Authors who are "Differently Expertised"...

Authors who are "Differently Expertised"...

15 April 2012

Constructive Criticism by Ashleen O'Gaea

When it comes to our writing, most of us are pretty clear about what "criticism" is.  It's the "constructive" part we're not so sure about.
"Constructive criticism" is anything that helps a writer get The Story out of her head and into the reader's head, intact.
If you know the writer's goals, constructive criticism is about letting the writer know when s/he's achieved her goals and where she needs to put in a little more work.  For example, a member of my critique group told me that the segment I'd offered didn't seem to move the story forward or develop the 'tagonists.  (She was quite tactful: what she said was, "Chapter Seven keeps me too long away from the characters.")
The other members of the group didn't have that problem, so it'd have been easy to say it was just the one reader, and defensively ignore her.  But a) grown-ups don't get to do that, not for more than five minutes; and b) I've found a way to evaluate such criticisms helpfully.  How?  I pretend they're my own idea. 
When I did that, I saw that my colleague was absolutely right.  My solution was to switch the order of two chapters, and rewrite the tangential one as a conversation that not only reveals more of the main characters' relationships but also adds to the slowly building tension and lets the reader worry about who is involved, how deeply, and in what.  (I've only just e-mailed the revision to the group, so I haven't heard back yet, but I think the story's improved by the changes.)

If you're not sure what the author's intentions are -- how the story's going to unfold in the next volume isn't always part of what we share when we're sending Chapters One, Two, and Three -- you can still share how the work's coming across to you: "In these segments, I think I'm reading about a young man's coming of age and reconciling his natural urge to explore beyond his own realm with his duty to marry for the sake of the alliances the kingdom needs to strengthen," you might say.  If the story's meant to be about something else, then the author can consider putting more hints at the other thing in.

Whether you're giving or receiving, may all your criticism be constructive.