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Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Critiquing 101: Don't Just Rewrite

I do a lot of critiquing/beta reading. Mostly through Scribophile.com, but I also have participated in real life critique groups from time to time, and I'll agree to read other writers' work fairly frequently (this is not me asking you to critique your novels. Chances are, I'm already way behind on agreed upon reading right now).
Getting input on your writing is so important, but so many writers are hesitant to give constructive criticism, or don't know how, or don't feel qualified.
In this series, I plan to discuss pitfalls to avoid as well as things you can do to make your advice easier to understand and more helpful to the writer.

Some subjects we'll be covering:

The first "mistake" I'm focusing on is a pet peeve for a lot of writers.

Mistake: Rewriting large chunks without explanation.

You’re reading along and come across a passage that goes something like this:
Don was sitting at the table, and his head was in his hands. His eyes were sad.
and you see a problem, so you write: Don sat at the table, his head in his hands and his eyes sad.
Now if the writer you’re working with is experienced with line edits, they may know immediately why you suggest these changes, but if you do these sorts of suggestions over large passages without bothering to explain, it can be confusing and disheartening for the writer. They may not necessarily see why your way is better, just different. They may think yours is better but not be able to diagnose why. Including an explanation goes a long way.
“You’re relying on the verb was/were as your primary verb a lot. Other verbs are considered more interesting. Was/were is primarily a static verb and can be a sign that you’re telling when you should be showing."
In most cases, you don’t need to rewrite it at all. While it doesn’t hurt to give a few example of how to change a sentence around, most writers will not incorporate big chunks of other writer’s writing into their works. It makes them feel as if they’ve lost ownership, for one thing, and having random passages written in a different voice can make the book feel less cohesive.
Also a lot of people can’t learn that way. Unless you’re willing to follow them around rewriting for them forever, it’s easier in the long run to explain what to look for and how to fix it rather than to do it for them.
Caveat: Some writers aren’t particularly great explainers. They’re instinctive writers, and rewriting is the only way they know how to communicate, to show you how to do it. This is a legitimate teaching method, though I still think there needs to be explanation involved. It’s also why reading widely is important for writers. Seeing it done “right” makes it easier to do it yourself. I had one person who was great at action scenes rewrite mine, and it took a lot of staring between his versions and mine to diagnose the difference (Shorter sentences and bolder verb choice) … then I didn’t use his his version. I rewrote mine using those parameters.
So if this is the only way you know how to communicate suggested changes, do it, but do it with a light hand and don't try to rewrite every dang word someone wrote.


  1. I'm looking forward to this series. Thanks for the good advice!

  2. Great advice. I'm looking forward to reading all of this series. I find I tend to be on the ultra-critical end of critique, but I always explain why something doesn't work for me. AND I try to limit rewriting. I will do it the first time I see a problem and explain WHY I rewrote it. Later, I'll just say "telling-see earlier comments" or something like that.
    It will be interesting to read the post on disparity in writing skills. This happened to me recently, and it made for a VERY difficult beta read. After all, a beginning writer is going to write like a beginning writer. I didn't expect these people to be so close to that level.

    1. Yeah, not to give too much away about that post, but it also depends on what their ambitions are for that piece. It's one thing if they are just getting started and "practicing" and another if they think they just need to run spellcheck and pop it up as is on Amazon.