On Writers’ Brains and the Critique Process

Edited Version of First Book

Edited Version of First Book (Photo credit: TheCreativePenn)

I recently had a startling revelation.  My writing group was discussing the utility of picking on the details during a critique—grammar, spelling, etc—and someone mentioned that he doesn’t bother with the basics on early drafts, because he trusts the writer to be able to fix it on the rewrite.

This sounded eminently reasonable to me, but at the same time, it totally floored me.  During my time in online critique groups, I tended to operate on the assumption that if the author got something wrong, they didn’t know any better.  Now, sometimes, this actually is a good assumption, especially if the writer is unfamiliar.  But for me, it went deeper than that, and I finally realized why.

When I write, my sentences always come out complete and grammatically correct.  That’s just the way my brain is wired.  The word choice might be wrong, the sentiment trite, the pacing nonexistent, but my rough drafts are always readable.  Grammar and spelling are so ingrained for me, I cannot write a sentence that I know is wrong (barring honest mistakes, e.g. typos, cut and paste errors, etc).

Until that moment in writing group, it had never occurred to me that other people might be different.

Thinking about it now, I realize how ridiculous that is.  After all, when I read through my own drafts, I’m perfectly capable of recognizing where the prose is stilted, where the characters are clichéd, and where the setting needs more description.  Just because it doesn’t come out right the first time, doesn’t mean I can’t fix it on my own.  It makes me wonder if somewhere, some writer looks out on all us mere mortals and wonders why in the world we’d ever need more than one draft, because his come out perfectly on the first try.

Nah.

More seriously, though, I think this is important to keep in mind when critiquing any unfinished work.  Sometimes, letting your red pen bleed all over the page may overwhelm a newbie and make them cry; or, your oh-so-helpful explanations might just annoy a fellow journeyman so they skim through and miss your more important remarks.  Not every story represents a writer’s best work—in fact, at the critique stage, it almost never does.  That’s why a regular critique partner or group can be so helpful.  You get to know each other’s capabilities, so you don’t have to guess which mistakes were just careless errors, and which are worth pointing out.

By a strange coincidence, the exact same thing came up at last week’s staff meeting at work.  In this case, it was drawings being sent out for review, but the basic message was: if it’s a preliminary drawing, and you’re only looking for conceptual review or design input, MAKE SURE TO TELL THE REVIEWERS so they don’t spent a couple hours finding every last formatting glitch and misplaced dimension.  With fiction, too, it’s never a bad idea to spell it out: rough, untouched first draft; or solid, ready-to-polish fourth draft?

Perhaps the best assumption to make is this: you won’t be the only person to critique the piece.  It is not your job to catch every tiny mistake (unless the writer specifically asked for it).  Concentrating on the most important issues will make a more effective critique.  And when in doubt, ask the author where they are in their process.  It could save a lot of frustration on both sides.

How do you approach a critique?  Have you ever had trouble deciding how much to say?  Ever been frustrated with a critique you received?

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