Don’t worry – this really is a blog post and not something to go into the CFT Events page (though I am sure if Janet could give us advance warning of Judgement Day, she would!).
It is a truth, generally NOT universally acknowledged, that all writers have to submit to some sort of judgement if they wish to be published. (Apologies to the Jane Austen Society though the good lady herself would accept my point I’m sure.)
There is an art to judging and being judged when it comes to writing. A good critique of writing will reveal what works well, what doesn’t, and expresses that in such a way the writer doesn’t feel either of the two extremes at feedback on their work.
These are either complete elation (the “my work is wonderful and doesn’t need any alterations”) or despair (the “my work is rubbish, so am I, what made me think I could write”). The truth, of course, for every writer is the real verdict is somewhere in between. Yes, this bit you have written well but this section needs tightening up. I’ve not yet come across any writing of mine that hasn’t been improved for some well aimed editing! The secret is to work out what does need improving but more on that later.
And we all need an editor to show us our shortcomings at times! I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve missed something, despite many readings, on and off screen, yet others have seen it and I’ve been grateful to them for pointing it out.
I’ve found it helpful to look at a critique on my story, leave it alone for a while, and then come back to it all later. When I return to the work, it is as if I was seeing it for the first time. That makes it so much easier to be objective about your work. Objectivity is key here – both on the parts of the judge and the writer.
Also, the first person to enjoy your work should be you. If you don’t enjoy what you’ve written, why should anyone else? But you do need to be honest about yes this section works, I could sharpen dialogue here, do I really need this bit etc etc? Once you’ve done that, run out your new version and compare it with the first one. You should almost feel the revised version is much better.
I’ve also found a good tip is to read your work out loud. You hear how it sounds. If you trip over your words, so will your reader. Time for a rewrite then…
I have sometimes paid (a relatively modest sum) when competitions offer a feedback service on entries you submit to them. (Do check out they have spelled out what exactly it is you can expect from your critic. For example, I’ve had feedback in the form of a tick box sheet. On another occasion, I had a couple of paragraphs giving specific details as to what was right and wrong, and that I found incredibly useful. The tick box sheet was also useful but in a different way).
What should you look for in a critique?
Firstly, check out the credentials of whoever is offering the critique long before you decide to use their services. At the very least they should have a website with testimonials. Also look at the writers’ forums on the web, there are often discussions on book doctors and the like. You should be able to gauge a consensus of opinion. It is worth taking the time to do this. As with any industry, there are charlatans out there. If in any doubt, do check with the Society of Authors before signing up to anything. Never be afraid to ask around.
In the case of competitions which offer a feedback service, check the fee they’re asking for is not too outrageous (though in the case of novels, you should expect to pay more). Check the background of the competition. Has it a good history? If it is a new one, who is behind it? What is their track record? Look up who the judge is – they should be an experienced published author with a website, which should list their published works.
Secondly, there should be a description of how the critique will be presented to you (as a one page sheet?).
Thirdly, there should be a statement somewhere as to what NOT to expect. If you’re submitting a novel say, it is highly unlikely you will get a line by line review UNLESS you pay for the services of a book doctor. (And be prepared to pay a decent sum here if this is what you want. Remember, you are paying for their time and expertise but shop around. Check the book doctor’s website, look for testimonials, again look on the writing forums for comments etc).
As for the detail in critiques, I like to see comments about what is right about the work, what doesn’t work (and above all why) and a good summary of what the judge thinks about the piece. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a judge may give marketing hints – e.g. this piece would suit ABC magazine, have you thought of submitting this there? If you receive comments like that, treasure them and act on them too! Also by then looking into the magazine the judge has thought about, you should be able to see for yourself yes, your piece could fit there. It should reassure you as to the judge’s abilities for one thing!
I review for CFT of course (usually National Theatre Live productions, The Chameleons’ latest play etc) and I sometimes review on my website. (Not often, it is too easy for a writer to be deluged with requests for reviews otherwise, and then you’d never get your own creative work done).
When reviewing generally, I like to start with something positive, then go into the “meat” of what needs improving (this is particularly true when I am reviewing stories) and yes I always say why, sometimes I give examples of how it can be improved (the idea there is to show the writer what can be done, it can be useful to have pointers in the right direction).
Hopefully they will then come up with better ideas and will transform the piece into one that can be published). I finish with a summary and market suggestions for the piece once the work to transform it has been done. With productions, I usually summarise the history of the work and its writer as the meat in that sandwich.
A good review will help the writer develop in terms of getting work ready for publication, being able to take criticism and so on. The latter will stand you in good stead, the one thing you can pretty much guarantee is you will receive more criticism and rejections than you anticipate. What should happen is you learn from what is said, improve what you’ve done, and over time your publication credits mount up. Always a good thing to aim for!
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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