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Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Yesterday's Dreams, Author

11/19/09 - Mach2 - Guest Blogger MG Ellington, Reviewer, Writer, and Critiquer

To crit or not to crit…

That was my question earlier this year. I got to know my lovely hostess in a small writing group on LiveJournal. We are a critique group, ten members strong. I joined mainly because I knew several of the members that were interested in forming the group. I wasn’t involved in a group and was starting to produce fresh fiction. My editing skills are among my weakest. I thought I might learn a thing or two about how it is done.

When I joined, I was still working on a specific piece and didn’t have time to contribute to the editing end and instead focused on the administrative duties that accompany moderating such a group. Once I finished my piece, I shared it with the group and asked if I anyone had a piece for me to take a look at. Danielle’s The Halfling’s Court was the first piece I critiqued for her and the largest single work I have critiqued to date.

I warned the group members about my amateur status when it comes to critique. Danielle was very accommodating. As I went through the manuscript, I emailed her to discuss style, the narrative voice, and other things. She was responsive and insightful. Essentially, she was training me. She trusted me with her characters and their world. She shared her thoughts behind their motivation and about their personalities. It was exciting. I will admit that at times it was a bit difficult to remember to look out for things like stray commas when I was engrossed in the story. I believe I might have mentioned that in my review.

I was one of the last in our group to critique her story. I did spend a little time going over the thoughts of our other members. She had already addressed the things they mentioned. It was interesting seeing the version after their input. It also gave my confidence a boost when I felt I was seeing things as they had seen them or found something that proved useful for Danielle.

Alright so if it was such a great learning experience, you might ask why the title for this post. The answer is pretty simple for me. Giving someone a good critique takes time. By accepting the project, you are committing your time to their work, to them. In addition to being green in the area of critique, my other drawback as a member is that I have little time to devote to my writing life. The writing, review, promotion, and critique work all compete for that time.

In the last two months, I’ve been looking at how I choose to spend that time and my return on investment. I want the actions I take on behalf of someone else to truly benefit them. It also must benefit me, my writing career. I want to increase my “face time,” learn something that enhances my writing abilities, or gain a better understanding of this business. Otherwise, I feel guilty for not banging out words of fiction instead. That must be my first priority. Writing is often a solitary and selfish act. By its very nature, it has to be.

It boils down to this:

What’s in it for the writer?

• You might help someone else create a better product. I can attest to this having been on the receiving end in times past. A fresh set of eyes can often isolate plot holes, cheese, clichés, tense errors, those over-breeding commas, and evil adverbs among other things. Often the writer’s eyes will autocorrect. The writer’s mind will fill in the blanks. The beta reader’s will not. You might even help them become a better writer overall.
What’s in it for the person critiquing the work?

• Your editing skills improve with practice. I will actually hunt down sources to verify whether I am correct or not about the placement of a comma before I suggest the change to the writer. It feels like a heavier responsibility when you are searching for errors someone else’s work.

• You are exposed to more styles and possibly more genres. I’ve learned that sometimes the rules of commas can’t be suspended to allow a work to flow under artistic license so long as it isn’t overdone. I am learning more about the structure of a story in a specific genre now that I am stretching my reading legs. This adds to your own versatility as a writer over time. You absorb it. You have a chance to learn more about what works and what doesn’t and why.

• Many writers will tell you that reading is a part of the job. While it is true that you can learn quite a bit from published work, you lose that exchange with the author that you have access to when you are critiquing their work. This is an opportunity to find out more about why the writer tried this or that and what the writer hoped to accomplish. In this give and take, the writer also learns what came across in those efforts and what needs a spot of polish. You are giving that feedback. This teaches you how to put your tastes, opinions, and knowledge into words. That doesn’t come easy for me. I value the experience.

To me, the experience you gain from critiquing the work of others definitely offers a return on investment that is worth my time. I can see how much I have already grown as a result. I wouldn’t suggest committing yourself like this to everyone. You need to be sure you can meet the timeframe for the critique so you won’t add additional stress to your writing life or to the writer’s. Selecting the right writer to critique for is important as well. Is the writer approachable? You need to be able to communicate with the writer to get the most out of the experience. Will the writer respond professionally to your suggestions? Some writers take criticism personally. Whether or not your suggestions are followed is up to the writer. It is the writer’s work and the writer’s call. However, becoming defensive about the suggestions made by someone offering critique yields little benefit for either party.

I would like to thank Danielle for having me over to chat today. This is my first guest blog post anywhere. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

TODAY'S QUESTION: I would love to hear your thoughts on critique. Tell me about your experiences. What do you view as benefits or drawbacks of critiquing someone’s work or sending yours out to others for critique?

Comments

Thanks again to Danielle for allowing me to post here. I am tracking this entry and will reply to any comments posted! Don't be shy.
was too overwhelmed getting ready for philcon to reply to any of these, but some great posts and discussion here! Thanks for guest blogging!

D-
You are welcome. I really appreciate you letting me visit.
I didn't get to read everything, but this was fun :)
Good post :)

I've been in two types of critique groups, the written feedback kind and the 'Hear it read aloud and go around the table for immediate thoughts' kind. I think both have their merits.

I can honestly say I've learned more about writing from other people's critiques of other people's work than I ever have from feedback on my own. That's not to say my work's too good, it's just that I'm more open-minded when it's someone else's faults being pointed out :)
That is one of the things I love about my writing group. While it doesn't happen live, I have the option to go look at the critiques posted by other writers for the same work I am preparing the critique for. I can see what I caught that others saw. I can see what I missed. I can also see when it boils down to a matter of opinion. This opinion could be informed by someone's level of experience that surpasses my own. I know I need to at least consider it. I try to take these things and then turn them on my own work. I am learning so much.

Thank you for reading and responding to this guest post!
Are you kidding? The guest posts are the only thing worth reading here!






hehehehehehehehehehehehehehehe :)
Do you see this, Danielle?

::slides five feet away and points in Jon's direction::
Apparently I'm not much good at it.
In studio, when I'd say,
"This just isn't working, try this--"
people were usually ruffled.
I had thought that was the purpose of studio.
Anyways, if you have a group that actually functions as a group,
then you should participate, yes.
I am lucky to have that group. I am trying to work to improve my critique skills as well. Having a variety of works to take a look at really helps with that. Timing becomes more of an issue though.
if you need more stuff to look at,
i've got plenty...
:)
LOL I am swamped. I do want to see more of your work though, when I can give it proper attention. I don't have anything to compare to your writing in what I beta/crit right now. I love the exposure. I like your setting. I also enjoy your characters.
thank you...

I like to think of myself as a verbose minimalist.
For me, the two most important things in a story are what you say, and what you don't say.
More than anything, I want the reader to feel what I feel.
I don't care if they know or understand, just so they feel.
I think that is one of the biggest challenges.
getting someone to print it so i can sell the movie rights
is kinda challenging, too...
:)
Ah well your goals are bigger than mine at the moment.
There's not much else I can do.
*sigh*
Okay, see, I was walking past a picket fence last week,
and noticed a metal pole stuck in behind it,
like you'd see in a chain link fence.
This had me puzzled until the homeowner explained that it was a guest post...
I won't be here all week!
at least you're not set in concrete...
:)
I don't want to swim with the fishes.
I was in a critique group for about five years and found it extremely valuable for all the reasons you stated. There is nothing like seeing what's working or not working in someone else's work to better see it in your own. As you said, often the writer's eyes will auto-correct and fill in the blanks. Noticing how an author paces out a section of their novel definitely helped me in rethinking mine; suggesting that a writer use action instead of interior monologue to convey a scene made me go back and question scene after scene in my novel.

I will say that I finally quit the writing group because all my spare time was spent critiquing and I wasn't doing any writing of my own. That is a dilemma you mention, and I think it's a matter of finding a balance. Deciding how much critiquing you can do. That group was becoming too much, but I know I'd benefit to joining another again sometime soon.

Thanks for pointing out all the positives, like being exposed to more styles and genres and the value of author exchange. I've felt that too, but hadn't really put it in words.
Watching what some of the writers are doing with their sentence structure and playing with pacing based on that flow has been a great lesson. It is something I might not pick up on my own. Thanks for your comment. I appreciate you reading this post.
I couldn't agree more with your points here-- I've discovered much the same thing through my own little critique group, and through various working partnerships I've developed. It really is a great learning experience, and worth the time, so long as you're careful about where you commit. Have to go into it whole-hearted.

And not get so engrossed you forget what you're doing. How many times I've had to go back and read a chapter three times because I got so into it the first, I can't even recall. :D
I think you were talking recently about your beta readers/critiquers weren't you?

You definitely have to be careful with your commitments.

It is good to know I am not the only one that gets engrossed in the reading! Thanks for stopping over to give this post a peak!
I suppose that means we're lucky to know people who can write so well-- so no complaints here!

Yeah, I just finished a polish edit on something that's been through two very different rounds with beta readers coming from very different places, both in terms of editing style and the subject matter. It was a perfect experience. Takes a lot of trust building to get it to go so smoothly, but there's nothing that makes me feel sane again like a logical outside opinion. I only hope I'm half as helpful to them!
Great post! I've been a member of a small online critique group for several years and the experience has been invaluable. The critiques I've received have been extremely helpful and opened my eyes to things that I would never have seen on my own. Reading and critting the work of others has definitely helped me improve my own writing skills. It's also changed the way I read. Things "leap" out at me now that I never used to notice.
I've noticed that in my reading as well. It is funny. I get caught up in reading crit work and critiquing regular reading. Thanks for checking out the post.
I think one of the benefits is that it allows you to see how other people view your story. Often times a writer may think they said one thing, but it's recieved as something else. Reveiwers all have different abiltiy levels, but each can provide a viewpoint that can catch something others will miss--just based on individual preferences.

I think the benefit of critiquing others is that you see how they approach a story. You notice what works for them and if its a skill that is weak for you, you can try and figure out how they accomplished it.

When you see things in their writing that doesn't work, it makes it easier to see those same mistakes in your own.

Good job on the guest post!
I think the benefit of critiquing others is that you see how they approach a story. You notice what works for them and if its a skill that is weak for you, you can try and figure out how they accomplished it.
OH YES! Definitely this.

Thanks for reading and commenting. You've always given me good advice on topics such as this.
It's great being in a group where there is discussion. Some things are obvious--if ten people have a problem with your opening paragraph, even if they totally disagree on what the problem is, you know you have to work on it. If one person has a problem and 9 love it, you may or may not want to tweak it a little. And it's your story--you get to decide what to do with the feedback you get.

But the discussion, the sharing of information and opinions, the disagreements about what makes something good (and the times when two reviewers who always disagree are not in disagreement for a change), there's so much to learn from all that, and some of it isn't immediately apparent, some of it has to percolate in the back of your mind before you know what do do with it.
This is important. The number of folks that see something wrong with a particular thing in your writing does have a greater impact than say one person, depending on the person. This is something that I learned with my alien story.

I am sorry for getting back to you late. I've been wiped out with this cold. I didn't catch the comment before I left yesterday. Thanks for reading my entry and sharing your thoughts! I really appreciate it.
Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Yesterday's Dreams, Author

December 2014

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