They say that’s it’s a brave writer who exposes their work to the critiquing of a bunch of fellow writers. And those who do it face to face, in a writing group, must be especially heroic. I am one of these people. I’ve belonged to a local writing group ever since I started writing seriously. I don’t consider myself to be particularly heroic, in fact it takes a certain kind of masochism to lay oneself bare like this, but I do think that the advice I get from this disparate group of like-minded men and women has helped my writing career progress.
Writing groups take different forms. Some read out all their work and invite comments from members. We do things slightly differently – producing hard copies for everyone to take home and study properly. As well as storyline, we look at grammar and punctuation (we are very hot on the apostrophe), layout and presentation, none of which is evident when hearing a piece read out loud. Some groups don’t meet physically at all, getting together regularly online instead. Saves on rent, and you can have members on all seven continents. Horses for courses, I guess.
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.
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.
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.
So, you’ve written those immortal words, ‘The End’. You’ve had your masterpiece (final draft, right?) read by some well-meaning friends and family who all agree that it’s brilliant. It can’t fail, they say.
Hang on though. Before you parcel up your precious manuscript and send it out for consideration, there are a few things that you should double check. And then check again.