Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Improve Your Writing: Critique Someone Else's

By: Bowen Gillings
Even if you are not part of a critique group, you want people to critique your work. You want it for the most basic reason: to show that someone read what you wrote. You want reviews from your readers. You want reactions from critics. Having your diligent typing efforts scrutinized by others is a big part of the whole, “I am an author” package.
Now let’s flip this notion. You want to critique others, not so that they have proof someone read their stuff, but to improve your own work.
The how of this concept is elegantly simple. By conducting a thorough critique of another’s work, you improve your own.
For starters, you need to grasp how to conduct a good critique. Becky Levine, in her article Critique Your Way to Better Writing (Writer’s Digest Yearbook, Fall 2013) sets up three principles to focus on when critiquing:

  • Identify Trouble Spots – Read deeply looking for what works, what catches you, and what leaves you flat. Do you want to keep reading? If you find yourself tempted to skim a section, go back and discern why.
  • Root Out the Problem – Are the characters uninteresting? Perhaps they all speak the same or behave so indistinctly that none are unique. Does the plot lack tension? This may be because problems are solved too easily or the stakes are not high enough. Perhaps dialogue is unnatural or the author’s voice is flat.
  • Present Options – Focus on the big elements that need work. First, thoroughly explain the issue(s). Then cite an example from the piece that illustrates that issue. Finally, offer possible solutions. This is not writing the story for her. This is opening her eyes to possibilities she may not have been aware of.

Conducting a critique in this way will reap rewards for you as much as it will for the author you read.

When you read deeply, looking for those trouble spots, your mind searches for anything to enhance your own work. You find a metaphor you can tweak for that love scene. You discover an undercurrent in the dialogue that you can adapt for your villain, achieving the subtle wickedness that’s eluded you.

When you identify problems, you start recognizing the same in your writing. You realize you, too, tend to start paragraphs with character names. You also use lists or groupings of ideas too much when a single phrase could convey the same concept and spice up the flow.
Finally, by offering suggestions, your creativity engine revs up. You find offering ideas to the author opens new paths to your own characters, adds flavor to your voice, and streamlines your plot. Your writing becomes Steve Austin—stronger, faster, better.
So, even if you are not part of a regular critique group, dig deep into those works that you like to read. Really look at them as Becky Levine suggests, and your writing skills will grow exponentially.

About the Author: Bowen Gillings lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, daughter, and dog.  He became a member of Pikes Peak Writers in 2015 and sits on the PPW Board as a Member at Large. You can catch him climbing the Manitou Incline or at Garden of the Gods Park, where he heads the school programs for area elementary and high school students. Or come listen to his overbearing voice as the emcee of Write Brain the third Tuesday of each month at Library 21C. He is screaming along the roller coaster ride of his first novel.  

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