Besides some basics, such as “show, don’t tell,” stay in point of view, eliminate passive language and voice, and watch out for too many modifiers, I also learned the following:
How to listen with an open mind, knowing you can always decide against making the particular change suggested.
What each particular critiquer brings to the table because of different backgrounds and sets of knowledge. Find out what that knowledge consists of and use it to help your own writing. There’s the one who knows about grammar and punctuation, and is always right about that. The police officer who can make sure you’ve got your facts straight about procedure. The gun expert who can help you with selecting the best guns to put in your story. And so on.
That each critiquer has a strong suit about the writing itself. One will point out the grammar errors, one will point out when you stepped out of point of view. Another will show you where it would be a good idea to put in what the character is thinking and/or feeling. Yet another will suggest you haven’t nailed the setting or your transitions are weak. And so on.
Each critiquer probably has a weak spot. Some will insert commas that are not needed. Some will have a list of items he wants to see at the beginning of each new submission such as setting, description of characters, whether the character is male or female, even the weather because he doesn’t like learning later that he’s wrong about any of those. The problem with this is if you do that every time, it becomes boring and most likely will slow down the story. And you might have two people disagreeing about what they want to see in the beginning. Do what works for your story and you.
Each group will have a set of rules made by consensus, perhaps long before you joined; for example, no semicolons in fiction. Groups often label “bad” words, which can include: “was,” “walk,” “went,” “got,” all words ending in “ly,” and so on. Generally, it’s best to follow these “rules,” but not slavishly. Sometimes it’s better to use a modifier. Sometimes a “was” gets the job done the quickest and best way. And so on.
You can learn how to be a good critiquer yourself–what to look for in other people’s work, and then apply it to your own so it becomes part of your tool kit for writing well.
To listen even if you don’t like the person doing the critique. And not to give undue attention to someone else because you like her so much. In other words, while being critiqued, only concentrate on what the critiquer is saying, not whether you like her as a person or not. Even a person you almost hate may say just the right thing to take your story from good to fabulous.
Realize that if you have to explain what you wrote, you need to fix what you wrote. If your story is published, you won’t be around to sit at the reader’s shoulder and explain what you meant. It has to be on the page.
If more than one person mentions the same problem, pay particular attention. If three or more mention something, you’d better fix it, even if you don’t totally agree. There is usually a way to fix it that will make both you and everyone else happy.
Learn to separate yourself emotionally from the piece being critiqued. You must learn how to do this. The critiquer is not trying to put you down, he is trying to help make your piece better. (Unless he’s just a jerk, but remember, even jerks have their good days.)
When you get home, go over all of your piece, word by word, with the critiquers’ notes in front of you. I like having them all printed out. Then I staple all the pages of the critiques together page by page. In other words, all the Page Ones are stapled together, and I look at my Page One draft and make changes, line by line.
As a critiquer, be kind. Some folks are quite sensitive about their writing and need a more gentle touch. Others seem to welcome a harsh critique–it gives them something to work with later. A good rule is to start off by saying something positive, then give the changes you think are needed, then end by saying something else positive. I’ve never seen any piece of writing that didn’t have something good in it to compliment the writer about. Usually, more than one thing.
Learn to enjoy the process. It’s exhilarating getting that first draft done and ready to be read by others. But editing what you wrote is just as important. It’s a four-part operation. First, get that draft down and completed to the end. Second, edit it, either with others, or by yourself. Third, submit it. Fourth, when it’s published, publicize it. In today’s world, if you skip any of those steps, you won’t get as far as you might like. So, it’s best to enjoy doing it all.
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