Critiquing to Learn

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Everyone says, “If you want to write, you need to read.” This is particularly true if you hope to commercialize your story via traditional publishing. However, even if you devour novels like a starved paper shredder on steroids, your writing success isn’t a given.

Why? Because getting caught up in a good story isn’t the same thing as understanding how it came to be written. When you open a brand new book from Amazon and swipe your eager eyes over those crisp white pages, you can’t see the horrid first draft, the scathing editorial comments, or the poor writer yanking out fistfuls of hair as he or she attempts to weave their tattered story into a beautiful yarn. Oftentimes, if a writer has done their job well, you don’t even see the purposeful arrangement of key story elements. Instead, you find yourself 100 pages in, clueless as to why the story works so well… because it sucked you right in. Forget about GMC and character arcs. All you know at this point is that you must read on to see what happens next.

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Lisa Cron describes this phenomenon in her book Wired for Story. “The first job of any good story,” she says, “is to completely anesthetize the part of our brain that questions how it is creating such a compelling illusion of reality. After all, a good story doesn’t feel like an illusion. What it feels like is life.” And—I would add—when we force ourselves to stop and analyze a story, we risk ruining the escapist experience it was meant to inspire. How can we analyze a tale’s beauty if it disappears when we stop to look?

And how do we as writers circumvent “the Cron problem”? One option is to reread and study our favorite novels with the goal of learning from the masters. On second read, a novel’s anesthetic capabilities are lessened, though some of the original novelty and beauty is lessened as well. Another option is to spend regular time critiquing works-in-progress (WIPs) and learn from the learners. Each approach has strengths (+) and weaknesses (-) as you can see in the chart below, but only critiquing mandates a written analysis.

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Click here for an expanded view.

In either case, whether you’re critiquing a novel or a WIP, something magical happens when you force your thoughts into words. At first, you might not know what to say. Or what you say might sound obscure… “Good characters” or “This scene drags.” But as you start to amass words on the page, you can begin to add new thoughts and also critique your critique.

“Good characters?” Too vague! What makes them good?

“This scene drags?” But why? What might make it better?

You ask yourself questions. Then you put the answers into words and critique those too. Maybe you Google-search “characterization” or “how to bring a scene to life” to help flesh out your thoughts. Maybe you think back to that awesome novel you just read that kept you turning pages for hours on end. (What kept you reading? Would that fix this current scene?)

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In the process of formulating a critique, your brain starts making connections like, “Wait. This character has no goal. And didn’t I read something in that craft book about characters needing goals?” Through time, you learn to identify common problems—then turn them in on yourself: “Do I do that in my own writing, too? How can I fix that?”

Cultivating a taste for critique might not come naturally to all writers, but it’s still a way to reinforce what you’re learning. I would say, “Practice makes perfect,” but that’s only half the story. To really excel at critiquing (writing, too) you need to do more than just practice. You need to spend time learning about the craft of writing fiction and seek feedback on your own writing.

In my experience, learning to write is a back-and-forth process much like pumping on a swing or riding a see-saw. You write some. You read some. Novels, WIPs, How-tos. You learn about story theory and elements of style. Then you attempt to implement what you’ve learned. The learning process is, in short, a see-saw action between theory and practice, and critiquing is one tool that can help you learn to hone your own creative work.

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“Learn to write a novel” mind map by Lara Storm Hitchcock via XMind

How about you? Do you find the act of critiquing to be a valuable learning tool? Are you a left-brainer like me who enjoys the challenge of diagnosing potential problems…or do you struggle with what to say? Leave a comment (and enter the giveaway HERE) for a chance to win a 2500-word critique or a copy of Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story. Paperback books are for U.S. residents only, e-copy / critique for all.

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Full Table of Contents here.