Monday, July 13, 2015

Critiquing As a Gladiator Sport

          While compiling information about how to ensure a good critique, I ran across an interesting analogy.  Critiquing should not be a match between gladiators.  One person should not end up as the winner, instead both parties should benefit from the experience.
Writers, like ancient gladiators, go through years of strenuous training and harsh criticism.  They parade their “wares” before numerous critique partners, literary agents, and editors, and all for a brief moment of recognition and very little monetary gain.
Critiquing another person’s paper should never reach gladiator level.  It should be a helpful and valuable experience, so here are five steps to consider:
1.    Both parties prepare for the work ahead.
The author chooses one target area he/she wants edited:
·       Structural/content suggestions: What was said? How well was it said? Does it make sense? Is it clear? Was something omitted or overlooked?  This includes anything concerning the plot, pacing, character development, continuity, dialogue, conflict, etc.
·       Line/sentence suggestions: This focuses on prose, word usage, clarity of expression, sentence construction, format, aesthetics on the page, etc.
·       Copy/proofreading suggestions: These are the basics, like grammar, punctuation, spelling, syntax.

2.    Step into the arena and execute the directive.
Read the manuscript twice:  once as a reader; once as a writer (but stick to the writer’s target area). Make notes, either marking on the manuscript or on sticky notes to help pinpoint suggestions.

3.    Applaud work well done.
If there is little change to suggest, provide examples of what worked well and why. Share these with the author and with others so that everyone can learn from good examples. Telling an accomplished author that their story “reads well” is not helpful, especially as they struggle with the next installment of their manuscript. Everyone needs direction and encouragement.

4.    Show some humanity.
If the emperor was not present to decide the fate of a fallen gladiator, the decision went to the second in command of the games.  Ironically, this person was called the editor.  (Really, no lie.)
If the manuscript needs work/revision/edits, learn how to present the critique and suggestions so that they are not viewed as criticisms. Be aware of the emotional impact words have on the author.
Be sincere but use a careful tone.  Never be condescending, reproachful, or derogatory.  Brutality, bullying, and cruelty should never be masked as honesty.  Remember that negative comments are hard blows and do not encourage writing or good will.  Writers are more open to a critique than they are to a criticism.

5.    All parties learn from the practice of critiquing.  
A good critique puts the onus of improving the manuscript on the writer.  It encourages the writer to learn more about the craft and employ those skills into the writing.  Giving a good critique also forces the “editor” into analyzing the manuscript, learning what works and what doesn’t, but then stepping back and allowing the author to take ownership of their work.

Always state your critique/analysis/suggestions in second or third person, never in first person.
Ask “what if” and open the discussion to suggestions the writer could probably use. It will be the author’s decision to choose which (if any) option he/she wants.
Focus on the manuscript (and not on personal preferences) and lead discussions that offer several solutions the author might consider when (and if) he revises the manuscript.

Practice examples:
Instead of “I got bored on page two so I stopped reading,” say something like, “The story seemed to wander on page two and the pacing seemed off.” Point to the sentence or the paragraph and have everyone in the group study and suggest possible solutions.

Instead of “If I was you, I would rewrite the whole second page,” suggest,” What if you introduce some dialogue on page two and have the two characters act out the scene?”  
Or “What if you wrote this in third person instead of in first?”  
Or “What if your character says yes instead of no?”

Try these out and let the games begin.

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