Critiques for Sunday

As part of a writers group/workshop group it is one of the necessary duties to critique works that are submitted. I’ve been in groups where this is a fear-inspiring event, either because of page length, or quality of writing, or personal feelings towards others in the group. But with this group it is different…I feel no fear in picking up any of their stories and giving an honest opinion.

Ali, just a little while ago, stated that there are certain members of a group that play certain roles. She called them coaches (people who give exercises to help a writer work out an issue), fixers (people who read a story and know exactly how it should be fixed, and say so), cheerleaders (for when the writer is feeling like this whole writing gig isn’t for them), editors (just like it sounds), and something else that I forget right now. And indeed, we can find all these people in our little group.

But I wanted to talk about two other types of people–one that is beneficial to a group, though it doesn’t seem like it at the time, and another that is never beneficial.

The first helpful member of a writers group: the Reader. The Reader is not the best writer of the group, in fact, they may be the weakest. However, when critique time comes they are the ones who are the most astute at pointing to what they did ‘like’ and pointing out what ‘worked’. If you have a Reader in your group, count your lucky stars. And pay attention–both to their words and their writing because if they’re that bright without writing practice, once they catch up….

The second member of the group is dangerous. This member seems helpful–they mark up the papers, do it line-by-line, but then offer nothing constructive at the end. Yes, it is important to know what did not work for them (and that you’ve used the word ‘she’ fifteen times on a page, and that, well, they just didn’t buy it). But, if at the end of the critique there has been nothing useful suggested (a la the ‘fixer’) or there is nothing positive said (a la the ‘cheerleader’) then it is just a rude, prolonged diatribe at the writer’s expense–of both the writer’s time and emotion.

Imagine it: A writer has worked on a piece for at least a week, put time into it, some sweat. And along comes this person who seems to want to help, but is not going about it in the right way.

First off, it’s rather silly to mark up a rough draft line by line–if there’s something wrong with the story structure, the writer will have to fix that first and then work on the language. By all means, point out spelling and punctuation, just so they know what to look for in the future. But after that, they can read your marks and take ’em or leave ’em. If something feels off in the story, mention that. But, more importantly, point out what worked. If a writer goes through life with people just pointing out his flaws…well, let’s say that we’d possibly miss those brilliant metaphors, that funny turn of phrase, and that character we may fall in love with, if all we do is point out the negative.


Recently, on Ali’s blog (see left), she brought up the question of productivity. One of our mutual writer-people, Matt, had stated that he considered a 22 page week a slow one. He stated that he was feeling ‘down’ because of this lack of productivity. The immediate response was that he should basically suck-it-up because that was better than most of us did in a month.

Later Matt posted that he was out of his rut and had produced a decent 74 pages this week.

Well, glad he fixed that.

But the question for me: What is truly productive? No one in their right mind would say that 74 pages is unproductive. No way. But what if you’re stuck in you story? You don’t know which way your character should turn. Suddenly it doesn’t seem okay to set the bomb off at that particular point in the story. Is plunging ahead when facing these kind of things okay? What if you don’t know exactly how to word something? The language seems all wrong? (First, I’d say you were overthinking…but this is just a what if…)

Personally, I just took the month of July off from writing because I wanted to re-read all the Harry Potter books and enjoy the seventh without feeling like I had to get something down on paper. I wanted to sink into a story–one that I would never be able to tell because it belongs to one J.K. Rowling. I insisted that she take me somewhere I’ve never been, into a world I’ll only be able to see because she showed me. After that, I figured, I’ll come back to my story.

Instead of writing one word this month, I read over 3,000 pages. (If Matt keeps going at his 74ish-page-per-week pace, he should hit Potter-length in about 40 weeks) I learned a great deal about characterization, foreshadowing, and ending (bittersweet, but necessary). Possibly I could have learned all that without reading a page. But I think I’ll have saved myself a lot of time by listening to a woman who did a lot of work over seventeen years. Paying attention is just as productive as churning out pages, in my opinion.

Yet Another Writer Blogging

Call it peer pressure. Call it another opportunity to write. Call it what you will but I call it this:

A chance to escape from the heat by hiding in my basement–and a way to keep the Ali-demon (whom I love dearly) off my back.

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