But as I’ve spent more time in the past few months critiquing a variety of writing, I’ve come to realise that it also provides invaluable experience for me as a writer. (Yes, I realise there’s still an element of self-interest there.) But as I’ve taken the time to look over someone else’s work with a genuine intent to improve it, I’ve found that it’s carried over into my own writing as well.
There’s the obvious yet common mistakes. Those twenty extraneous adverbs or conjunctions I pointed out? Now part of my mind is doing a running check on my own usage as I write. POV inconsistencies? After getting confused by someone else’s random changes, I’m always double-checking that I don’t do the same to my own hapless readers. Then there are stylistic issues like pervasive passive voice, or assumed knowledge of a city’s geography, a character’s background, or technical concepts. By making myself consciously aware of it with the distance of someone else’s writing, my mind subconsciously retains it when it comes to the more emotional connection I have to my own work.
I’m also learning to look at the bigger picture. Because I’m reading work-in-progress drafts, it’s common to reach the end of a piece and have a nagging feeling that something is missing, or that certain concepts weren’t conveyed well enough. And instead of shrugging it off and moving on to the next book, as I would if it was just another novel I was reading, I’m forced to put words to what exactly it was that didn’t work for me.
The problem is, these things aren’t as simple to pick out as a blatant grammatical or spelling error. It could be the pacing or order of chapters tripping up the flow of the story. Or perhaps it’s the lack of tension or any tangible threat running throughout the story. I’ve also seen thematic inconsistency, erratic characterisation, infodumping, telling instead of showing, and any number of other structural issues. Even once I’ve identified it, though, I also need to point out where the problems are evident in the text, and explain why I believe them to be issues.
The other thing it’s taught me is how to give feedback–not just to others, but to myself as well. As writers, we tend to be pretty hard on ourselves, and we beat ourselves up mercilessly over what we produce. But when providing feedback to others, we need to tone it down. We need to be honest but polite, critical but reasonable. We need to show that we care about the person and their work, instead of wanting to put them down, and comment about the writing and not the person. It’s definitely something more of us could learn when talking to ourselves about our own work.
So I’d like to encourage all the writers out there to take a serious interest in critiquing other people’s work. If one of the cardinal rules is to write daily, then I think a strong suggestion should be to critique weekly. It doesn’t have to be a long piece, although they’re better if you want to learn about fundamental issues a novel can have. Get out there, find a critique group (may I suggest Critters?) or some fellow writing buddies who are serious about getting published. Hone your own skills as you’re helping others to hone theirs. By giving that time to others, you’ll get it back with interest–you’ll be pleasantly surprised how much your own writing improves as a result.
And no, I’m not saying this because I’m looking for beta-readers for my own work now. Honest…