I kind of forgot I'd promised (to myself mainly, since no one else reads this blog) that I'd come back to critiquing and what it means to me. I'm a bit removed from the critique that I gave, though I've critiqued plenty of more academic papers since then, so I suspect what I'll be doing is kind of a mish-mash of observations on critiquing fiction and critiquing academic work. Most of what I critique isn't at the same level as the crit groups I talked about in my last entry. Those involve large groups who rotate assignments and work hard to develop one another. Most of the critting that I've done for the past few years has been one-way. I don't get a ton of critiques, in part because I don't tend to freely hand out what I've written and ask for critiques.
And, when I do, it doesn't always end up with a product that I can learn from. Que sera.
My critiquing process goes a little like this.
On a first read-through, I'm trying to get a general sense for what the author is attempting to convey. I'm trying not to get overly hung up on structure and related topics; I want to understand where the piece starts and where it ends, so that I can then go back through and read it with an eye to whether things like pacing, scene structure, POV, and so forth all make sense in the context of where the story ends up.
I'm incapable of not making editorial changes at this stage, though. Word choices, misplaced commas, sentence fragments (some of which are fine, don't get me wrong - for emphasis, or always fine as part of dialogue) - shit like that. I have a grammatical/punctuational form of OCD, I think, which makes it impossible for me not to fix things that I know are wrong. I will delete words that don't need to be there, change dialogue tags, and reflexively destroy most adverbs. (Some of those, I'll add back in. I don't fully buy into Stephen King's "adverbs are the devil" line of reasoning, but I'm a fan of not using shit-words in your writing, and many adverbs fall into that category. In terms of how they're used, at least, they often just don't add anything interesting or valuable to the sentence. In some cases, they're fine. I mean, look at "reflexively" above and tell me that the meaning of the sentence doesn't change if you take it out. You can't, can you? There's a difference between destroying something and "reflexively destroying" that same thing. As with all writing-related rules, the key to not-killing adverbs is recognizing when the rule needs to be broken.) I'll sometimes make margin comments - there is, I think, a special cloud in heaven reserved for the person who is responsible for Track Changes - but a lot of those aren't going to be meaningful until I've read through the entire thing once, in the case of a short story, or gotten a good sense of where the author is going in the case of longer works.
I do most of those things to myself, when I read my own writing. I change things all the time. Word choice, punctuation, and so on. I'm often dismayed at the quality of my first drafts. Imperfection bugs me.
This would, as you might suspect, make doing critiques a little difficult.
Once I have a sense of the story, I'm able to go back through and start looking at each element/scene to decide how it fits into the way things progress. What purpose does it serve? Is the narrative voice consistent? If not, is it an intentional shift, or am I seeing a spot where the author went away from the piece for a day or a week, then came back to it and didn't fall into the same tone as s/he had at the prior writing session?
This usually takes two or three read-throughs to accomplish, making margin-notes as appropriate, then revising my margin notes and posing questions to the author. What is it that's meant here? Is that really the image you want to go for? The character sounds different than she did before - why is that? Questions need to be honest, and can't come across as passive-aggressive. Authors are a curious species because we need people to read us and talk to us about what we've written, but we tend to get injured relatively easily. Spending so much time in other people's skins ought to thicken our own, but for a variety of reasons, that doesn't come easily. I try to be gentle, but you can't coddle an author or tell them something is brilliant when it isn't. That does nobody any good, the author least of all, because being told something is brilliant by a person who has no power over their future, then being told that same something is crap by an editor, can be kind of a soul-crusher. Authors need honest feedback that helps them improve. We all want to get better.
Editing my critique is probably the hardest part. After multiple reads, I end up looking for themes. What are the "big picture" things that came up for me? Was it pacing? Tone? Character? If there was science involved, was the science described correctly and inherently plausible? If there was magic or something similarly fantastic involved, did it have a coherent logic to how it worked? If you take the story's underlying logic and extend it, does it create problems for the reader?
I will spend hours on a critique. The last one took multiple days of reading, and re-reading, and by the time I was done I didn't know whether the author would thank me, or threaten to drive to my house and punch me. Happily, it was the former, and I get that reaction more often than not. But I have to work for it.
I'm a good reviewer, and have been told by people who ought to know (English professors) that I'm a good editor. The key to doing these things is trying to care about the story as much as the original author did.
That's hard. But, done with compassion, it can be rewarding for both parties.