Monday, August 8, 2011

Critiquing Techniques: Helping the New Writer

Sometimes in critiquing, we have to walk a very thin line between helping or hindering the writer. Knowing exactly how to “talk” to a fellow writer, can be a problem, especially when dealing with a student writer who still has a fragile ego about their creations. Knowing just the right words to say takes time to learn and master. 
We have also found that it makes a difference if you are critiquing eye-ball to eye-ball as opposed to online critiquing where all one sees is the words.  When critiquing in person you get to see how the writer is reacting, and hear their reasons for what they’re writing so you can better judge what you need to say and how to say it.
Unfortunately beginning writers often have this false belief that all their words are golden and truly creative, and should never, ever be disturbed or changed. They’re spent months or years coming up with this idea and forming these sentences. They are fixed in stone!
One thing we have learned over the years, editing and critiquing can make for a better book. Beginning writers will eventually find what the rest of us have discovered--they are going to have to work with an editor. If the editor wants changes, and they are reasonable, you need to work on those changes. As a journalist, Becky learned from the first story she wrote in a newsroom—nothing is carved in stone. Things are going to be changed. That’s what editors do. Most writers we’ve talked to say that they learned a lot about fixing problems with their writing once they began working with their editors at a publishing house.
However it is also true that editors in today’s publishing world don’t have the time to work as much individually with authors. They expect the work they get to be as publishable as possible and they’re going to reject your manuscript if they think it needs too much work.
And that is where the critique partner and group can be so helpful. Journalists say they find it easier to work with an editor because, like Becky, they’ve been doing it for years in TV and newspaper newsroom. They got their work tossed back if it didn’t shine. Your critique partners and group are like that first editor. We’ve heard writers say time and time again, critiquing helped them learn to get away from thinking their first written words were perfect.
As teachers, it is our job to “gently” lead these beginning writers out of dream land and into reality ... at least the reality of how to write a great scene. The following is a scene written from a writing student from one of our on-line writing workshops and it needed help.
He had a great idea for the scene but the Point of View or POV was all over the place. Knowing that this particular student was a quick learner and that he thrived on suggestions as he was actively working on a long novel, we decided to give him a push.
Okay, a kick in the pants so to speak.
We told him the problem, made a POV suggestion and even went so far as to start him in the right direction.  He did all the rest.
Here is the first draft with the problems in RED CAPS and what he sent in later.

            The next Friday, after dinner, Stump was watching TV when the mutt, Oscar, raised his ears, and instantly bolted for the door. Then he yapped, “Hey Stump, somebody’s out there,” but Stump didn’t seem to understand. HERE WE HAVE A PROBLEM. IT SEEMS LIKE THE POV FIRST IS IN STUMP’S POV BECAUSE HE IDENTIFIES OSCAR AS A MUTT, BUT THEN WHEN “STUMP DIDN’T SEEM TO UNDERSTAND” WE SWITCH OVER TO THE DOG’S POV.
            All of a sudden, a quadruple knock confirmed the canine’s observation. THIS SEEMS LIKE OMNISCIENT POV.
            “See,” Oscar persisted, “I told you so. Don’t worry. I’ll tell him to go away.”            
        Oscar barely began to warn the outsider that he was asking for trouble when Stump undermined him, “Come in.”
            The door knob jiggled.
            Oscar screamed, “Holly Lassie crap, we’re being invaded.”
            Then it happened, the intruder opened the door and stepped into their space. That was the final straw. NOT SURE WHOSE POV THIS IS. COULD GO EITHER WAY
            Oscar vociferously yapped his disapproval, “Hey, this is our house. Get the hell out of here before we kick your ass.”
            Suddenly Stump stood up, grabbed the dog’s collar, tugged him back a couple feet and advised, “Oscar. Get back, boy. It’s okay.” AND NOW IT SEEMS LIKE WE ARE IN STUMP’S POV…ETC, ETC... ALTERNATING BETWEEN THESE POV’S... not good...A SCENE IS MUCH STRONGER IF ONLY ONE POV IS USED...
            Oscar lowered his voice slightly, but he wasn’t sure if the young human knew what he was doing. DOG’S POV Oscar sniffed the air, and watched cautiously as the intruder extended his hand toward Stump and introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Myles”.
            Stump shook the man’s hand, “Hello.”
  “Can I pet the dog?” the stranger asked.
            “Sure,” said Stump.                
            Myles squatted and extend his hand toward Oscar’s head. Oscar decided to take a chance.  He let it happen. It felt pretty good. Then the stranger addressed him. “Hi there, Oscar. How you doin’, huhboy?” he asked.
            The four-legged one cautiously relaxed THIS IS CONFUSING—THE FOUR LEGGED ONE SEEMS TO BE OMNISCIENT POV AGAIN AND THEN WE GO BACK TO OSCAR’S POV and enjoyed the attention. It seemed safe. There was only one thing left to do, one final test.
            Oscar waited for the big fella to stand up, then, it was time for the canine to make his move, to trade good sniffs of each other’s crotches. Oscar leaned in to do his part, but the taller one failed to seize the opportunity. Too bad for him.  
            A moment later it was all over. Oscar was satisfied with the introductions. He wagged his tail and welcomed the newcomer to the pack.
We sent the scene back to the student and suggested that he try it again, only this time in first person with the note that once you are in first person, you can ONLY write about what that person sees, hears, thinks, etc...
Here is his response... Hey guys, this was a fun and educational exercise. It was difficult at first, but I started to get the hang of it. I think I’m going to try it again, this time from the perspective of a cemetery plot.
Here is the same scene done in first person. But to give him a “heads-up” we did the first paragraph for him (the section in red) and then he did the rest.

            Thump. Thump. Creak.
            Something was on the front porch. I looked over at the boy. Nope. He hadn’t heard anything. He was still watching the TV.
            But someone or something was out there. I could tell. I stood up and yelled my loudest.
            “Oscar,” the boy shouted, “shut up. Your barking is...”
            I yelled even louder as the thumps came closer. Stupid humans. They’re so dumb. They can’t hear anything.
            The doorbell rang.
            I knew it. A stranger.
            I jumped up and ran to the door sliding the last few feet on the polished wooden floor.


            Fortunately, Butch, my friend from next door had also heard the noise and he joined in. He must have been at his fence, probably on his hind legs trying to see who it was.
            The kid stood up, headed my way. Finally. Our pack was united. Determined to do my part, I screamed so hard I almost lost my voice.     
            Then, all of a sudden, the stupid boy grabbed my collar, yanked me backwards, as if I was the one causing all the trouble, “Damn it Oscar, get back.”
            Why the hell was he choking me? We’re supposed to be on the same team.
            I had to overcome his stupidity. I tugged and yapped with all my might.
            “Come in.”
            The door knob jiggled.
            Holly Lassie crap, we were being invaded.
            Then it happened, the intruder opened the door and seized some of our space. That was the final straw. I went for him.
             “Oscar. Get back, boy. It’s okay.”
            The trespasser held steady. He must have sensed I meant business. I sniffed the air. Nothing unusual. My throat was throbbing.
            “Oscar, GET BACK!”           
             I let the kid think he was the boss. I sat. I sniffed. I watched. I let my neighbor know I had it under control.
            Then the intruder extended his hand toward the kid, “Hi, I’m Myles”.

            “Can I pet the dog?”
            “Sure. He’s really a good dog. He won’t bite.”
            The hell I won’t. But first I had to check this human out.
            The stranger squatted to my level. I got a good look at him. Seemed friendly enough. His hand came slowly at me. A good sign.
            Then it happened, he scratched that spot right behind my left ear that I can never quite get. He was off to a great start.
            “Hi there, Oscar. How you doin’, huhboy?”
            I like it when they talk to me, but that’s not enough. I flopped on my side, spread my legs, to see if he knew what I really wanted. He did. He scratched my belly. I had him right where I wanted him. I wagged my tail to let him know he was on the right track. There was one final test, the big one.
            I waited for the big fella to stand up, then, I wanted to find out if he would go “all the way,” sniff each other’s crotches? I leaned in. Took a good whiff. Humans smell so weird. Kinda like flowers.
            It was his turn. I was proud of how I smelled down there. I waited. I waited. I waited. But he took too long. Must have been playing “hard to get”. Too bad for him. Maybe next time.
            I decided not to hold his apprehension against him. I was satisfied. Wagged my tail. Welcomed him into the pack. 
            I wondered if he knows how to play catch.


This is written quite well, this time around. And it provides a good lesson for all of us. Sometimes turning a scene in a new direction can liven things up.
So, bottom line, sometimes we just need, all of us, a change of direction ... a kick in the pants that says, if that didn’t work, try this idea. And if you're a new writer, don't be afraid of trying something new and changing your words or work. Listening to criticism from your critique partner or group can only help when the time comes to work with an editor.


  1. "Beginning writers will eventually find what the rest of us have discovered--they are going to have to work with an editor."

    I don't know if it is true anymore thanks to self publishing. Now, when anybody can publish anything and do it pretty cheaply or free, many folks seem to believe they can do it all on their own.


  2. Kevin
    Actually the trend toward self publishing only increases the need for a good editor or critique group or partners. The big complaint about self published work is that it is often unpolished or filled with errors. While a beginning writer can choose to do without the extra help, and readers may buy their first self-published book, the question is if they will come back for more.