Continuing with the theme introduced in the previous post - critique as a way of helping the author as well as oneself - we have what I call the "stream-of-consciousness critique," or the practice of taking notes as you go along and dishing that out to the author.
Like I said, the most well-meaning attempt at critique can be unhelpful at best, and destructive at worst. This is one way a critique can be misleading without the critic realizing how or why.
Taking Notes While Critiquing is a Good Thing
I always take notes when I read a story for the first time. In fact, I follow a formula for my first read-through:
- Write down “what happens.”
- Find some good things to point out--the author’s wins for this draft.
- Note all of my questions, especially the ones that aren't answered by the end.
- Identify themes, character issues, etc.
After I’m done with my notes, I email the author and ask what they intend for the story, if I can. Then I read it again, and as I go along, I do the following:
- Write down all the things that need improvement.
- Nitpick the grammar as far as I feel comfortable if the author asks for this.
- Write down the ways I think these issues could be improved.
Once that’s done, I look at my notes, see if there’s a recurring issue or theme to the problems I noticed, and consider the big picture. Does the story do what the author wants it to do? Is there a way for that to happen, if the answer is "no?" Are there improvements to the overall aspects of craft - say, characterization - that need to be addressed?
For example: a while back I critiqued a friend’s novel draft, and one of the problems that jumped out to me was a mismatch between the significance of a secondary character to her main, and how that character was portrayed. His importance wasn’t supported by the amount of development he got in the book; in fact, he barely showed up at all. Once I finished my notes, I wrote up a special section on him and presented the two options I saw for improvement, because this relationship was pivotal to her main character’s development at the end of the story. I may not have been able to do this as effectively if I hadn’t written down what I thought as I went along.
So... that’s a point in favor of stream-of-consciousness note-taking. Those character-related issues did jump out at me several times. But this example is also a point against, since the raw draft of my notes wouldn't have addressed the importance of the problem. I tend to also copy-paste paragraphs and page numbers as I go so I can refer to specific bits of text when I’m commenting. Generally speaking, my critiques can be long and involved, and I’m not sure how my writer friends feel about that.
While you should definitely take notes, especially if you’re critiquing a novel, the takeaway here is that there’s something you really shouldn’t do with those notes.
Don’t turn your note file in and call it a critique
Your notes as-is might have some utility for the writer. They will still highlight problems you encountered and maybe things you liked, which are beneficial. But there are a few problems with this approach.
The First Problem:
It’s disorganized, lazy, and creates more work for the author. Now they have to sort your comments into categories that make sense. Now the burden is on them to interpret whether a point in your file is redundant or not, what you mean by that vague comment, and whether or not you understood what was going on at the end. They may have no idea if your stream-of-consciousness “I don’t get this character” or “I don’t understand the point” was resolved the way it was supposed to be, or if those were outstanding problems once you got to the end of the story. Some readers are very good about keeping track of that and tying up those loose ends at the close of their notes, but a lot aren't.
Writing is hard work. It can take forever. Revision sucks. Since you don’t have to worry about any of that, as the critic, it would be really nice if you presented an organized and well-considered file to the author. You should definitely do a second pass and try that, because…
The Second Problem:
Part of writing a good story is presenting the reader with a question that they’d like to pursue over the course of the story. If one of your first comments is “But why is the character doing this? What’s the motivation?” that might be a good thing. In fact, maybe you’re supposed to question that at the beginning of the story. Maybe that question is meant to inspire you to keep reading.
Now, it could be the delivery of that question/inspiration needs improvement, but we’ll think about that later. The point is, if you leave that critical note in, the author is going to read it as a problem, when maybe it isn’t. Your job is to ask yourself if the issue was resolved over the course of the story (in which case, you remove the note) or if it wasn’t resolved (in which case you leave the note in). Since you are also supposed to be providing potential solutions to the problems you recognize, you can follow this up with an explanation of your point of view.
Sometimes inspiration hits during critiques, too. Your initial pass might not provide much guidance to the author. Maybe you couldn’t come up with a potential solution to an issue, or maybe you did come up with a few, and you don’t think they’re good for various reasons. But while you’re reviewing your comments, inspiration might strike; a solution you weren’t primed to think of before now hits! And that’s awesome.
Ask questions of your critique. Review it as if you’re the author who is going to work with it to revise the story. If you don’t remember what you meant by this or that, chuck it. If you’re not sure how the recipient will interpret something, revise it or chop it out. You will inevitably find that parts of your critique need to be revised for clarity. This is true of all writing. I’ll probably look at this post later and see a ton of stuff I could rephrase, clarify, or improve in some other way. It’s true of emails, of the messy notes I make about story ideas to try later, of articles, of tweets.
Since the object is to help the author, we should avoid making revision more difficult by front-loading the process with a disorganized or unclear critique.
This entry was originally posted at https://myaru.dreamwidth.org/847956.html. Discuss here or there as you prefer.
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