Savvy Crew
  • Feb 4, 2020
    We are all writers at various stages of development. I know I'm still learning and I expect you are too.

    What do writers do? We draft.

    I like to think of this as vomiting onto the page (yeah, I know that's gross). I have all these ideas, words, emotions, characters spinning around in my head. They can sometimes be hard to pin down and organize. If I take the time to do that when they are inside my head I find I lose some of the best of them.

    So I choose to vomit it all out there, knowing I will have a chance to go back and revise it later. That is my privilege as the author of my story. I can hack it to pieces, move things around, cut pages.

    When I'm done with it, the story will go to an editor and a copy editor and they will hack away at it too. That is their privilege because they are editors working with me to make the best book possible. I know the power of "stet" and am not afraid to use it. Their changes won't necessarily be final.

    The only person who can overrule me in decisions about my story is the editor who works for the publisher (assuming I am traditionally published). Most good editors understand the author knows what is best for the story. They won't usually insist on a change the author is willing to fight over.

    Now, the critter has an entirely different role in this process. Neither writer nor editor--the critter is there to serve as a trusted first reader. One task is to comment on how the story looks from the reader's perspective. The critter is also a writer with ideas of her own about how to tell a story. These ideas may be valuable to the author in helping her through that revision process.

    A non-writer may read a piece and say, meh. That didn't really move me. A critter with her understanding of writing techniques may look at the same piece and say-I see the potential for emotional drama, but it isn't coming across. Maybe what is needed is stronger verbs and not so many "ly" adverbs. Active voice would help a lot. Have you considered going deeper into your heroine's POV?

    We go in with the best intentions and we want to help. Sometimes it is so clear to us what the scene needs that we actually cut those adverbs and insert stronger verbs. Or we re-word it so that it is in a deeper POV.

    In other words, we start editing.

    Editing is the lazy way to crit. I do it. We all do it. Sometimes it is the crit of last resort. When I have trouble describing what is wrong, I might give an example of how I would revise the sentence or paragraph to make it better. It's a shortcut that avoids explaining the problem. Sometimes, however, it is our first instinct.

    We bypass all that thinking and identifying the problem and go right to the fixing.

    The trouble with this approach is that we are imposing our voice on a story that doesn't belong to us.

    Step back. Take your finger off the delete key and make a suggestion instead. Sometimes you don't have the right words to explain the problem and the best way for you to communicate is to show an example of a better sentence or paragraph. Okay-if you must. But frame it as a suggestion and make sure your example is inserted in a comment or placed in a different color in brackets next to the sentence you're trying to fix. Do not take it upon yourself to edit the original language.

    Always remember you are a critter, not an editor, and definitely not the author.

    And here's something you may not have thought about. All of this work-this examining a scene and figuring out what it needs - will help your writing. You can work forever, through trial and error, playing with different ways to word a sentence until you get it right. Or not. You may find the problem goes beyond the wording of a sentence or the structure of a paragraph. The real problem may be the scene lacks a goal. Or, the character is acting out of character. Or something else is going on that you will never see while you are tinkering with sentences.

    This critical thinking at the scene, chapter and story level is a skill you need to learn. To step back and take a more objective look at your own work. To jump in a helicopter and examine the forest instead of hiking through the woods, noting one tree at a time. As your critiquing skills improve, so will your ability to revise your own story.

    The Problem of the Weed-Infested Forest

    Ideally, as a critter you will spend a minimal amount of time nit-picking sentences for spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. You're working to get that whole forest perspective. But what happens when the trees need pruning, or weeds have taken over?

    What if every paragraph has multiple spelling errors, commas are sprinkled randomly throughout the scene and some sentences are so poorly written you aren't quite sure what the author means?

    Deep breaths. You can still crit this piece, but you may need a different approach.

    When you think about it, you have two options.:
    • The first is to mark every single error you spot. But if you do this, you're likely to get so distracted by the errors that you miss the bigger issues the author needs help with-conflict, characterization, pacing, setting, etc.
    • The second option is to try to ignore some of the errors. Not entirely, mind you, but don't compulsively mark them all. Note two or three times commas are misused, or the occasional spelling error. Then, in your general comments mention that you noticed several problems with commas (or whatever the errors are) and that you marked a few examples.
    I recommend the second approach because it will leave you free to look at the other points on the checklist.

    It may be hard for you to keep your red pencil in your pocket protector. Trust me, your crit partner will appreciate it. Unless you've agreed to do a line-edit, leave it to the author to find a way to correct all of those basic English issues.

    Remember the procedure we talked about back at the beginning of the workshop. Go through the entire submission once without marking anything! Then, stop to think about the whole of the story. Forcing yourself not to mark, should free your brain to consider matters other than the fact the author confuses "its" with "it's."

    What if you hate it?

    Maybe your crit partner's story is not your cup of tea. Or perhaps you find a scene as exciting as watching grass grow. What's a critter to do?

    First, avoid angst-triggering words such as: boring, dull, bad, disgusting . . . well, you get the idea.

    You want to do your best to help the author, not send her cowering into a corner, convinced that she can't write! After all, most writers are already half-convinced they have no talent. We don't need anyone to reinforce that notion.

    Instead, use phrases like:
    I'm not sure how this scene advances the plot.
    I'm missing your heroine's scene goal here.
    The character's emotions aren't coming through in his dialogue.

    Add suggestions-such as:
    This paragraph would convey more
    emotion if you added some visceral responses in the hero's POV.
    The action would be clearer if we had a better sense of the setting.

    Your crit partners need your honest opinion. Don't hold back on the honesty. At the same time, make sure your opinion is phrased in terms of suggestions and constructive criticism. Keep it positive-instead of "this narration drags" try "cutting some of the description would help pick up the pace here."
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