From the Smith's Shoppe

March 9, 2010

The Art of a Good Critique

Filed under: Blogs — vernonfueston @ 2:17 pm

You will probably find that in all the process of learning to write, knowing how to give a good critique is one of the most important skills you will learn.

The process of critiquing other class member’s writing assignments is, next to simply sitting down and writing, the most important activity you will do as a developing writer.  It is certainly more important than getting your own work critiqued.  I say this for a couple of reasons.

First, you can read all the writing textbooks you want, attend all the workshops and writing conferences you can fit into your schedule and talk about writing in groups until the cows come home, but you won’t become a better writer until you apply what you’ve learned.  But there’s a problem.

It’s very difficult to see bad writing when you do it.  If you could see it easily, you wouldn’t write badly in the first place.  Besides, our minds tend to fill in the blank spots in our own work.  It knows what we meant to do.

But critiquing the work of others allows a writer to spot writing mistakes and suggest corrections.  If a writer does this enough, in time mistakes on his or her own pages will become obvious.

And second, if we tell somebody else enough times to cut bad writing, even when it’s painful, eventually we learn to follow our own advice.  We do this if for no other reason than to avoid being hypocritical.  It is just as tough to correct or eliminate those lines or words that don’t work but with which we’ve fallen in love.  Critique toughens us for the hardest emotional work we have to do, fixing our own drafts.

Here are some rules for making a good critique:

1.  Don’t be obnoxious.  Remember that other writers are just as attached to their work and just as sensitive about it as you are.  Critique is not being “critical.”  We aren’t in the business of tearing things down.  One good method for avoiding hurtful criticism is to express our objections as suggestions.  “You might consider using shorter sentences,” works so much better than, “Your language is too flowery and full of fluff.”

2.  In any critique, begin with what you found strongest in the work.  This can be difficult at times, but do it.

3.  In any critique, always suggest what could make the piece stronger.  If those around you know that this will always happen, they will be less inclined to take offense when you suggest something they might do to improve their work.

4.  End your critique with positive and sincere praise for progress made, quality of work – whatever.

It’s always difficult to offer suggestions on someone’s work.  Nobody likes to find fault with the work of somebody they care about.  Just remember, the reason we are offering critiques in the group is to develop your writing.  Giving an honest, well thought out critique will help develop you into a professional writer more than anything else except sitting down and writing something.

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March 5, 2010

Shoppe notes

Filed under: Blogs — vernonfueston @ 8:00 pm

Welcome fellow Wordsmiths!  Whether you are a member of the Wordsmith’s Writer’s Group or just enjoy hanging out on the page, we’re glad to have you with us.  You’re welcome to find out more about the writer’s group that meets in Hertford, North Carolina by clicking on “about” in the box to the right.   Otherwise, I’ll be posting blogs and creative writing assignments here on this page for you to try.  Feel free to leave your comments whether you are an active member or not.   Also try visiting our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com.  Search for Wordsmith’s Writers Group.  We’d love to hear from you. 

Vernon  Fueston
Group Moderator

Giving yourself permission

Filed under: Blogs — vernonfueston @ 5:32 pm

Writing is a solitary business.  It is an art form that is done alone and, unlike singing or acting, we put our art out there without hearing applause.  Writing is not performance art. 

It’s a peculiar vocation at best.  It’s difficult to “break in to” and it’s a difficult obsession to explain to other people.  Writers are folks who lock themselves away in little cubicles and “work” for long hours, often with nothing to show for it. 

One of the most difficult things I had to do was simply give myself permission to call myself a writer.  I wrote, but we all write.  There isn’t anything special about that.  I was in a high school play once, but I don’t call myself an actor. 

I’d been attending writing classes for months when my instructor dropped the little nugget that an editor friend of hers was looking for a “freelance writer” to write articles for a hospital public relations newsletter that was being distributed as an insert in the Virginian Pilot.  I was the only one in the class crazy enough to ask for the phone number. 

I was going to be a writer. 

I made a completely cold call on the public relations office of Albemarle Hospital and told them I want to write.  Just like that. 

The director asked me if I’d ever written for money before.  I hadn’t expected that.  In fact I hadn’t expected much of anything other than, “When can you start?”

 He wasn’t pleased when I told him I was enrolled in a continuing education creative writing class at the local community college, but he gave me a trial assignment.  He would only use it if it was good enough to publish and we would talk from there.

He wanted 800 words on heart disease.  He left it up to me as to how to approach the subject, but I should remember that this was an Albemarle Hospital production.

I went home, got on the Internet, and ground out all sorts of statistics on heart disease, risk factors, treatments and symptoms.  Then I wrote my masterpiece, 795 words about heart disease. 

He rejected it.  It was the sort of thing he would expect to get off the Internet, he said.

 I was crushed.  That’s exactly what I had done and I had no idea in the world what I should have done differently.

 In the weeks that followed I began to realize what I should have done.  I should have called some doctors and interviewed them.  If I were exceptionally intelligent, I would have interviewed doctors on the staff of the Albemarle Hospital.  The originality of the idea took my breath away!

 Just kidding.  As the truth about how short my efforts had come up dawned on me, I became depressed.  I had a long way to go.  So, I went back to class and resolved to myself that if the opportunity ever came up again, I would think very carefully about what the people publishing my work wanted and give it to them. 

The opportunity never came up.  I had to make my own.

 The first step I took toward getting published was stolen from one of those “You Can Get Happily and Successfully Published in Ten Easy Steps” books.  It was called “guerilla marketing.”

 The book told me to do some public relations work pro bono, Latin for free of charge, credit, glory or fame.  The idea was to get something in print so when an editor asks “Have you ever written professionally before?” you can answer with confidence, “Yes, sir!”

 I approached Sue, the director of our local arts council, not even knowing what to ask for.  Sue was an easy touch.  She was a member of my writer’s group.  She gave me an assignment, a press release about a gallery showing.

 When that article ran it was one of the most exciting days of my life.  It was just 350 words with no byline – but they were my words.  I was ready to “take it to the next level.”

 The book said local newspapers were the best place for a beginning writer to start, so I decided to approach the Chowan Herald and the Daily Advance.

 I put together a portfolio of short stories and my one press release.  Then I took my camera to a local music festival and shot pictures to show my camera ability.

Then I called the newspapers like I had good sense.

They weren’t impressed.  I couldn’t get a face-to-face interview.  Rebecca Bunch, editor of the Chowan Herald, even called Sue asking if I was for real.  Sue told her I was, so Rebecca said she’d give me a call back.

 In the mean time, several earnest and pleading calls to Robert Kelly-Goss, life styles editor of the Daily Advance finally paid off.  I heard from him.

He gave me the same deal I’d had from Albemarle Hospital.  I had been here before, so I asked him to walk me through what he wanted.  Nine years later I still use the same checklist when I do a newspaper feature.

 And Rebecca Bunch called, too.  I published two features in two different papers, both full page with color photos, three days apart.  I wrote about a couple of Edenton hang gliding enthusiasts for the Chowan Herald and four ministers who hold down full time jobs while they shepherd their congregations for the Daily Advance.

 I made $35 for each article but you would have thought I’d been given a new sports car.  I didn’t want to cash the check.  Both papers loved the pieces and wanted more.  Within a few months I was making more than twice that initial amount per article.

 And, I started calling myself a writer.

 It doesn’t matter if you publish your work for money or not.  The truth is, if you’re starting off, the money you make will be so embarrassing that you’ll almost wish you wrote for free anyway.

 What the whole odyssey taught me was that calling myself a writer was more about being willing to pull out all the stops and do my best. You see, I hadn’t told the truth to myself when I got turned down by Albemarle Hospital.

 I didn’t fail to interview those doctors because I never thought about it.  I decided not to “bother them” with a project I wasn’t sure would get into print.  I wasn’t willing to stick my neck out.

 When you publish what you have written, it’s a little like opening your chest and letting people see into your heart.  It’s not a comfortable feeling.  Just as difficult though, is to write something that is the very best you can do, stop calling it a “work in progress,” and hand it over to someone who will publish it to the world.

 That’s when you can call yourself a writer.

– Vernon Fueston 

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