Peevish Pen

Ruminations on reading, writing, rural living, retirement, aging—and sometimes cats. And maybe a border collie or other critters.

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Location: Rural Virginia, United States

I'm an elderly retired teacher who writes. Among my books are Ferradiddledumday (Appalachian version of the Rumpelstiltskin story), Stuck (middle grade paranormal novel), Patches on the Same Quilt (novel set in Franklin County, VA), Them That Go (an Appalachian novel), and several Kindle ebooks.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Clueless critiques

I am a believer in writers’ groups whose members give in-depth criticism that provide feedback for works in progress, so a writer knows if his or her work is worth developing.

One of my favorite bloggers, the agent Miss Snark, offers this advice:
“. . . dig around for a critique group. Good ones can give you perspective and help. Bad ones suck worse than rejection letters, but you'll be able to tell which side of the line the group is on without too much investment."
Critiques done at writers’ groups can help catch content errors (for example, you can’t have a soldier tame a bucking bronco to ride into battle in the War or 1812; the term bronco didn’t enter the English language until 1858.), grammatical errors (“just between you and I”), lousy syntax (“Knowing that singing was bringing such inspiring moments to Uncle Alphonse, Aunt Sophronia, which was my aunt on my mother’s side, decided to hire a choir to sing and inspire the crowd at Uncle Alphonse’s retirement party on the third of June, but she vowed they shouldn’t sing too loud.”), etc.

The best critiques have lively discussion—even arguments—about why something does or doesn’t work. The best critiques suggest how to fix problems, and why the problem is a problem in the first place. Good critique groups don’t consist of everyone in turn saying something nice about the piece (lest the reader’s feelings get hurt) followed by a round of polite applause to thank the reader for sharing. Helpful groups suggest possible markets for the work. If a writer doesn’t have a market in mind—or a purpose for writing, other than “I just wanted to share a little something I jotted down”—the writer shouldn’t be wasting a critique group’s time. Critiques are for fixing, not sharing.

A writer should have thick skin—anyone who puts writing “out there” for a readership is going to get feedback. And some of it won’t be pleasant. Best find out early if the work doesn’t work.

A few months ago, I heard about a "critique sheet" that one writers' group devised. Apparently the critique sheet—actually a checklist—would make the critique move faster (no room for discussion), spare feelings, validate efforts, and give everyone a chance to participate—just not in depth. Curmudgeon that I am, I wondered why those given the checklist to fill out weren’t also issued smiley face stickers to affix to the sheet.

But maybe I’m taking the wrong approach. Maybe there really is a market for a warm-fuzzy critique checklist that validates bad writing efforts while making the author feel good. Inspired by a quote from Somerset Maugham (“People ask for criticism, but they only want praise.”), I developed one.

The Peevish Pen Positive Checklist for Clueless Critiques
© 2006 by Becky Mushko

_____Your poor grammar, lousy syntax, and content problems aren’t really important. What counts is that you tried really hard and we appreciate it. Thank you for sharing.

_____All those adverbs you used are really impressive. Who knew there were so many! Thank you for sharing.

_____Wow! I’ve never heard so many passive verbs in one page. Obviously you have a passion for writing. Thank you for sharing.

_____You do amazing things with clichés. Thank you for sharing.

_____The way you use redundancy to make your point is truly impressive. Thank you for sharing.

_____Your ability to switch verb tenses and point of view at will is so innovative. Thank you for sharing.

_____All the synonyms you used for “said” were amazing. You really know how to avoid the boredom of using the same dialogue tag more than once. Thank you for sharing.

_____Your ability to keep us all awake when you read for over twenty minutes in a monotone is truly amazing. And you haven’t even gotten to the first incident of plot yet. Thank you for sharing.

_____Your ability to describe the interior of the (circle one: phone booth/space ship/closet/parallel universe/ hamster cage/other) in such detail for thirty pages is impressive. And you haven’t marred the description by introducing a character yet! Thank you for sharing.

_____I didn’t understand a word you read, but I’m sure what you wrote was wonderful. Thank you for sharing.

_____Your work touched my heart. Thank you for sharing.

_____Your work didn’t touch my heart, but it did touch several other organs. Thank you for sharing.

_____Your work only touched one organ considerably below my heart. Thank you for sharing. Are you busy after the meeting? Want to share something else?


(Note: Members of writing groups: please feel free to copy and distribute the above checklist to your own group if it’s in need of such—but you have to provide your own smiley face stickers.)

1 Comments:

Blogger Dona said...

I know this post is over 5 years old but it really helped me. I googled "bad writing groups" and it led me to you. The reason I needed to read your blog was because I gave an honest critique to a woman who I didn't know had spent the past 10 years in a warm and fuzzy, we're all winners type of group. To say the least, when she got my feedback, she lost her mind just like a child that's never been told "no" before. So you have validated me. For without honest feedback how do we ever hope to improve? Thank you!

6:31 PM  

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