Criticism is part and parcel of the writing process. Without it we will never know if our work is any good, but to benefit the writer the comments must rise above the personal – those kindly responses that don’t offend but don’t offer anything useful either – and address the problems with the writing itself, rather than with the writer.
My mother always used to say, If you can’t think of something pleasant to say, don’t say anything. This might be useful advice in some areas of my life, but it’s completely useless when critiquing another’s work. Writers, particularly beginners, want to know if their work hangs together, makes a thumping good read, has believable characters and plot. Some even want to know if they’ve got the spelling and punctuation right, too. Hearing that the result of sleepless nights, tortuous plotting sessions and numerous rewrites is ‘quite a nice read’ is more likely to send us into a slough of depression than any amount of constructive criticism.
A few weeks ago I rejoined my local writing group. I originally left because the weekly homework and reviewing of other members’ work left me with little time to write anything else, and I felt I was getting into a writing rut and not learning anything new. However, I soon found that without that weekly discipline, I did no writing whatsoever.
Ever looked over a piece of work and realised that you’ve used the same word several times in one paragraph? I sometimes do this deliberately when I’m in a hurry to get something down and don’t want to interrupt my train of thought with the thinking up of possible alternatives. Then, I highlight the offending word and come back to address the problem later.
No, the repetition I’m talking about here is the unconscious use of favourite words time and again. Once you’ve noticed it, it’s easy enough to substitute another word using your computer’s inbuilt thesaurus – what a miracle that synonyms function is – or a well-thumbed copy of Roget’s, if you’re still struggling to find the exact word.
Now that we’ve sorted out the peripherals, we can get down the process itself and examine some of the rules of writing from a beginner’s perspective. A lot of what is written about the art of writing applies to those who’ve been writing a while. It’s easy to get bogged down in does and don’ts even before you pick up a pen or sit at a keyboard.
But before I begin, I must add a note about a point I made a few posts ago. Regulars to this blog might remember I was having a go at Stieg Larsson for leaving a plot point hanging – see the ‘Chekhov’s Rifle’ post. Well, I have some humble pie to eat. I complained that one of the main characters in ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ had a perfect opportunity to use a weapon she had previously dropped into her pocket, but she didn’t. I wondered at the time whether Larsson had just forgotten about it.
I had a bit of a mental meltdown this week, and I couldn’t think of anything to blog about until I found myself talking with some like-minded people about the lamentable and ongoing corruption of the English language. That got me thinking. I mentioned a well-known apocryphal tale from the First World War as a humorous illustration. You know the one – the message, “send reinforcements, were going to advance“, is sent from the battlefield back up the chain of command. When it arrives at its destination, the message is received as “send three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance“. It’s an extreme example but it demonstrates how easily our language can be altered and distorted when we rely on the spoken word.
When I first started to write a novel, I thought I knew what I was doing. After all, I figured, I’d read lots of them. What could possibly go wrong?
Just in case there was something I might have missed, I enrolled on a 5-day residential novel-writing course. I won’t mention the name of the organisation. Suffice it to say it is very highly regarded in the field of literary endeavours. Maybe I just hit a bad week, but it was a pretty expensive waste of time and I won’t dwell on it, except to say that I’ve since heard an interview with one of the tutors where she actually admitted how bad she’d been that week. (I think she only did it once; she wasn’t temperamentally suited to the concept of coaching at all.)
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.