other critiques. If you absolutely have to leave at a certain time, inform the person who is in charge of the critique or the whole group that you must do so, and be apologetic. This is not good form. Offer to read other manuscripts if they are emailed to you.
  14. Don't make changes immediately after a critique. Give yourself time to let them settle. Make sure that changes you make are truly changes that you agree with. Make sure that you have a vision of what you want the revised manuscript to look like and that you are confident it is what you want.
  15. Don't feel wounded or demoralized by the critique. It's hard not to, but remember that you have done a difficult thing by beginning and that you are a step ahead of everyone who hasn't. Take courage, and continue down the path of getting better. We're all on it, somewhere or other.
  16. If others give you a suggestion for a specific change, be cautious about doing it. It might be wise to write down comments, but not to look at them while you are actually working on your manuscript. You need to make sure that your own voice remains.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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