Saturday, May 24, 2014

Critique Methods, by Matthew MacNish

There are lots of ways to critique a novel, most of them pretty useful. But ... they do not always have clearly defined definitions among the writing community. I'll be covering what I understand them to mean, in this post and probably one other, but I don't mean to imply that I know everything, or can't be wrong, because I definitely don't, and certainly can.


Before I get started, you should definitely read:
These topics are all related, trust me.

Now, you back? Good. I've exchanged a lot of pages with a lot of writers. Some of them are famous authors, some of them are regular authors, some of them are aspiring authors, and some of them are just starting out. There is great value in all of those examples, for both writers involved.

In exchanging all those pages, I've learned a lot of things. For one, no two writers work exactly the same. Probably when drafting and revising too, but I'm talking about critiquing here. A lot of times, when exchanging work with another writer, there isn't time for what I like to call "a deep critique," and so we go through a quick "beta read," and end up exchanging an editorial letter, that usually averages around 2-5 pages, and really only covers big picture topics. Character Arc, Theme, Plot, Pacing, and so on.

These are great, and they certainly help, but personally? Nothing helps me polish my manuscripts more than a good deep critique. One that is so full of highlights, and tracked changes, and comments, and inserted colored text that it looks like a burst pinata at a third grade birthday party.

Nothing inspires me more than really digging in. And I mean both with feedback someone has given me on my work, and in doing the same for someone else.

So, a deep critique. What goes into it? Like I said, it can be different for every writer, but this is what I do:

Copy-Editing

I'm no professional, and it isn't quite this simple, but basically copy-editing is looking at the text (copy is text of any kind before it gets typeset in preparation for printing, binding, and publishing) on the most microscopic level. Is everything spelled right? Is the grammar correct? Are words properly capitalized? Is the punctuation correctly used and properly placed?

Basically, copy-editing is pointing out mistakes. Again, it's not that simple, but that is the basic concept.

I usually try to do a little copy-editing when I critique. A lot of times, the things I point out will be stylistic choices, and the writer knows what I'm pointing out is just a suggestion, so much of the changes are eventually ignored, but the important thing is to point them out, and let the author decide for themselves whether they made that choice on purpose.

Some writers vehemently do not want you to copy-edit their text during critique. They will usually clue you into this in one way or another. For example, "I'm sending you this in .PDF format, so you can turn your inner editor off."

That's generally a hint that means don't send me back a document that has more red on it than black and white.

When working on critique exchanges with a fellow writer, it's important to know what they're looking for, and not to waste your time giving them feedback they aren't interested in, and honestly might offend them.

Line-Editing

For a long time I did not understand the difference between line-editing and copy-editing, and to be honest, as far as I know, there is still some overlap, and a few gray areas. That said, if we're sticking with the microscope metaphor, line-editing is generally considered a level above copy-editing on the big picture scale, but the two are tied together closely enough that sometimes the same person can do them both.

In informal critique exchanges, I certainly try to. Line-editing, like copy-editing, still deals with sentence structure, and does not concern itself with macro-level concepts like pacing and plot. The main thing line-editing seeks to achieve is consistency. If you called the love interest's dad Jon with no H in chapter 3, did he suddenly gain a letter in the spelling in chapter 10? If the antagonist has a verbal tic in which he refuses to speak in contractions, does he suddenly say "ain't" in chapter 12?

Passive voice, syntax, repeated words, subject/verb agreement. There are many things to look for, but the job of a good line edit still considers a manuscript one sentence at a time.

Developmental Editing

Why is there no hyphen in this one? I'm not sure either.

Anyway, developmental editing is the highest level gaze a manuscript gets. Oftentimes, major changes of this kind are best left to a developmental editor who works for a publisher who is actually paying you to publish your manuscript, but when exchanging pages with other writers, there is nothing wrong with making suggestions, knowing that your critique partner will only implement those that resonate with her vision for her story.

Developmental editing concerns itself with the biggest of the big picture topics. Plot, pacing, character arc and development, theme, and so on. It considers a manuscript by the paragraph, page, scene, and even chapter. Oftentimes, scenes can be moved around to improve tension or build suspense. Other times, scenes can be cut or lengthened or even inserted (as in a new scene), depending on just what the story needs at that position in the tale.

Of course, this is all highly subjective, and I would definitely recommend second and third and fourth opinions if you're considering making these kinds of sweeping changes to a manuscript, but I have personally re-written an entire book from scratch before, and it was a great learning experience.

* * *

Well, that's it for today. Come back next time and I will cover exactly how I implement these methods when I'm critiquing pages for another writer.

In the meantime, when it comes to general manuscript cleanup, you should absolutely check out this post by my favorite editor, Andrew Karre from Carolrhoda Lab.

21 comments:

  1. The first two are what I mostly look for when critiquing someone's work. And often it spills into the last one. I can't imagine getting back or giving just a couple page summary though. I've always edited using the Word edit feature, and so have all of my critique partners.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The editorial letter/beta read method is much less useful to me than the deep crit, but it's still important. It's especially useful getting those from people who read a lot but who are not writers themselves.

      Delete
  2. Looking forward to future posts! This sentence is key for me when critiquing: "When working on critique exchanges with a fellow writer, it's important to know what they're looking for, and not to waste your time giving them feedback they aren't interested in, and honestly might offend them."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Definitely. Everyone has different needs. For example, if you're working with a CP who has an agent and past sales, trying to help them with copy-editing is totally pointless. Their publisher is going to have a paid copy-editor who is WAY better at it than you.

      But if you're helping unpublished peeps, it can be really useful.

      Anyway yeah, thanks Mike. I'll be covering the details of what I do with a manuscript I'm critiquing next month.

      Delete
  3. Developmental editing is mostly what I do when I give feedback to a CP or someone I am beta-reading for. I have been known to copy-edit when trying to help someone get a synopsis down from 6 pages to 2!

    Your post on the Document Map is one of the single most valuable things I have ever picked up on a writer's blog. Thanks for providing the link. I need to go bookmark it right now, because I am always referring people to it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dianne! We are of course not permanent CPs, but we have exchanged pages in the past, and I must say the first page crits you do on your personal blog are one of the best examples on the internet of how to help new writers.

      And I'm so glad to hear you hadn't seen the document map post! At the time I wrote that post, I was very new to the feature myself, but it has been an invaluable tool for me ever since.

      Delete
  4. Great post, Matthew!

    It depends where I am in the process, but an overall editorial letter is what's most helpful to me. This way I can see what's working or not working as a whole. If someone makes the (kind) effort to do small-scale edits and I go and change that portion, well...that was wasted work (says the person who is currently making small-scale edits on a friend's draft!!)

    To step back for a moment, I suppose was most helpful is some comments within the draft itself followed by an overview letter. That way I can see it all. I'm not asking for too much, am I? ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think it all depends on what state the MS is in, you know? I work with writers who have sold their MS, and so have a certain set of needs, and in that case I think a beta read letter, with maybe a few in-text comments, like you say, is best.

      But I also work with a lot of aspiring novelists, and when it comes to those early career MSs, they generally want the most feedback they can get.

      That said, the sandwich method is very important, in which you compliment every thing that makes you laugh or smile or be moved to emotion, because fresh writers need encouragement as much as they need criticism.

      Delete
  5. Thanks for the definitions. I definitely prefer the deep critique when I send it out too. I don't always follow the advice, but usually it is spot on. I've had partners that really didn't "get" the story, which is why I'm picky about the people I exchange pages with. Always need to be sure the person reading your story is invested in the project and the author as a whole, and not just rewriting something to their own style. *cough* not that I've ever been guilty of that last . .

    Thanks for the document links.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Editing is not my strength, for sure. Working with a professional editor made me realize how little I know...in my freelance writing role, when a client wants me to work as an editor, I now politely decline. The professionals really do have a talent for it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed, Stephanie. Thanks for stopping by.

      Delete
  7. Very useful delineations here. This is one of the trickiest things for authors, especially novice authors. They know they need editing, but they don't know what editing entails, or what they really want or need. And there are so many people out there claiming to be able to do it, whatever it is. It's jumping in blindly much of the time. A guide like this is incredibly important. Thanks, Matthew!

    The only thing I'd caution is waiting for a publisher for developmental editing, because, while there are definitely some publishers out there who take on a manuscript based on potential, most want to see a pretty completed manuscript. And that means developmental editing should come first. Also true, of course, if you're self-publishing, as many prefer now.

    That said, I was a developmental editor working at a publisher when I started working with Eden Unger Bowditch, so clearly waiting for the publisher does sometimes work as well!

    Harrison Demchick
    Developmental Editor, Ambitious Enterprises

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You make several great points, Harrison! I think my feeling is that it always depends on the project. For un-agented, un-published writers, polishing a manuscript as much as possible is important, but you also have to be careful. I have friends whose agents have asked them to change things, only for their editors to ask them to change them back.

      The most important thing, I have found, at least in my own writing, is don't change anything unless it truly resonates with my vision for the story, and also not unless multiple readers are mentioning the same feedback.

      What's that Neil Gaiman quote?

      "When someone tells you something is wrong, they're almost always right. When someone tells you how to fix it, they're almost always wrong."

      Delete
    2. I can't argue with that! I always make suggestions, and I'd like to believe they're good ones--in both markup and detailed editorial letter form, to tie this back into your post--but I'm never prouder or more amazed as an editor than when authors resolve their problems in brilliant and unexpected ways I'd never have imagined.

      Harrison Demchick
      Developmental Editor, Ambitious Enterprises

      Delete
  8. What a thorough post, Matthew. Thank you. I find overall big-picture comments really helpful (because I often can't see the forest for the trees), but when I crit I always tend to include comments on the document itself, along with a separate "editorial letter". So I appreciate it when critiquers do the same for me. Not all of them do.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My personal feeling is that more information is better, because the writer can always ignore some of it. That said, it does depend. If a writer is on a deadline, less is probably more.

      Delete
  9. Man, you're probably the best editor that I've ever seen. These are well-detailed tips.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't know. I struggle with developmental editing myself. At least with my own work. I think because I outline ahead of time, I get kind of married to the progression of the plot, and struggle with making changes to it.

      Delete
  10. I agree with you about the in depth critique. I remember the first time a fellow writer tore apart my first ten pages. It stung, but it was amazingly helpful.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah yes ... those first criticism can definitely smart. But we do all grow from them, eventually.

      Delete

Thanks for adding to the mayhem!