Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Being a Good Writing Partner

Every year, a few of my friends and I get together for a writing critique group that lasts as long as we can keep it up before our lives take over. We're scattered across the globe at the moment, but we exchange and encourage through e-mail. As our latest round starts up, I've started thinking about how I can be a better critique-er (is that a word?). Here are a few things I know I should remember to do more often.

Stay encouraging. Sometimes I get so focused on how to make something better that I forget to think about how I sound to the other person. Remember that the piece you are reading is near and dear to the writer's heart, and make sure that you stress the good things about the piece as much as the things you think should change.

Give useful suggestions. It's not enough to make general comments like "I don't really like so-and-so as the main character" or "I don't think your character development is strong enough." Give specific examples of the things you're pointing out, and offer suggestions they can take to make the situation better. Negative criticism isn't useful unless it comes with specific steps to take to improve.

Even praise should have a purpose. Saying "I love this story!" is great and writers appreciate it--but why do you love it? What's working for you? General positive praise might be less damaging than general negative comments, but it can be just as useless. When offering positive feedback, tell what you like about the story and why.

Don't nit pick too much. I always go through everything with a fine-toothed comb in search of grammatical errors, awkward wording, and other nit-picky details. While this can be extremely useful, remember that in the first stages of a draft, that sentence you're agonizing over will probably get changed anyway. In the early stages of a story, what's more important is theme, organization, characterization, description--all the larger issues that can make the difference between a so-so and a truly great piece of writing. Don't forget the forest for the trees.

Writing groups can be a big help, but they can also tear down a piece of writing before it has a chance to bloom. Remember that as a critiquer you have a lot of power--and make sure you use it for good, not evil.

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