There’s nothing like being on the receiving end of a good critique. I also relish the job of critiquing the work of my writing buddies.
I’m currently in Week 9 of a 10-week online writing course: Writing the Personal Essay, offered through Creative Nonfiction. I am learning lots and working hard—so much so my creative muscles are starting to burn. I love it.
And my fellow students are amazing:
A Pakistani-born physician mining her experiences as a breast cancer survivor;
A mechanical engineer trying to build his shards of memory into something solid;
A British mother living with her Syrian husband in the Gulf who struggles to fit writing in between cleaning bottles and “sucking mash potato from the inside of the high-chair belt lock.”
And many others. A lot of good essays are being developed and bandied about.
This class has reminded me of how much you can learn from critiquing the work of other writers. Our instructor, Barrett Swanson, calls them “peer reviews.”
But answer me this: why is it that when we read somebody else’s writing, we can spot the bumps, wrinkles and glitches, yet they are invisible to us in our own works? Why, why, why?
Here are some things I have run into while reading the essay drafts of my classmates. Each “mistake” I discover is a blessing as it reminds me what to do/not do in my own essays:
The hardest part of writing an essay seems to be finding the center.“A question often lurks at the heart of a personal essay. What don’t you understand? What can’t you do?...”- Adair Lara
In each of my peer reviews, I usually have a list of “what this essay is about” because it seems early drafts have a tendency to wobble off in many directions.
For example, in an essay by a woman who moved from Scotland to the U.S. as a child, the list of “what this essay might be about” included:
- Your emotions about the ocean
- Your emotions about your ex-husband
- The ways that becoming American changed your family
- Your brother’s rise and fall
- How your brother’s death estranged you from your adopted country
While you don’t have to zoom in on one single theme, four or more possible themes—each with a centrifugal force of its own—bounces the reader off a lot of walls. Ka-thunk—the brother; ka-thunk—the ocean. Ka-thunk—the ex-husband. You get what I’m saying?
I always point out that each item on the list could probably be the center of its own essay. One draft equals many opportunities!
Writer’s Digest article about writing reader-friendly essays, uses a streetcar analogy to discuss the importance of being clear about your destination:
“An essay needs a lighted sign right up front telling the reader where they are going. Otherwise, the reader will be distracted and nervous at each stop along the way, unsure of the destination, not at all able to enjoy the ride.”Clear destination—smooth ride—enjoyable reading experience.
“Words have been used too often; touched and turned, and left exposed to the dust of the street. The words we seek hang close to the tree, we come at dawn and find them sweet beneath the leaf.”“Cut to the chase” and “ace in the hole” and language of that ilk really does water down the story. I know this in theory, but when I encounter stale phrases in these essays from my class, I am re-inspired to avoid them—not like the plague, but like a car ride with a diarrhea-prone Pomeranian.
- Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room
Here's a resource for us all: The ClichéSite. It lists hundreds of clichés to avoid, organized A to Z.
Note: clichés are allowed in dialogue, since we can’t control what our characters have said or will say.
Finding fresh language takes effort, but we owe it to our readers. After all, they are taking time out of their busy lives to consume our words. Let’s give them something fresh-picked instead of words that have sat on the counter way too long.
“When you lose simplicity, you lose drama.” - Andrew WyathMany of the early drafts of essays tend to go on too long and over-explain things that the reader “got” a long time ago.
I am reminded that every scene, description and scrap of dialogue must be vetted. If it doesn’t add to the targeted theme, it should be subtracted from the essay.
A GOOD CRITIQUE IS A PRECIOUS THING
I appreciate all the missteps that my classmates have made, because critiquing their essays helps me to be a better editor of my own writing.
Fortunately, a couple of people in my class (and the instructor, of course) have worked really hard on reviews for my essay drafts, and that is a very cool thing.
I have committed all of the afore-mentioned mistakes and more. My peer reviewers gently point them out to me, which allows me to approach the next draft with a much clearer vision of what needs to be fixed.
Writers need all the encouragement we can get!
What about you? Do you think that critiquing the work of other writers has made you a better writer?