Showing your work to someone else can be very scary.
It’s something I know better than anyone. Showing your work to other people is . . . painful. But, coming out of the closet to find the right critique partner is one of the most valuable steps an aspiring author can take to improve their work.
To illustrate, I’d like to show you a long abandoned draft of the (deleted) prologue to my upcoming novel, Old Souls. Even though this prologue was something I worked on WAY too long, I knew it wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t until I found a great critique partner that I realized my writing left a lot of room for improvement. But, this critique partner did what all great partners will do, encouraged me to KEEP GOING.
Very good work. The story is engrossing and you’ve brought life to the page. I like the character’s internal voice and his situation is interesting. You’re on the mark overall with what you’re doing. You do have some writing problems/weaknesses, but if you focus, you’ll be able to correct them easily. Or maybe not easily–what’s easy? But you’ll be able to correct yourself. I like the project. Stick with it.
She then proceeded to rip the work into shreds. Below, my original work is in bold, and her notes are italics:
I would like you to know right from the beginning, that I do not (DON’T –GO FOR CONTRACTIONS –WHY ARE YOU USING STEPHEN KING’S LANGUAGE?) enter into the writing of this story lightly. Because you see, as far fetched (FARFETCHED) as you may come to believe it, it is (IT’S) my story. I can only hope that on your part, you will not (WON’T –ETC–CONTRACTIONS ARE MORE NATURAL) enter into the reading of it lightly either.
During the course of the last month or so, I have begun and discarded [its] (THE) first chapters several times, trying simply to decide where to begin. There is (WEAK SENTENCE OPENING–WHAT DOES `THERE IS’ MEAN? –IT’S A PLACEHOLDER) just so much to say. I have since decided that writing it (WHAT IS THE `IT’? USE A WORD) from it’s (ITS) beginning would make for a book which (THAT–LOOK UP `WHICH VERSUS THAT’) would be, in it‘s (ITS –THIS MEANS `IT IS’ –GET OVER THIS HABIT) thoroughness, entirely to (TOO) long to be read by even the most curious members of the fast-paced culture that we live in today.
And, I want my story to be read.
Besides all of that, if I were to start the tale at it’s (FIX) beginning, much of it would take place long before I was born, and[,] although that part of my history is coming back to me more and more every day, I’ll admit to you openly, here and now (COMMA) that I still do not remember much of it.
I had (CONTRACTIONS) thought for some time that I could simply start on the day that I was born, and relay to you all of the things that, over the years, Vi has told me about myself as I was then. Or (I MIGHT GET UNDERWAY –OR WHATEVER –IF YOU LET THE WORK REST AND THEN READ, YOU’LL FIND YOURSELF GOING `HUH’ JUST AS A READER MIGHT) on the afternoon that I killed the only boy in my school who had ever been nice to me. And then I considered beginning by describing the weather on the morning that I was committed to the J.L. (GENERALLY A SPACE BETWEEN INITIALS) Doucette Psychiatric Hospital of Nova Scotia, and follow up with all of the horrors that I endured during the eight insufferable years that I was locked behind it’s FIX solid, red oak doors. I even wrote a few drafts that began on the day that I was released, and while walking aimlessly around the hospital gardens for the last time, realized that despite serving my sentence – (DO YOU KNOW HOW TO CREATE A DASH? NO SPACE ON EITHER SIDE AND TWO HYPHENS OR `INSERT SYMBOL’ AND INSERT AN EM DASH) though it had never been called that, I would never be free of the burden of guilt that clutched my heart.
But I am (CONTRACTIONS) not going bore you with all of that. I might, should the whim arise, tell you briefly about one or perhaps even all of these things, but I certainly will not (WON’T) start there. Because I want to begin at the exact moment that I woke up to the world around me and the jigsaw pieces of my life, jumbled as they had been, began to come together. So that you, dear reader, will have the best chance of believing me, when I tell you that I am not crazy.
And we can begin (YOU REPEAT THE `BEGIN’ VERB A LOT–VARY WHEN YOU CAN) our revolution.
Now, when I read her notes I was embarrassed–but I also felt like my world opened up. My writing needed work, but it was worth saving. In one fell swoop, my critique partner highlighted several weaknesses that I could easily address to improve the quality of my writing.
In a five hundred word piece, I learned:
- Writing with contractions dramatically improves the flow of first person narration
- Its is the possessive form of ‘it’
- The difference between an EM dash and an EN dash, and when to use them
- To watch for word repetition, highlighted here with the repeated use of begin
- Not to begin a sentence with: ‘there were,’ and ‘it was’ (these are filler words, which don’t mean anything)
- Generally, a space is required between initials
- Farfetched is one word
Now, many of these points are obvious (in retrospect) and a couple are not. But, whether you are a writer who is just starting out, or one who has been published with shining 5 star reviews, chances are your writing leaves some room for improvement too. In my mind, you will never learn as fast in the closet as you will with a great critique partner.
In turn, you will have to offer suggestions to benefit your partner’s work. Sometimes you will find yourself looking up grammar and punctuation rules to ensure you’re right before passing out advice. This will help your writing too. If you don’t feel comfortable examining the technical aspects of other people’s writing, you can focus on their plot, plot holes, and pace.
If you’re just dipping your toe in the writing waters, find a writing circle that works for you. And, if your partners don’t encourage you, if they don’t add fuel to your fire and offer helpful suggestions, dump them and find replacements.