Writing well requires mastering the fine art of critiquing and being critiqued. That means letting your aunt Gertrude read your work, and sitting through her long-winded soliloquy about why your protagonist should be more like your uncle and less like you. Criticism can bite, but it’s up to the writer to understand not only valid criticism, but to understand how to shape your work into a coherent and compelling story.
Often when we write, we start with a brilliant idea which gets muddled somewhere between the brain and the word processor at our fingertips. We re-read what we wrote yesterday and realize that the brilliant Shiraz-fueled writing session last night actually churned out five pages of mindless drivel focused on the protagonists need to find a clean bathroom. Nobody wants to read that. You need to know how to kill your darlings when required; knowing when and how doesn’t come easy. Before you ask, no I’m not talking about the Daniel Radcliffe movie, I’m referring to what Richard Hugo talked about in The Triggering Town, which should be required reading for anyone serious about writing.
Accepting criticism is a developed skill, right along with accepting rejection. When you write, you’re capturing ideas and shaping words to record the imagery and emotion you wish to convey. That kind of magic requires practice and skill and a lot of work. 10,000 hours or so of work, in fact. Accepting criticism is a developed skill, right along with critiquing someone else’s work. You can learn an awful lot by recognizing what’s wrong with someone else’s story. As a reader for Carve magazine, I end up reading through a few dozen short stories a month. Most are fairly underdeveloped, but the nugget of inspiration is visible. A few are finely tuned, but underachieve a clear focus. When the writing works, when the writer fully engages the reader, the words fall away and only the story remains.
To fully understand the editing process, start by reading. A lot. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read good and bad fiction, read genre, read romance even though you may hate it (“he thrust his manhood into her quivering mound of love pudding…”). Aside from getting enjoyment out of it, you’ll start to recognize the pattern published writer’s use in their work, you’ll start to recognize how stories are shaped and how scenes lead together in a long chain of narration that builds a compelling picture which fully engages the reader. I once critiqued the novel of a friend where nearly everything was working, but the single greatest flaw was the final quarter of the manuscript – the protagonist had a sudden and jarring revelation when there should’ve been seeds of inspiration laced throughout the novel. A single long flashback revealed a compelling past story which should’ve been at the front of the novel. Such things aren’t easy for the writer to notice, especially not in an early draft. The story can be good and still end up unbalanced.
Critiquing lets you practice the skills you’ll need to edit your own work. When you sit down with someone’s story, read through it once and let the surface story sink in a bit. You may recognize flaws early on, and you will want to mark them, but don’t just yet. Don’t distract yourself from the first reading. When finished, go back and identify the easy fixes – misused and misspelled words, grammar and punctuation issues, and also focus on the story itself. Is the imagery compelling? Are the characters clear? Is this the kind of story that sticks with you long after you’ve read it? Identifying what works in a good story is just as important as identifying what doesn’t. I like to write a paragraph or two in my critiques where I explain what I think the story is about. This accomplishes two things: for the writer, it lets them know if their intent was achieved. Just because we wanted to write a story about a man struggling with infidelity, we may have laced so much metaphor we ended up writing a story about a man who wants ice cream to melt in his mouth and any intended sexual innuendo may be lost on the reader. You can get mad at the reader and claim they just didn’t ‘get it’, and you could be right. But if ten readers give you the same general criticism, chances are nobody gets the story but you. And second, writing an explanation of the story helps identify exactly what worked, which you can use in your own writing.