At some point, every writer must submit their manuscript for critique. Depending on who is giving the critique, a respected author, a peer or your mother, the comments may vary. Some can be incredibly helpful, others are confusing to the point of being tossed aside and then there are the ones that are harsh, a person writing in red pen that they had to stop reading because they did not like the story. Ouch.In workshop, we are taught to never write this on a story. Your personal feelings need to be separated from the critique and it should be noted that the character is not always a representation of the author. For example, I’ve written characters who use the “N” word in my stories but that is based on the time period and not because I fawning over the word myself (I personally wish it would be a marker for history and not a way African-American’s refer to one another). Another woman in my workshop wrote through description how much her character loved Truman for what he did to the Japs. While this statement offended some in my workshop I found it to be completely normal because of the time period she is writing in, there are people out there who are happy Truman did something to put an end to the war and it was not the woman’s personal opinion but the opinion of her character. Let it be known, we (fiction) writers are not (always) our characters!
So how do I go about the critiquing process?
- I like writing by hand so why not make my notes in the margins by hand? Maybe its just me, but Word’s track changes and notes feature makes all of my well thought out critiques and suggestions seem so small. When reviewing someone’s work, I have so many thoughts and when I type them on the page they just disappear into little boxes on the side. Visually, it looks like I’ve just skipped over paragraphs which mentally leaves me wondering if it is clear enough to the author that I did take the time to read their piece.
- I love highlighting what I really like in a story. Critiquing involves pointing out the instances a writer does very well and what better way to make these moments stand out than highlighting them with a bright yellow highlighter? Though, the yellow became too much so I switched to blue for the time being, a little less blinding on the page. Highlighting attracts the authors eye away from the tough love notes and has them, for one moment, focus on what they are achieving in this story. What lines work really well, the descriptions that captivated me and the characters that made me laugh or cry. I think there needs to be a balance between love and tough love in critiquing so the writer is able to walk away from the workshop or feels confident enough to share their work again. Never blow up the writer’s ego but also don’t crush their dreams. Balance is important.
- I don’t use a red pen. I remember the feelings invoked deep within my soul when I received a paper I worked hard on marked up with the dreaded ink spilling from the red pen. While some people might not associate the red pen with failure, I do. The red pen points out everything wrong in a piece (for me) which is why I avoid using it. I also don’t write in pen because I have commitment issues and like the ability to erase! Scratched out notes just look so messy and does anyone really use white out anymore? Anyway, I love me a good pencil to write my notes in the margins, draw lines around awkward sentences that don’t make sense or put double check marks over lines I love when my highlighter runs out.
- I love me some bullet point comments! As the A to Z challenge progresses you will see my love of lists and bullet points because I love them. They help separate my thoughts. In critiquing, I use bullet points mostly for my help notes because it separates the different ideas, making them easier to find when the author starts the revision process. I’m also lazy and don’t have time to flourish every help note with a well placed sentence. Just pop a bullet point on the page, give my help note with an explanation then keep on moving.
- Never forget the love notes. I think when we hear the word critique, many tend to believe it will just be a circle of our peers picking out all the negative things we’ve done wrong in our writing. The “don’t likes” out weighing the “likes.” This is why, after reading the piece twice, I like to start my summary of what works and what needs work with a paragraph explaining what works. I don’t go over everything because I’ve already highlighted my favorite moments or lines but I will say something along the lines of “I wanted to dip pages 2-5 in highlighter ink because your description of…” Critiques are meant to support and encourage the writer so I think its important to point out what the writer has achieved in the work along with what needs some improvement.
How does everyone else critique another writer’s work? Do you prefer handwritten notes or Word’s Track Changes and Comments? Red Pen? Highlighter?