When we buy a book we sit down to enjoy a story, to get involved in some character’s lives and to have some fun. It is quite a different situation to when we are reading someone else’s writing to provide critical feedback. So what sort of things should we do when reading critically and what sort of feedback should we give?
It is important to remember when reading another writer’s work that they have spent a lot of effort and exposed some part of themselves through their work. They will be so close to it that they won’t see the warts or rough edges. Try telling a new mother that their child isn’t cute. You won’t like the result. However this shouldn’t stop you from being critical about an author’s work, just sensitive to the way the criticism may be received. It may be a good idea to warn the author before you start reading that you will be critical, that even the greatest work ever written has elements to it that would elicit a note of query. You could send them to this blog to read this post if you like.
Having dispensed the appropriate warning to the author you can get on with the reading. This is the procedure I use, and I’ve seen other’s use it too:
- Read the work through from the start to the end. Put the red pen down (or keep your hands off the keyboard) and read the chapter / passage through without making edits or taking notes. It is important that you get the context of the writing so you understand what sort of feeling, flavour and mood the author is aiming for. It may well be that certain aspects of the story are written in a particular way on purpose to provide a specific feeling.
- Go to the start and read each sentence, then paragraph. When you start being critical, read a sentence, analyse it, then read the paragraph it is in. Often reading it out loud can really help.
- Make notes.
- Write a summary at the end. The summary should point out something positive up front. Tell the author you liked character X because of reason A or tell them about a particular metaphor that worked well. By giving some praise (make sure it is genuine) you’ll help to set the author in the correct, constructive mindset. Then make general comments about how the writing flows, what impressions you got and any general areas for improvement. Don’t go too overboard with praise and don’t be personal in the criticism. The author wants feedback on this particular bit of writing, not on how to live their lives or why they will always fail.
Things to watch for:
Point 3 above is a little general. So what notes should you take and what do you do to “analyse” the work? Here is a quick list of points to think about:
1. Adjectives and verb use. In short, if you see a -ly word in front of a verb, see if there is another verb that includes the sense the adjective is trying to provide. Here is a basic example to illustrate:
The man slowly walked down the path.
Slowly describes the way the man walked. But is there a better verb than walk that incorporates the sense of being slow? Perhaps:
The man meandered down the path.
The man trudged down the path.
The man slunk down the path.
These are just three possible alternatives to the word slowly. Keep an eye on the -ly and you’ll quickly come to see its use and quickly see how a sentence can be made more interesting without it.
2. Words surplus to requirements. That’s a little joke I have, crap I know, but it illustrates point 2. Often when writing we fall into patterns we use when speaking. The problem is that speech and writing are very different communication methods and can’t be interchanged. Sentences can become bloated and rendered less effective by excess wordage. Using my joke as an example we can see the word “surplus” already means in excess of what is required, otherwise it wouldn’t be surplus. So to say surplus to requirements is a tautology. It would be like saying: “in excess of required requirements” So the revised sentence would be: Surplus words. Some words that should be looked at with particular care: up, down, in, out and back. eg:
He sat down on the chair.
Could become: He sat on the chair. OR He sat.
Down and on are superfluous and unless you want to contrast with other people sitting on the ground, you don’t have to mention the chair.
3. Purple prose. Sentences that run on with many commas, dashes and bracketed insets can be difficult to understand. There is a time and place, as is the case in all writing, for such structure, as applied to sentences, as a way of changing pace or indicating a particular personality; you just need to be careful not to overdo it. That was my example. This is one reason you need to read the complete piece through before editing. It may well be the story has a point of view character who thinks in convoluted circles and purple prose is one way the author could be portraying that. On the other hand it is usually not the case.
4. Tense. Generally, stories are written in the past tense, but there are a couple past tenses to think about. What? Yes, if you are describing what had happened prior to the current events while using past tense, you have another kind of past tense. A linguist could probably tell you the correct name for it, but I call it past past tense.
eg: He leaned forward and thought about how he had laughed at the joke.
vs He leaned forward and laughed at the joke.
The first sentence includes the past past tense, while the second is the usual past tense. The main difference is the use of the word “had”. Mistakes often occur when one character is remembering an event or describing an event to another character.
5. Point of view. Usually we write any given scene in one point of view. That is one character is observing the world and the reader observes along with them. That means we only know the direct thoughts and emotions of the current point of view character and can only suppose the intentions and thoughts of others. This most often comes up during conversation when you add action modifiers.
eg: “I’m fine,” he lied.
That sentence works fine if the “he” is the point of view character, otherwise how do we know he lied? If there is some telltale way of knowing about the lie, describe it rather than telling us he lied.
6. Scene consistency. When a writer writes a scene, they often have a very vivid picture in their mind of what is going on. The unfortunate thing is the reader may not have that same picture if the author doesn’t write it, the author may also edit the scene later on and forget to keep track of everything. During an action sequence, make notes or draw a diagram of what is going on and who is holding what. It is easy for a swordsman to be disarmed in one sentence and then the next he stabs his opponent. Where did the sword come from?
7. Pace. This is another reason to read the piece through completely first. You need to get a sense of how fast things are moving. A scene is too quick when you get to the end and feel surprised there isn’t more. It is too long when you stop half way and quickly scan down the page to see where it ends. It’s just right when you don’t notice until you are partway into the next scene. Ways to speed a scene up include adding dialog and using more abstract metaphors and similes. To slow a scene down, add some extra description of those things that leave you wanting more.
8. Correct word usage. Sometimes we use words thinking they mean one thing when they mean something else. Double check any odd words used to make sure they make sense.
9. Anything weird. Make a note of anything that makes you stop and say “Huh?” If you don’t get it on the first read and you need to reread it to figure it out, highlight it and tell the author. They may want it to be a little odd, but chances are you’ve found a victim of the edit monster.
There are plenty more things to look out for, but if you go through the above nine things, you’ll have helped the author a lot.