The great American writer Samuel Clements (Mark Twain) once wrote, “I like criticism, but it must be my way.” Most people would agree with this sentiment, particularly new writers showing their work to others for the first time. When you have slaved, perhaps for months over a piece of writing and you cherish what you have written, it is difficult indeed to accept the criticism of a reader, even if such criticism is constructive and delivered with kindness and/or love. I well remember my first poetry-writing attempts as an unpublished adult: when my partner, a much-published poet, put red lines through my precious words I was aghast. If I was not in love with him, I might easily have wanted to wipe him off the face of the planet! He was, however, giving me my earliest editing lessons. They were valuable lessons that I treasure even now thirty years later when I’ve had over 100 books published.
Many writers, particularly beginners, find it difficult to be critical about their own work. This is because they are too close to it and thus they cannot be objective. Frequently they do not see ambiguities in their work. The piece reads perfectly to them because they know it so well. However, what they have written may not communicate clearly to others. The outside, objective reader can only see what is written on the page before him or her, and perhaps it does not make sense.
Any reader who is asked to make critical comments of a written work has a difficult task: this is because people – especially those who are new to having their writing critiqued – are hurt by criticism (some more than others). However, all writers need another “eye” to assess what they have written: this ensures that what they have written is accessible to others. The eye can be one, that of an editor. Or it can be the “eye” of a group.
As a beginner writer, you can help to improve the quality of your writing by using a workshop approach. My author husband Bill Condon and I take part in weekly writing workshop groups; we are always helped in them by the critical observations of our fellow writers who are both published and unpublished.
To workshop, a group should consist of about six people: (personally, I find that four is an ideal number). Every member must be prepared to share their work and to comment on the work of others. Decide how much time should be given to each writer for the reading of their work and the subsequent critiquing. A good time frame is twenty minutes to half an hour per person.
Workshopping requires tact and honesty. In making comments, group members should consider the written material, not the personality that produced it. To this end, it is more helpful to say, “The story needs a tighter ending,” rather than “You can’t write good endings.” Always give the presenting writer the first opportunity to comment on their work once they’ve read it aloud – they may have heard problems they hadn’t seen earlier. Sometimes the way in which others in the group respond will signal to the writer what works and what doesn’t.
If you are critiquing, it is okay to make notes during the reading. These are points you might consider:
· Was the title effective, appropriate, a fair indicator of the contents?
· Was the opening engaging?
· Was the writer able to sustain the tone from start to finish?
· Were there memorable phrases or unusual details, words that surprised you with their originality?
· Were there parts you didn’t understand?
· Was the tense consistent throughout?
· What was the major conflict?
· Did you care about the characters?
· Did the writer achieve his aim?
It is as helpful to tell the writer what works for you in the story as it is to say what you have problems with.
If you are presenting, don’t make apologies for your work before reading it. Let the others decide if it works or it doesn’t. Before you begin to read, don’t spend precious time talking about it, what inspired it, how long it took, what you are trying to say: let the writing speak for itself.
When others are presenting their comments on your work, don’t become defensive. Listen respectfully to what they say. You may not agree with them: when all is said and done, you are the final judge of whether or not to accept their advice. However, if more than one group member is critical of the same point in your story, chances are that you have not communicated that point clearly enough.
Workshopping is a valuable means for all writers, even the most experienced, to learn how to self edit and to improve story elements such as structure, characterisation, style and so on. When you workshop long enough you will very likely become a far better editor than you can ever become by reading books on the writing and editing processes. However, books on editing are invaluable. Wishing to help new writers who today work in a hugely competitive market is one reason why I wrote How to Self Edit (To Improve Writing Skills, Five Senses Education) which contains 500 editing exercises (and suggestion revisions). Not all of us have access to lovers who are ruthless editors, nor to other writers who wish to workshop with us!
© Dianne Bates
Dianne (Di) Bates is the author of over 130 books for young people. She produces the fortnightly online magazine, Buzz Words (www.buzzwordsmagazine.com) for people in the children’s book industry.