Quality I – Critiques

Last time, I wrote about the benefits of quantity as a beginning writer. The more you write, the more experience you gain, the more you know, the easier the process becomes. Practice, practice, practice. But, of course, that’s not the whole story.

Improvements in quality come mainly from repeated revisions. That doesn’t mean endless revisions. You must move on at some point whether the story you’re working on is perfect or not. No, it means writing as many stories/novels/poems as you can and then—after reworking each one on your own—finding at least one generous, sensitive, and clever person to help. This is because it’s difficult to see our mistakes at any point, but especially when we’re beginners.

We need our readers to tell us what’s missing, what’s unclear, what should be pushed farther, what gets boring, and whether the pacing and tone is consistent. They can point out whether or not the characters are believable, interesting and if they can be easily distinguished from one another. They can confirm whether or not it all comes together and makes sense. They can suggest ways of fixing the problems. This kind of constructive criticism is invaluable for improving, not only the piece in question, but also our writing skills.

You may be able to get this kind of help from writing classes. You may need to find (or start) a writing group, or join an online forum. You can do an exchange with one other writer. You might be lucky enough to cultivate that one special someone who is always willing to take on another one of your works. But however you go about finding readers who can give appropriate criticism, having them is a necessary component of nurturing quality in your work.

Please note, I said, “appropriate criticism.” The ability to give helpful critiques is a skill and so, the right kind of feedback may be difficult to find. Empty accolades (“I love it!”) are like candy. You may get a quick rush but it doesn’t last long. Comparisons—either good or bad—to other works/authors don’t help you improve this story. Vague feedback such as “It was interesting” leaves you with no idea how to make it better, or even if it needs more. Harsh feedback can be debilitating (though writers must develop a thick skin against this kind of criticism).

To improve your chances of getting the help you need, here are a few suggestions.

  • Do not give out your first drafts. Do at least one complete revision before submitting it to someone else.
  • Use family members with caution. Because they know you well, relatives may have difficulty critiquing what is on the page, but may instead bring irrelevant knowledge about you into the feedback. They may be too close to be honest or overly critical without realizing it. This is not a hard and fast rule, as some husbands and wives or mothers and sons critique each other effectively. It’s just a caution.
  • Give your reader some idea of what will be most helpful. That depends on whether the story is in an early stage (needs overall comments about plot, characters, issues with pacing, tone, believability) or an an almost-finished stage (needs line editing – grammar, typos, spelling, suggestions for tightening and improving awkward sentence structure).
  • Once you get your critique back, then the real work of building quality begins.

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