Criticism….can you take it?

As writers we are often called upon to critique another’s work. Maybe in a creative writing class, a writing group or even a friend who needs some independent input. But whenever we produce a sizeable piece of work ourselves, we should also be able to take a step back and look at it dispassionately. Just as we have a mental checklist to guide us through an assessment for a third party, so there are a number of points to check when reviewing our own work. This list is presented in no particular order of relevance or importance.

  • Timeframe – is it right for the length of the piece? If you’re considering a huge, panoramic saga spanning centuries and continents, a short story is probably not the place to tell it. The opposite is also true: some writers have managed to pull off elongating a single moment into a whole novel, (see ‘If nobody speaks of remarkable things, by Jon McGregor, a beautiful exploration of the minutiae of people’s lives, detailing each character’s experience of the same event, like a roving camera recording a vivid snapshot from different angles) but no one’s promising it’ll be easy.
  • Plot – Have you given yourself enough space to tell the story? If it all seems rather rushed, either you need to lengthen it, (not always possible if you’re writing to a competition brief) or you need a different, less complicated story. And is it plausible? Will your readers be able to identify with it? Does it make for an entertaining read?
  • Number of characters – the cast list must be appropriate to the format. Trying to shoehorn a whole set of individuals into a two page playlet just will not work. A good rule of thumb: the shorter the story, the fewer characters you need.
  • Characterisation – do you care enough about your characters? Do you want to keep turning the pages to find out what happens to them? Do you empathise with them?  If you don’t, neither will your readers.
  • Critical Moment – for a longer piece, there should be a crisis in every chapter. They are what your story hinges on. It doesn’t have to be a big event; if the moment when Janice finds the letter or Tom resigns from his job will have an impact on your story, you need to make the most of it.
  • Point of View – who is telling the story? An omniscient narrator? One of the characters? Deciding whose voice will convey the story is crucial and it needs to be consistent. An independent storyteller should have a neutral and more authoritative voice to distinguish them from the other characters, but it shouldn’t intrude. A first person narrative should be recognisably in character. Beware of all your stories or characters sounding the same.
  •  Backstory – are you guilty of information dumping? At the start of the story, a few pieces of explanation to establish past relationships and build your characters are sufficient. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to cram too much obvious backstory into the first few chapters – that’s exposition and will betray you as an amateur, especially when it comes out of the mouths of characters who should already have this information. If you have to explain that Janice is Tom’s wife, find a better way of doing it than, ‘Come over for dinner tomorrow,’ Tom said to his best friend Pete. ‘I’ll get my wife, Janice, to put on a good spread.’
  • Pace – does the story have rhythm, with a good balance of dialogue, description and observation? Is it varied or monotonous? Break your pages up with a good mix of narrative and speech – this will also make your prose more appealing to the eye. Long tracts of unbroken text can put some people off reading…..apparently.
  • Setting the Scene – have you established early on where and when your story is set? Don’t leave your reader confused about these basic elements or they will soon lose interest.
  • Tenses – having decided when to set your story – the present, past or future – be consistent. Check that you haven’t started adding he said/she said to a story set in the present.
  • Showing and Telling – we’ve covered this before; it’s a tricky concept but worth putting some effort into, otherwise you may end up with a rather boring piece that the reader doesn’t engage with. It’s tempting to explain and describe everything so the reader doesn’t miss any of your finely tuned nuances, but you must learn to trust your readers – they are probably more sophisticated then you give them credit for.
  • Punctuation – seemingly not as important as it used to be, but still vital in my eyes.
  • Spelling – don’t rely on your spellchecker; it’s clever, but it’s not a mind reader. Use a dictionary. It’ll also help with your vocabulary.
  • Language – I don’t mean the geographical lingo, I mean the words your characters speak. Are they in keeping with their personality, temperament, education and upbringing? Does it introduce some texture into your writing?
  • The brief – if you’re writing to a specific set of instructions, eg a short story competition, does your entry fulfil the criteria? If the brief states that your story must feature a ghost, or a small boy, make sure it does.

2 thoughts on “Criticism….can you take it?

  1. Great summary of all the important points to remember in writing. I’m seriously guilty of information dumping and too many characters. My current rewrite is a lot of work!

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