By Amara SuraShakta

Writing, long or short, is a physical manifestation of a mental and emotional dwelling that an author has spent expansive time in. Characters with intermingling storylines invade the writer’s head. Conflicts and possibilities take over daily thoughts. The stories that scream the loudest are awarded time on the page. Black ink meets white paper. Then, if those words are lucky, the story is shared with others. The writer opens the door to the home they created and invites readers in. Sometimes the reader will stay for a quick dinner and complimentary discussion, but sometimes the reader connects with the work and lingers. Either way, when you are invited in to read and critique an artist’s work, you are a guest in their home. How is your house guest etiquette?

Do Arrive with a Gift

What the reader likes is just as important as what the reader doesn’t like. As a writer, we know when something doesn’t gel. It grinds on us, and the art we have perfected gets lost or forgotten. So compliment the writer about how he has created a villain you love to hate or about how the dramatic visualization of the work’s setting puts you in the moment. Let them know about the parts you think they should not touch.

After reading or listening to a writer’s piece take a moment and live in it. What captivated you? What part would you like to hear or read again? Please compliment the writer on the parts that work and open your critique with this gift.

Conserve on Towels and Linens

When in a time-restricted environment, conservation is as important as water is in a drought.

Really consider what you are saying in your critique. If you don’t understand the words coming out of your mouth then the writer might not either. You might have a fantastic point, one that might unlock a door the writer had not yet discovered, so don’t babble about the wall’s paint color in a foreign if you’re excited about the key you found. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to help the writer improve the work’s property value?

You also need to consider if the point you are about to make is relevant to the work you have been presented. If not, filter it out. Ask yourself if you are about to present a writing tip or strategy that has already been shared? If so, don’t share it again. Again, you might have a fantastic point, but if you compare grocery lists, window fixtures and the name of your favorite plumber by the time you get to your point (or the writer forgets you already made a point) … hang on, I need to add grapes to my grocery list.

Now, if you think the writer might have missed a helpful strategy or want to explain why you think that writer might find that strategy useful then consider waiting until after the critique session is over to discuss your tip personally or consider exchanging email addresses. Open up a line of conversation. What better way to get to know fellow writers?

Lend a Hand When Necessary

Do you have a child with autism and a fellow writer who is trying to write a short story about the struggles of a family with a child on the Autism Spectrum? Is a fellow writer trying to put together a novel that includes STDs, but they just didn’t get the cure for crabs right?

If you have jeopardy facts floating around your head that fits the presented piece then please share! But as awesome as your awesomeness is, please don’t bog down the critique session with an encyclopedia of facts. If there is a lot you have to say on the subject area, inform the piece’s writer that you have such in-depth knowledge. Again, this is a great time to exchange emails or meet later so you can get to know your fellow writers. Additionally, this will give the writer a bit of time to think about what questions to ask as it pertains to what they wrote, and it will allow uninterrupted time to fully discuss a topic and offer ideas. In some cases, private conversation or that lapse of time will also strip some of the natural defensive mechanisms we all have so that the conversation will be productive.

Please Do Not Damage the Host’s House

Yes, this is the biggest section. This is the portion of the critique we spent most of our time with. Writers appreciate the pat on the back, the thumbs-up good job. However, writers also appreciate suggestions for improvements or oversights. In this portion of the critique, one also has to consider what type of critique setting they are attending. Is it an in-depth critique where the writer expects a harsher overhaul to their piece? Or is it more laidback meeting? Regardless of which meeting you attend please keep in mind that the work you are critiquing is not yours. You did not write it. You will not rewrite it. You do not own it. Stop yourself before you say, “if I wrote this I would.” Respect the artist and their chosen words.

Please do not present a crushing critique. This is counterproductive. We are there to support each other’s work, to encourage improvement and a continuation of our shared art. There is no reason to tell a writer that their work or their status as a writer is sub par. Not everyone has an over inflated ego and such words make putting black marks on a white page all that more daunting. Additionally, giving a critique like that is not beneficial for the writer. Don’t just say the piece lacks a certain emotion – explain why you think that. Ask the author to explained how being nervous felt for the character in a situation or tell the writer how you would love to know what’s in a character’s head at a certain moment. Critique with detailed purpose and suggest ways to improve.

Do keep in mind that while the piece you are critiquing is not yours as a writer it is yours as a reader. The fact that different people pick up different things from a work they have read or listened to is important. So, while the piece may not be your written piece, keep in mind that you do have some possession. You are the work’s reader. You do own your opinions. In your position as the reader, clearly and politely explain what worked for you, what didn’t, what you wished to have been granted more of or what you thought was excessive. The writer should expect to receive both good and bad assessments. Novice writers receive it just as professional writers do.

Please be aware of requests from a work’s writer and address their concerns. If the writer wants to know if interaction between two characters flows at a decent pace, please answer them honestly. If an author is questioning dialogue, by all means advise them. Your opinion is not the golden, “say-all” answer. It’s a suggestion, but it may just be the suggestion the writer uses to strengthen their creation. Also keep in mind that others have their own suggestions to offer that may or may not match your own. Allow them time to express it. The writer deserves to receive information from each person without superfluous distractions.

You do not know why the author wrote what they did. You do not know the purpose of the writing. The words written could have emotional, sentimental value. You could be reading an experimental piece the author used to dabble in an area of life otherwise closed off. Or maybe it’s a polished piece ready for a postage stamp and an agent. If the author wants to write dialogue a certain way, let them. The dialogue in the story may have stemmed from a real conversation. If the author adds an obscure detail that doesn’t seem to fit into a chapter and refuses to drop it for reasons unknown, let them. The detail may be insanely important three chapters down the road. When you are a house guest and choose to express the fact that you think their home’s walls might look better in red than white, leave it at that. Please do not run out and buy paint.

Leave a Parting Gift

Leave your critique on a good note. You do want to be invited back don’t you? What else about the piece did you fall in love with? Is there something you hope to see more of next time? What does the writer have a grasp on? Are they great with dialogue? Can they paint a setting like no one else you know? Writer egos are pretty delicate things. How many of us believe our writing is good enough? How many struggle with writer’s block or fear that next white page? How many of us worry that one day the perfect stream of vocabulary we once created will run dry? The biggest and hardest goal of writing is to keep on writing. Critique with the goal of leaving your commentary on a high note.

Send the Host a Thank You

Most importantly, when you are finished with your critique thank the artist! Thank them for letting you into their world, for sharing part of their life with you. The written word is a very vulnerable place. The best works are often terrifying to write let alone share. Show gratitude for that gift.

Copyright ©2010-2014 by Kristine A. Strauss, Amara SuraShakta.
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