YOU WANT ME TO CRITIQUE YOU?
When I was fortunate enough to find the South Carolina Writer’s Workshop, be accepted as a member, and joined the Surfside chapter, I was of course thrilled. I remember discussing how the meetings work. You know, the usual stuff like dates to meet, how to submit my work, how to accept critiques of my work. And then the first meeting came. I remained thrilled and naturally went through all the normal emotions -- excitement, anticipation, nervousness -- all the feelings anyone might experience when they’re about to have their work looked at and yes, scrutinized.
I knew I needed to be open-minded about the critique. I knew not to take the feedback personally and to leave my ego at the door after all, I was in this to learn and to improve.
Then they told me I would also critique others in my group. Huh? Really? Didn’t they know I like to be liked? What would I say to others? I don’t have a PhD in English Lit. I screw up tenses and make the age old mistake with its versus it’s all the time.
Okay. I can do this and so can you. Remember, the person whose work you are reading wants feedback. They want to improve. They wanted to present their work and be scrutinized because it’s a tough, competitive world out there. They are like me. Tired of the family/friend who says, “This is good.” They can’t say why it’s good or bring themselves to point out weaknesses instead, they say, “No. It’s really good. I liked it.” You try to help them along with questions like, “Was the conflict believable? Did the story move along? What about how the protagonist fought the giant ants and then came face-to-face with Bambi’s mother? Did it make sense?” And they respond, “I liked it. It was all good.” Bull. Nothing is all good. Hence the need to find a writer’s group and seek feedback.
So you’re like me and want to be liked. Okay. Just critique the way you would like to be critiqued - honesty with encouragement and give examples of what you mean. Help to focus the writer on the main issues. There are two objectives to a critique. 1) To identify weaknesses; and, 2) Offer constructive advice. That doesn’t mean you have to destroy the author. Be objective and honor the writer’s voice but help them learn so it isn‘t a waste of their time or your own.
I checked out some web sites to assist me in the art of critiquing. I also tried to come up with a checklist to help me. The checklist isn’t all-inclusive but it’s a start that keeps me on track.
Before I give the list, I want to say that you should always let the author know if the type of story you’re asked to read isn’t really your thing. Let’s say it’s a fantasy about animalistic-like aliens who come to earth and take over dog mills so they can conquer the world. Well, fantasy might not be of interest to you so tell the author. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t offer feedback. You recognize a good story when you see one so provide comment on the areas that matter in any good story telling.
1. Opening - was it captivating? Did you find it interesting? Did it grab your attention?
2. Conflict - is there action? Struggle? Emotional conflict? Something that keeps your interest and makes you want to turn the page?
3. Setting - does the author paint a picture of where the story takes place? Is it consistent to the era? Is there too much detail that drags the story down? Two pages on how the hotel room looked right down to a complete description of bedbugs will probably not help the story plot or keep the reader’s interest.
4. Point of View - is that consistent? Through whose eyes are we seeing the story? Whose emotions are in play? Is there a lot of head hopping?
5. Show Versus Tell - how much is the author telling us and how much does the reader simply know because of how the story is shown? Is the POV consistent with the character? Does it represent how he/she would think, feel, react?
There are other elements as well to a critique. Pacing is important. Does the story move along or slow to a snail in parts? Does it flow well in a logical order? If the story involves flashbacks, is it confusing? Does the reader get lost in to much background information? Does the plot make sense or does it get lost along the way? Is too much time spent on details that get too technical while the main action is left flapping in the wind? Are the characters believable even if they are aliens who bark and quote Hemingway? Is the dialogue consistent to their personality? Can you sense who is speaking without being told? And finally, the mechanics of grammar, spelling, choice of words all play a part. Writer’s know what they want to say, what they intended to say, and when they read back their own words, that’s what they see…even if it isn’t there. I no of what I spoke.
As much as possible, give examples on how to fix the weakness. Offer suggestions without taking over the style and let the author come to their own conclusions on how to improve.
Above all else - praise. That is so important. Add positive comments on where the author did something really good. It might be a funny line or a description, or the story itself that has good potential, but there is always something good that can be found. "We all need to be told where we are very good as well as where we are very, very bad. We cannot grow, otherwise." - Pete Murphy.
For more resources check out: http://www.crayne.com. Also see: shortstorygroup.com; and suite101.com.
Hope to see you at the SCWW Conference October 19-21.
Linda Cookingham (aka. L. Thomas-Cook)
Writer, Photographer, Member of the BOD SCWW, Mother, Wife, Beach Walker, Dog Lover, and all around dreamer.
Posted by Ginny Padgett, 2012 Conference Chair on Tuesday, October 2, 2012
By Chris Mathews
Writing non-fiction does not have to be a dry, pedestrian venture. In fact, in today’s internet world, original ways of approaching real-life events can make the difference between prose that touches people and prose that bores.
In the piece that follows, I tried to inject the simple act of doing a project with my grandchild into a piece that captured the frustration and joy of the experience.
Excavating the Triceratops with Poppy and Granddaughter Sidney Grace
On Saturday, August 18th, in
, Poppy and his
granddaughter Sidney Grace Mathews unearthed and reconstructed a triceratops, defined
by Wikipedia as a genus of herbivorous ceratopsid dinosaurs which lived during
the late Mesozoic period. Forget that
scientists now think that this famous, fearsome three-horned triceratops was
actually a younger version of the torosaurus. Forget that Ridgeland, Ridgeland,
South Carolina has never
been known for its tarpits (in fact, it barely has a ridge). Forget that this
monumental achievement will never be displayed in the Smithsonian. South Carolina
Poppy and Gracie dug out a triceratops together, using only a small blue, plastic spade and brush. Gracie did most of the brushing, Poppy scraped with the spade. This joint expedition took place in the Mathews’ den atop a glass coffee table.
The team of Poppy and Gracie unearthed this find by extricating a clay egg enclosed in vacuum-sealed plastic labeled Dino World Fossil Kit. Excavating instructions were listed on the back in both English and Spanish:
1) While over an easily cleanable surface or newspaper, remove the dino egg from its wrapper. MarMar, grandma, suggested the kitchen table as the perfect location for this expedition but Poppy wanted a challenge, so he placed a poster sized “No Diving” sign on the clear glass wood-rimmed table.
2) Make sure that the egg is firmly held in place. Carefully, remove dirt using the excavating tools provided (the previously mentioned spade and brush) Wanting results, Poppy left out the “carefully”. After shaving slivers for a short time, he squeezed the clay to smithereens. Gracie reveled in the clay, fragments cascading off the table and onto the carpet, leaving her looking like a street urchin. Feeling the exhilaration of risk-takers, the two opted not to “WEAR EYE PROTECTION” as posted at the bottom of this step.
3) When done removing dirt, clean fossils using the brush. It is very important to remove all dirt from holes that are used to connect pieces to allow a more secure fit. Poppy discovered this important fact as Gracie brushed off the pieces and he tried to force the tiny nubs into the dinosaur’s torso.
4) Never force the pieces together. If they are not fitting, check for dirt in the holes. Poppy jammed the nubs of the legs into the tiny holes, but only managed to reconstruct a three-legged Triceratops with tail and horned head. Each time Poppy wedged the last leg in its hole, another leg fell off. The plastic legs matched the light tan carpet exactly so finding one that dropped was not easy. After twenty minutes of dropping, picking-up, and twisting legs, Poppy had taken on the demeanor of a mad scientist. Sidney Grace, however, did not lose confidence in Poppy. She just kept playing with the clay, spilling a few crumbs on the carpet as MarMar gleamed with pride at the two with a look of “I knew it wouldn’t stay on the table”.
Finally, after blowing profusely in the holes and delicately washing and blow-drying these tiny orifices, Poppy assembled the Triceratops on four legs. Sidney Grace was impressed, even though Poppy failed to mount the two back legs in the two holes provided on the plastic stand shown in the illustration, deeming the stand “for nincompoops”. After the two proudly gazed at their tiny monstrosity, Marc, Sidney Grace’s dad and Poppy’s son, proclaimed “naptime” for the smudged-face waif.