Tuesday, October 24, 2017

First Rules of Critique—“Rule One”

Learn the rules of critiquing for writers.
by Eva Marie Everson @EvaMarieEverson


I’ve been a part of critiquing written work for over twenty years.

In March 1997, I sat around a dining room table in Longwood, Florida with four other writer wannabes. We were the beginning of Word Weavers International (though we didn’t know it at the time), which is now over 600 members strong and stretches from one end of the globe to the other.

Bottom line of all that is that I know a little bit about critiquing. Over these twenty years I’ve learned what works … and what doesn’t. What should be a part of critique … and what should not.

So, let’s start with Rule #1: Know the Writer’s Level of Expertise.

Sitting in a group of writers means that you’ll mingle with wordsmiths of all levels. One of the first questions I ask is, “Do you consider yourself a beginner, an intermediate, or advanced?”

When someone answers, “A beginner,” the first thing I do is remind myself of what it feels like to be at that level. I remember twenty years ago when what I knew about writing and publishing (and editing) was little to nothing. I was eager, yes, but if I’d been slammed with too much in the way of critique, it would have been more than I could have taken. I would have heard “you’re not good enough,” rather than what was really being said.

Back then, I also needed to hear if I was headed in the right direction, so I now try to give encouragement of that nature. Recently, I commented to a new writer, “I can teach you punctuation, but I cannot teach you talent. You’ve got the latter. You’ve got it in spades. Now, let’s talk about commas …” I watched as the newbie writer’s face glowed under the light of the words I’d just given her. They weren’t just tossed out on the table, either. She really does have talent. She needed to hear that.

With intermediates, I figure they already know they have the talent, otherwise they wouldn’t have gotten as far as they have. They also have a passion, but I need to know where that passion lays. What set it on fire? What keeps it burning? What do they hope to accomplish with this work or with past or future works? They know enough about commas and semicolons and they probably know how I feel about exclamation points. These writers typically are in need of character development help or help with the outline of chapter direction.

“Does this chapter even make sense in the context of what I’m writing about?” I often hear from nonfiction writers. Or, from fiction writers, “I’m concerned that my character has stepped out of character.”

Most writers who attend Word Weavers meetings fall into one of these two categories. But we have several “advanced” writers—those of us who have multiple traditionally published books, speak at writers conferences, etc.—as well. Advanced writers often hear, “I don’t feel qualified to critique you.” Believe me, we need critique like everyone else. But our needs have gone beyond commas and exclamation points, outlines and character development.

As for myself, my general concern (with my work) is whether or not it’s readable. Comprehendible. Entertaining. That doesn’t mean that if a fellow critiquer sees a sentence with a missing period I don’t want to know about it. I do.

Repeat Rule #1: Know the writer’s level of expertise. If you are intermediate or advanced, don’t try to talk over it. Don’t expect more than the critiquee can give or take.

And certainly, if you are a newbie, do not think you’re not qualified to offer your thoughts and opinions. You are.

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Best-selling, award-winning author Eva Marie Everson is the president of Word Weavers International, the director of Florida Christian Writers Conference, and the contest director for Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. Her latest novel, The One True Love of Alice-Ann (Tyndale), releases April 1, 2017.

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