Saturday, December 20, 2008

Be a Perfectionist: Self Critique Your Writing

If you're like the rest of us fiction writers, then in that moment after finishing a story, you tend to sit back and beam with pride. "It's perfect. Here, world. Take it and love it. I do."

That moment of self-satisfaction lasts maybe a minute...maybe a week. You continue to enjoy the illusion that your writing glistens in gold font on that screen--until you manage to look at your manuscript again, this time with a more objective eye. Hmmm, you think. Maybe it's not so perfect after all. Maybe it needs some work.

Before your manuscript is ready to submit to publishers, you'll need to revise or rewrite portions of your gift unto the world into something the world has a hope of understanding.

Unfortunately, you've stared at your own manuscript for hours on end, day after day, week after week, until you can't see what's wrong with it. So often have you looked at the words you've written that they flow into your brain not from the page, but from memory. You see all your ideas, all the words you thought of saying and might have said--but not your actual execution.

To critique your own writing, first and foremost you need to be able to look at your manuscript not with a writer's eye, but with a reader's eye. You need to be able to see your story not as the one who loves it and was intimately involved with it, but as one who has no stake in it. You need to become objective.

To do that, change the font on your manuscript to something you've never used before. Reformat the piece with justified margins. Change the line spacing. Print it out. Then put it aside for as long as you can bear to. Come back to it in a week, a month, or even longer if you can, this time with the eye of a stranger.

When you've got that critical gaze focused on your manuscript, ask yourself what works and what doesn't. The merest inkling that something isn't working is a red flag to revise.

Notice your characters. Are they as charming as you thought they were, or are they annoying and unlikable? Notice your plot. Does it unfold in a natural, inevitable way, or does it seem forced? Read through your descriptions of settings and characters. Do you see an image in your head, or is the description too vague to elicit anything but confusion?

Look at your prose. Is it slow reading in places? Notice section transitions. Are they smooth and natural, or jagged and sudden? Mark up any awkward spots that make you stop and re-read. Mark up everything. The harsher a critic you are now, the less an editor and your readers will have to be critical about later.

Don't be afraid to throw out words. Don't be afraid to discard paragraphs, chapters. In the end, writing is about falling in love with your words; self-critiquing is about divorcing yourself from them; and rewriting, the next step, is about reconciliation.
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