Thursday, September 20, 2007

"He only profits from praise who values criticism." -Heine

An Essay
by Alice Folkart

I have to say that I learn more from taking a careful look at someone else's work and then trying to explain why I think it is well done or needs work, than I have from all of the books on writing I've read. I've never taken a class, so I can't count
experience with a live teacher.

If a piece offends you - language, violence, distasteful political or social views, put it down. Ignore it. Go and read something else. If the only thing you find offensive is what you consider a lack of talent and/or craftsmanship, look more carefully and see what you can learn by helping the writer. See if there is even one small thing you can say to encourage the writer before you start giving her or him the benefit of your knowledge.

I always try to find something positive to say - this is a good start, a sympathetic character, I like the way you've included sensory detail - autumn leaves crunching, birdsong waking up the hero, etc. If all you can say is, "I can see that you've put a lot of work into this," then say so. We don't gain anything, we don't become better writers ourselves, by crushing another's hope and desire to write.

The worse the piece is, the fewer nits I pick. If I were trying to build a house, I'd give up if some know-it-all carpenter stood and watched me, criticizing everything from my choice of lot and kind of wood to the way I drove a nail or tacked on a shingle. Why bother if everything I do is wrong? Why try.

So, if the piece needs a lot of work and the writer seems to have no clue I may point out some simple thing such as:

  • Did you mean to use the word usual two or three times in every paragraph? Can you find another way to express that idea?
  • The first paragraph is in past tense, and then, you switch to present tense. It confused me. Is there a reason for this?
  • I have trouble knowing who is speaking - when there are three or four people in a conversation and all the reader gets is 'he said' and 'she said,' the reader gets lost.
  • This is a pretty complex story or subject - you might want to trim it down to size - only one main problem to be solved, only two or three characters (instead of ten), only one point in time (instead of all of history) for an exercise of 300 to 400 words.
  • And, if the piece is full of typos, don't be afraid to suggest that the writer remember to use the spell checker - and reread at least twice.
  • And, if the piece has elementary grammar errors, don't be afraid to suggest Strunk & White's Elements of Style.

And, on the grammar track - if the writer consistently breaks the rules, for example, forgets to use quotes correctly, cite one example and suggest that he or she go through the piece to see and correct other instances where the same error crops up.

As for learning from critiquing - here is one example of something I learned that nothing else could probably have taught me. I found that in the piece I was reading, every sentence had the same pattern: Bob did this or that. Bob said this or that. The cat jumped. The car started. All, simple subject-verb sentences. How dull. There's no rule about this, but it did make me aware of how we can get stuck in a sentence patter and put our reader to sleep.

Read the critiques that others are giving. Disregard the lazy ones - the, "Good work. Enjoyed. You might give your characters names." kind. But pay close attention to the ones that offer specific advice.

If you've encountered something so badly written that you can't even bear to read it! Well, then, don't. Go on to something that you can read and comment on. But, think about that bad one. Can you isolate one thing that the writer could do to improve just a little bit? Offer up that tiny bit of advice and a little encouragement - "You need to make your subjects and verbs agree." (give an example from the writer's own text) "But, you've got a good start here."

Most of all, enjoy and profit from your experience as a member of The Internet Writing Workshop.


Carter said...

Alice knows whereof she speaks. She's one of the best critters I know, and I know some good ones. Take her advice.

Ruth D~ said...

Why am I not surprised to find that Carter beat me to the punch? I was going to say the same thing. Alice takes critiquing seriously. I'm always glad when she digs into something I've written.

austere said...

So am I.
An inadequate Thank you.

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