Guest Post by Molly Dwyer
In 2010, Molly Dwyer was honored for “Writing Women Back into History” by the National Women’s Political Caucus of Mendocino County. Her debut novel, Requiem for the Author of Frankenstein, was nominated for the 2009 Northern California Book Award in Fiction; and won the Independent Publishers Book of the Year Award and the Indie Book Award for Historical Fiction. The Founding President of the Writers of the Mendocino Coast, Molly works as an editor, writing coach and writing group facilitator. She holds a PhD in Humanities, teaches Critical Thinking at Mendocino College and is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College.
Plain and simple: start with what's working, not simply because it’s good manners, but because it’s important we learn when and where our writing works. Ask yourself, “How would I want someone to tell me what they have to say?” This is true for positive and negative feedback. Don’t you love it when someone loves your writing? I do. I float around for days after getting excited feedback about something I've written. Even if it's just one sentence out of an otherwise unsuccessful piece, I want to know what worked.
Second: do your best not to rewrite someone else’s piece the way you would write. Every voice is unique. There’s nothing to be gained by suggesting someone write the way you would if you were handling the same material. Instead, look for the places where you stumbled, where you didn’t understand what the writer was communicating or you felt something was “off.” Point to specifics, but don't try to fix them. Avoid saying, “I would do it this way.”
But it can be useful to hear suggestions. For example, you might say, “What if you showed us more of where we are? I'd like to see the room better…” or the character, or the time of day. That can be useful. You’re pointing to things that seem missing. The important thing is that you think about how you're framing your observations. Be specific. Be thoughtful.
I once had someone tell me the piece I'd brought in wasn't as “magical” as usual. It’s hard to respond to that kind of critique. What should I do? Hit it with a stick? Poof. Now it's magical too? My first response was that I should throw the whole thing out and start over. Of course, I didn't know how to start over. So the criticism left me feeling I'd never get it right, that I might as well give up. It’s important to say, “I think it's not working because…” Go through the piece line-by-line. “This works, and this works, but right here—this remark by this character seems off. Would he really say that?” Perhaps the voice is too modern or too young or too timid. Point the writer to something specific they can address.
Good critique is a delicate balancing act that falls somewhere between cheerleading and brain surgery. It’s a learned skill, an art. You have to care about others and about writing to do it well. Examine your motives. Critique is a dicey business requiring maturity, self-awareness, self-confidence and, above all, honesty—not just about another’s writing, but about yourself.
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