Let’s Get Critical

Over the years my attitude and approach to providing feedback on the work of other writers has changed considerably. This isn’t too surprising in hindsight, but after providing feedback on a handful of short stories recently, it made me think a little deeper about what has changed and why.

In my first writing group, we had the opportunity to prepare up to 300 words on a topic which was provided prior to the meeting. The work could be prose or poetry, factual or fictional, and it was brought along, sight unseen, to the gathering. Time was put aside for reading the work aloud and receiving feedback if requested. By listening to the feedback provided by others, I began to learn how to identify what worked and how to articulate constructive criticism on other people’s writing.

Constructive criticism is challenging to prepare and to give, but the benefits of being able to make suggestions which may clarify unclear points and strengthen the work are significant. By reading and thinking critically about someone else’s writing, it provides the opportunity to be exposed to a wide range of different styles and approaches, often in genres that you might not spend much time in. It stretches the mind and helps you to see what is possible.

Most of my critiquing these days is completed at my desk with a copy of the work to hand. I prefer to read the work through quite quickly, resisting the urge to mark up sections or make corrections, trying to focus instead on the story and the impression that it leaves on me. If I can, I will leave the work for a day or so before returning to read it slowly, taking my time to write comments and scribble thoughts. I will then jot down impressions of the piece, along with what worked and what might be improved. In my writing group we share feedback at regular critiquing sessions, and it is helpful to see what resonates with others along with picking up on insights from other writers. It is a great way to hone critiquing skills.

I find that bringing a critical eye and a different perspective helps me with my own work as well, reminding me that sometimes you need to step away in order to really see how a piece comes together.

There are many online critiquing groups where writers share their work and provide feedback on other people’s stories. For now I find that there is enough critiquing to be done in my existing writing circles, but I may venture into online critiquing in the future.

What is your experience in providing constructive feedback?

[Photo: bikes spotted in the small village of Marulan – offering a different viewpoint of something familiar]

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Writing Influencers

Recently I was entranced by a photo in an exhibition. The close up shot of a delicate leaf had a cloudy quality. My mind rifled through words to describe it, and ‘opaque’ jagged me out of the trance. It was a word that I had once used in a short piece that was critiqued by my first foray into a writing group.

One of the mainstays of the group was a retired teacher who had a sharp eye for errors and indulgent word use. It was beneficial to my continuing education as a writer to be exposed to that level of exactitude. But what caught in my mind was the challenge I received about using the word opaque in a piece. The work had been prepared as part of a monthly activity of writing up to 300 words on a theme. This could be prose, poetry, fictional or memoir. I had checked the definition of the word before I presented the piece and maintained that my word use was correct and as I intended. It was, after all, my work.

In the same group was a writer of many years who operated with a different level of intensity. She was encouraging and had visions of developing the group so it appealed to more people, with workshops and guest speakers and the like. I found her to be supportive and she read one of my early attempts at a short story, taking the time to do a line-by-line critique and talk me through various suggestions to strengthen the piece. When I later submitted a short story and received a prize in a competition, my mind flew straight to her as I felt that her encouragement and support had given me the confidence in my writing work.

There have been several people who I would consider to be influencers on my writing. They are not all writers – nor do they have to be – and sometimes it is as simple as someone providing encouragement or insight at the time that you need it.

Who has been influential in your creative output?

[Photo: prison entrance at Norfolk Island]

 

Still Not Telling

Last week I wrote about how as a reader, listener or observer we tend to overlay our own thoughts and perceptions upon artistic endeavours. This led me to think about what this experience has been like as a writer, to have my work read and reviewed.

There are times when I’ve had my short stories critiqued and I’ve been surprised – and quietly delighted – with the interpretations, assumptions and insights that readers share with me. It is really interesting to experience. Sometimes I’ve been asked ‘what happened next?’ which can be a very difficult question to answer. There are times when I genuinely don’t know.

It can be revealing to have layers and nuances in your work picked up by others, and quite often these touches have not consciously been included in the writing. It is with distance or a different perspective that they become most evident.

At other times, the vision and intent that had been so clear in my mind doesn’t always translate clearly to the page. What had seemed so evident to me may not be apparent to the reader, and this is where getting feedback before releasing work out into the world can be beneficial. Another option might be to leave the work to rest a little longer, then return with fresh eyes to read through and pick up on ambiguity or gaps that may not have been evident in the earlier reading.

Belonging to a writing group with critiquing sessions is helpful in many ways, and being able to get an idea of what your work sounds and feels like is one of the main benefits. You also get the chance to hone your own critiquing skills by reviewing the work of other writers. This helps to sharpen the skills with your own writing, as well as giving you access to a sense of what a reader experiences when they read your work.

What insights have you experienced by putting your work out into the world?

[Photo: sunset at Wellington, NSW near turnoff for Wellington Caves on the Mitchell Highway]

Together Alone*

Lately I’ve been thinking about the merits and challenges of belonging to a group of writers. Writing is more of a solitary occupation rather than a team activity, but it can be hard yards when you are alone with your thoughts and cast of characters, tapping away and becoming enmeshed in a world of your own creation. Self-doubt is an accepted part of the writing life, but it can be eased by connecting with other writers.

There are various online forums which encourage you to test your work and connect with your fellow scribes. I have tried these from time to time and have enjoyed the process. Many of them include a mixture of receiving feedback in exchange for critiquing the work of others. This can be a good way to hone your skills: it is often easier to pick up things in other people’s work as there is a degree of separation.

Then there are the writing groups which are in many of our communities. Granted, they may not be easy to find but they are worth the search. Ask friends, check in at your local library or keep an eye out for writing groups being advertised online or in the newspaper (old school, I know, but still effective at times).

I belong to a group of writers following a shout out for interested people through my local library. The initial response to this call to arms was impressive. There were people from all walks of life who simply wanted to connect with others, get feedback on their work and share in the many joys that come from writing.

Sometimes you need to test the water and make sure that the group is going to be a reasonable fit for where you are and what it is that you are looking for from other writers. Is it purely critiquing, or do you need a bit of guidance from time to time on character or plot development? Are you looking for a group of writers in the same area (novel writing, short stories, poetry, screenplays etc) or do you work better with a bit of diversity? If you are lucky enough to have a choice, go along to a few sessions before casting your hat in the ring and committing yourself to turn up and participate on a regular basis.

If you are clear in your intent, you are more likely to find a group that resonates with you, that helps you find direction if you are a little lost, and most importantly, inspires you to write.

Do you fly solo, or do you connect with other writers from time to time?

*Together Alone is a song and album title borrowed from Crowded House.