Constructive Criticism for Writers Groups
Criticism is a part of every writer's life. Even well-established, commercially successful authors have to deal with rejection letters and criticisms of their work.
For new or emerging authors, the prospect of dealing with an avalanche of other peoples' opinions of their work can be daunting. Months if not years of dedicated effort go into creating a manuscript. To have a someone dismiss all that hard work with a few fleeting and possibly snarky comments can be crushing. And the more successful an author proves to be, the more the critics' knives are sharpened.
This Hubpage gives tips on how to deal with unpleasant criticism, and also offer guidelines on how to offer constructive criticism within a writers' circle.
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The Craft of Constructive Criticism
Constructive criticism aims to help a person improve their writing by politely pointing out areas of weakness, so that re-writing can then produce a stronger and possibly more saleable piece of work.
Snarky criticism aims to make one person feel superior to another.
The difference between the two approaches is obvious. Within a writers' group, the approach to offering criticism can result either in an inspiring, friendly and forward-moving group or a cliquey, self-defeating group which is destined to lose members.
The Mighty Opinion!
Personal taste is not an indicator of a manuscript's artistic or commercial value.
Take a moment to think about the millions of books waiting to be bought at this very moment. How many of them would you be willing to pay £20 to read? Or £10? Or £5? How many of them would you be interested in reading even if they were free? 10%? 5% of them?
Yet each one of those published books has been considered a viable business proposition by their publisher.
A person's taste in music can be used as a parallel. One person might listen to Vivaldi, Mozart or Le rue Delashay, while another person might prefer Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters or Little Richard. A third might listen to Yes, Rush or The Tea Party; a forth to 30 Seconds to Mars or HIM. Such variations are endless - and nobody is right or wrong in their taste. Each to their own.
A similar principle applies to constructive criticism of writing.
Opinion is not written in stone!
If a piece of writing has no personal appeal, it is possible to find points to admire such as strong characterisations, plot flow, good dialogue or pleasing turns of phrase.
It is never constructive to say, "I don't like it therefore it's rubbish."
Even if someone to was read aloud the most flawed MS you'd ever heard in your life, you could diplomatically suggest ways to improve it.
How to Offer Writers Constructive Criticism
Constructive criticism is useful to every writer as it helps to identify aspects of any given piece of work which need improvement. Helping others in this way will also help improve your own work as you get into the habit of looking out for flaws.
Constructive criticism should never be personal. It should always remain polite. Be sure that the writer has invited criticism before offering your opinions.
Grammar, punctuation and spelling errors can be awkward to spot if you're critiquing a work which has been read aloud. However, if the reader stumbles over the same sentence twice then there is probably something which needs fixing. Maybe the sentence is too long, or the phrasing is awkward, or the punctuation is in the wrong place. Sometimes an awkward sentence can be deleted entirely to improve a paragraph.
Reading MS aloud is an excellent way of detecting errors such as repetition of information, words or phrases, the use of cliches or information which might be inaccurate or contradictory.
If a story has a slow start, a flagging middle section or an ending which can be readily predicted, then suggest that the writer takes another look at the flow of the piece. Information which is not relevant to the plot can be removed to improve pace, for example.
Do all the characters add to the plot? If not, do they even need to be mentioned? Good dialogue between characters should drive the plot along. If it does not, can it be edited to improve pace?
Too much information can slow pace enormously. For example, if a walk is described we do not need to know the Latin name of every plant seen, the history of nearby buildings, the types of cars which drive by - unless, of course, any of this is directly relevant to the plot. The reverse of this is when a writer has overlooked description altogether, perhaps even omitting to set the story in a specific location.
Do details about characters change without reason? Maybe a brown-eyed person suddenly becomes green-eyed, or someone who hates coffee is later described as drinking it. The use of character charts (see link below) might be suggested.
After the story has been read, are there any unanswered plot threads? Did a character do something which made no sense within the context of the tale? Or did they not do something which seemed too obvious choice, resulting in a dull conclusion? Ask questions of the story to locate plot loopholes.
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How to Receive Constructive Criticism about Your Writing
If you have invited constructive criticism, be aware that you are not obliged to agree with any comments given. However, if several people make similar comments then they have probably made a point worthy of your attention.
Don't argue against critical comments. It's no use giving extra, verbal explanations to try to justify your work. The story is what is written on paper. If you lift a book from a shelf, you don't have the author stand beside you and tell you all the extra bits which the story accidentally left out.
If someone is confused by an aspect of your story, check to see if the information appears in the writing. Maybe you had an idea clear in your imagination which didn't communicate clearly on the page.
Or maybe the person reading your story stopped paying attention. In this case, were they bored? Perhaps your story simply wasn't their cup of tea, but if ten people's attentions drift then this probably indicates a weakness in that particular story.
Don't take criticism as a personal affront to your undiscovered genius! If you are too precious about your writing you will never improve it. Writing is a craft, and like all crafts it has to be learned and developed over time with continued practice.
Criticism in Writers Groups
A useless writers group says every piece of work is totally marvelous. This may flatter a few egos for a while, but people will feel that they're getting no feedback other than sugary-sweet 'niceness.'
A destructive writers group will spout opinions as if they're absolutes. New members will quickly leave the snarky clique to their snarking, or even be deterred from writing anything else. Snarks aren't interested in anyone's writing but their own, regardless of merit. If confronted with such people, politely enquire into their publishing credits. Most have none.
A useful writers group, on the other hand, offers constructive criticism which helps its members improve their writing. Its members are not in competition with each other; there are no cliques. Its members feel inspired and encouraged to write more, to improve their craft, and look forward to remaining long-standing, active group members.
- Character Charts - a Writer's Aid
Purposes of Character Charts: (a)helps create whole characters; (b)find data easily; (c)prevents errors. Why writers use character charts. Plus FREE chart!
- How To Run A Writer's Circle
This Hub shows how to start your own writing group and how to ensure it works well.
- Fiction Story Generator - A Low-Tech Writer's Aid
This story generator will provide a huge quantity and variety of story ideas simply and quickly...
© 2010 Adele Cosgrove-Bray