Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Archive for November 2011

Reading Critically

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My friend has written his first novel and joined a writers’ group to get some feedback on his work. He’s enjoying the discussions and is learning a lot, but he asked me the other day how he could better contribute. He felt like he didn’t have as much to offer about other writers’ work as they did about his.

 
The most useful thing about critique groups is the variety of things that the people point out. You might not agree with everything or act on everything, for instance, but if one reader had the thought or comment, you know that many others will, so it’s worth considering each comment and looking at text to see if you might change something to make the comment or question go away. If you can offer those kinds of comments, your critique group will appreciate your attendance even more than if you’re merely written something really good.

 
What to Look For

There are many contributing factors to reading critically. Here’s a fairly bald list of the things that I look for as a substantive editor, and the kinds of things you might look for when asked to read critically.

 
General

  • Accuracy. If it’s non-fiction, this is a given. But if it’s fiction, are allusions correct (for instance, do you have a troubadour playing the lute in Northern Germany in the 12 century? Believe me, people know that the troubadours never came that far north and not that early and that there weren’t lutes yet)? If anything can be checked and verified, some reader WILL check it and let it be known that there’s a mistake. As a critical reader, it’s your obligation to pose the question if you have doubts (did people use oil lamps in their homes in 14th century France, or would they have used candles?) or ask them to check it out.
  • Basic grammar and syntax. Is anything distracting about the way the work is written? Are things conjugated properly, and does the writer use words correctly (are the meanings conventional or obscure—or incorrect—are there unnecessary or distracting foreign words, are there made-up words, and if so, is their meaning obvious from context)? Are things capitalized that ought to be, and not when they shouldn’t? Are they capitalized and spelled consistently?
  • Compelling plot/story. If the subject matter is obscure, has the author found a way to make it interesting to folks who might be new to the subject? If the subject matter is well-known, do they have something innovative or unusual to offer?
  • Headings, titles, and subheadings. Can you read only these elements and have a clear sense of where you’re going to end up? Has the writer been clever in a way that makes the work itself less appealing (sarcasm, in-jokes, pop-culture references, etc.) to a wide audience?
  • Hook. The piece has to start with something interesting enough to make the reader want to persist. That means every piece, every heading or subheading, every new chapter, has to hook us, not just the first paragraph. You might not come up with a better hook for someone else’s work, but you might be able to help the writer think in those terms or tighten up an existing hook.
  • Punctuation and formatting. There are plenty of great resources on how to do these things properly, including my own Web page (http://melaniespiller.com/Articles/Punctuation/Punct_Interruptive.htm, among others). Give them a read, and try your best to comply. No one’s perfect, but coming close earns you points. Nothing makes a publisher or a learned reader crazier than to have someone heedlessly ignore these niceties. Such things are the difference between readers thinking that the writer is a clever fellow with an interesting tale and thinking he’s a crackpot.
  • Tense: Does the work waffle from past to present to future?  It’s very helpful to point out waffling because a reader might not know why they’re losing interest, but it’s often this sort of confusion causing the dismay. If every word is valuable, the reader will be grateful. (Swobbling across tenses implies that the verbs are not valuable, which means that none of the action is important.)

Language Choices

  • Clarity. Can fewer words or better words express the same thing? If the expression “in other words” shows up, even the writer already knows that she hasn’t been clear.
  • Dialog and dialect. Is your dialog distracting or is it informative? Have you spent time making people sound like they really would sound and dumfounded readers with tin ears who can’t understand? (Note: Dialect is VERY hard to do well. Until you’ve got rather a lot of experience, reserve most such self-indulgences for the rare injection.) Are there natural hesitations in speech, the “well”, “er,” and “um” that all of us say, and the “I mean,” “like,””actually,” “really” and other ubiquitous empty expressions that many of us sprinkle liberally into any given sentence, and have you thereby bored the stuffing out of the reader? Point out curses or foul language that is gratuitous. Yup, hardly anyone is offended or surprised by these words anymore, but that doesn’t mean writing is improved by their presence. Dialog is a great way to show action (rather than tell about action), but point out if it’s sounding like a transcript. Dialog should serve a purpose other than providing color or breaking up a page.
  • Passive voice. Passive voice distances the reader (and the writer) from what has been written. It can be useful if the character is avoiding admitting complicity in a crime or the marketing department doesn’t want to admit that their product doesn’t really work, but it’s pretty tiresome reading, sentence after sentence.
  • Pompous voice. Are the word choices ordinary language? Readers soon tire of running to the dictionary. It’s another way to distance the reader, rather literally, I’m afraid. If you haven’t heard of the word, there’s a good likelihood that other readers won’t know it either.
  • Repetition. If something repeats, it had better be furthering the plot or there for obvious artistic purposes, or readers will soon be ripping out their hair and walking away. Repeating the story itself is the worst offence, but repeating words is almost as bad. You have to repeat nouns, obviously, but repeating adjectives, adverbs, and verbs appears lazy. And it’s distracting and boring. Point ‘em out, even if you think they might not be a problem.
  • Suitability. If it’s historical fiction, for instance, no one before the 20th century would say “okay” because it’s a radio term. Unless a priest is a bad guy, he’s not likely to curse in casual conversation. If readers are young adults or children, five-syllable words, discussion of historical facts (like wars and mutinies or rulers of obscure places) will lose them fast unless these subjects are the subject of the piece. If the audience is adults, the writing should not also make a five-year old happy. 

Structure

  • Sentence and paragraph length. Is there enough variety to keep the reader stimulated or does it grow monotonous? Have short sentences been used to promote breathlessness and long sentences to slow the action down? Are there long paragraphs making the page look daunting, or are there a whole series of single lines making the page look like a children’s picture book without the pictures?
  • Story arc. If you took an outline (for fiction or non-fiction), could you see a clear arc of discovery from the introduction of the idea or plot line, through each paragraph, to an endpoint that would have been predictable to someone who knew where they’d end up before they read it?
  • Title appropriateness. Does the majority (and I mean 80%, not 51%) of the piece answer the demands of the title? In other words, if the piece has a title like “Why I Like Sailing,” does it talk about the joy of the activity, or does it talk about wind velocities, boat types, the best places to go sailing, and so forth? The title and the content should match. If it’s fiction, does every paragraph promote either the story itself or character development?

Plot/Theme/Objective

  • Complexity. Can you imagine any other way to tell the story? If you can, tell the writer cautiously, or you’re in for an argument. It might be of value to point it out, though, so just weigh your words before letting fly.
  • Connection. If it’s fiction, do you relate to the characters? Why or why not? Is it something from your personal experience that makes you respond this way, or will a general readership feel the same? If it’s non-fiction, do you feel informed or entertained by the piece? Do you feel invested in the future of the discussion or characters sufficiently to want to read through to the end, or is a small sampling sufficient?
  • Continuity. Is the character wearing a green shirt at the start of the scene and a blue one at the end? Would the character, who claimed to be a pescatarian in chapter one, tuck into a big plate of steak in chapter three?
  • Motivation. Why are the characters behaving as they do? In many cases, the reader doesn’t need to be told why, but it needs to be apparent that the writer knows. In order for someone to be plausibly irritable, for instance, they can’t just be discovered drowning kittens. They have to have been pushed to their last strand of sanity and the reader needs to see some of that. The work needn’t show all the things that made the characters the way they are, but a character who’s evil for the sake of having an evil character only works in cartoons. Implausibly cheerful characters are just as grating.
  • The point. Is the writer telling the story to hear his own voice, or does he have something interesting or important that needs conveying? Yup, I know, it’s fun to wind the story up. But readers soon grow weary if they’re always being wound up.
  • Recurring themes. Does the writer have a soapbox that they keep climbing back up on? Can you recognize a character by an activity, a turn of phrase or a facial tic? Is it too much, just enough, or do you want more?
  • Show, don’t tell. If there isn’t a lot of action, and the action doesn’t lead readers deeper into the plot, there’s probably an inequality of telling the story rather than letting the reader discover for themselves. Good writing doesn’t tell the reader “be sad now;” good writing makes the reader feel sad. Sometimes it’s necessary to tell what this looked like or what happened in the past, but the reader is invested better if they have to ferret it out for themselves. Oh, and what one person thinks is a tale of horror and moral decay, another reader thinks is hysterically humorous. Both responses are legitimate. The writer shouldn’t pick the readers’ responses; they should hope for certain reactions, and you will help the writer if you reveal that your response was perhaps not what they expected or intended, or if it differs from what other reviewers felt.
  • Tension. What needs to happen to make the story progress? Why should we care? If it’s a murder mystery, well, there’s a problem to solve. That’s easy. But other forms of literature are harder to inject urgency into. What is it about the story that compels the reader deeper?

Presenting Your Comments.
Some people start with the good comments first. I like to mix them up, so that the good stuff isn’t colored by harsher comments. (We are, after all, a society that loves to linger on the negatives.) You don’t want the writer to stop writing; you want the writing to get better, right? Direct all your comments, the positive and the negative, so that your goal of helping the writer improve is apparent.

 
I make smiley faces in the margins when something strikes me as really good, for whatever reason (super clear sentences in a sea of otherwise purple prose, a clever or evocative expression, something unexpectedly funny, etc.). Other people highlight, make check marks, etc. Make sure that the author knows what you liked and why you liked it.

 
I try to find things that the writer does well, like perhaps they don’t write well (which I don’t say literally) but it’s a really good story. Or it’s maybe twice as long as it needs to be (which I will say kindly and gently and with clearly marked areas that could be cut) but it’s beautifully written. Maybe the story isn’t all that compelling (I don’t care why these people are here doing these things) but the characters are really well developed.  Perhaps the work seems overwrought, over-edited, and over-thought and suddenly, there’s finally a paragraph of wonderful, relaxed prose.

 
In some cases, the writer reads the piece aloud in the group, and the critique is extemporaneous. This is a hard way to do it because one person will say, “oh, I didn’t like such and such” and everyone else will say “yah, me too,” obscuring whether they’d actually had the thought themselves or just recognized it as true once they heard it. There’s a difference. Some readers can identify what they do or don’t like, but most people have a general sense of liking or not liking it and no clear idea of why they feel that way. It’s hard to gauge into which category the item falls with this “group think” response. However, it’s very interesting to hear how the words sound out loud—the writer will discover many things for themselves that did not leap out at them when they were reading silently. And, of course, you can learn what sorts of things people make note of, and add them to your list of things to look for yourself.

 
Other groups submit their work in advance, and each reader has a chance to review as much as they want before the meeting. For readers like me, this allows several passes (one for the story, one for grammar/syntax/formatting/punctuation, one for continuity, and one for fine tuning) and it allows me to edit my own comments, to make sure that they’re all helpful, positive, and clear. The comments are read aloud, and again, you have a chance to see what sorts of things other people point out and add them to your list.

 
Some groups don’t meet in person. This works much the same as the advance submission, where each participant has the opportunity to read the submissions several times, but it loses some of the interesting discussions that come because one person thought it was a romantic story and another thought it was a tale of stalking. (This happened recently during a discussion of Proust’s “Swann’s Way.” It was very surprising indeed.)

 
Whichever way your group works, there’s a lot to be gained by participating in critical review. Your editor/agent/publisher might be happier to get your work if it’s squeaky clean, but also, they are rather likely to just put you in the “no” pile if your work is too rough, rather than working with you to smooth it out. The critique might help you avoid the “no” pile.

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Written by Melanie Spiller

November 29, 2011 at 3:07 pm