Saturday, June 25, 2011

Rules of the Road: Some Practical Guidance on Writing Etiquette

There are some fine blogs out there aimed at both writers and aspiring writers. We all utilize writing prompts offered by those sites as useful tools to light a creative spark. Writer’s blogs are also an excellent opportunity to connect with fellow writers and share your work with a diverse group of people. In most cases some members are, in fact professional or free-lance writers, and some simply enjoy writing.

There are people who adopt the title of “writer” that have never attended a class. Of course not everyone needs to attend a class to learn how to write beautifully!  That’s true. Talent is lovely in that way isn’t it? But there’s one thing that surrounding yourself with a group of talented and nurturing writers can do…it can teach you how to be open-minded - to accept that we don’t all share the same writing style, voice, subject matter or interests.

It can be discouraging for the person who takes the leap and tentatively shares his or her first piece publicly only to receive half-hearted responses or thoughtless critiques incorrectly called “constructive criticism.” Too often, the constructive criticism delivered via writing link ups ends up being poorly worded. In the end, that “concrit” begins to look like nothing more than plain old criticism.

It’s also disheartening to put yourself out there and comment on the work of others, only to get nothing in return.

Part of the problem is that the words ‘constructive criticism’ are casually tossed around but they’re never really explained. The best way to respond to a piece is by reading it with the following in mind:

·         Syntax: the arrangement of each part of a sentence. Are sentences logical in terms of subject, verb and object placement? In essence, syntax is why a sentence makes sense to the reader. If a sentence doesn’t make sense, there’s likely a syntax error.

·         Metaphor: a figure of speech, the association of two objects, or figurative comparison of two things emphasizing their similarities.

·         Rhythm: basically, this refers to sentence variety. Do you want to hear the same song verse over and over again or do you want to hear a variety of verses? Sentences of the same length, containing too many adverbs or alternatively, a series of short sentences gets dull. Layer your sentences and weave them together to create something beautiful. Sentence variety creates a fantastic rhythm.

·         Organization: is the piece following a logical order? Yes? Then it is well organized and easy to follow. That said, some writers take the reader back and forth between past and present and this is done purposely. It can be tricky to organize and people who are simply skimming the work might get lost and say something like, “I had a hard time following.” Unless multiple people voice the same constructive criticism, you can probably rest assured that you have experienced a ‘skimmer’.

·         Word use: This one is pretty self-explanatory. Do the words make sense in the situation? Is there word redundancy?

·         Idiom:  a dialect, language or style of speaking pertinent to a particular region or people.

Critiques, when rendered thoughtfully, contain the reasons why you liked a piece as well as the reasons you don’t – again referring to organization, continuity, rhythm, syntax and metaphor. These aren’t hard and fast rules, but should certainly be considered if you are rendering constructive criticism on a piece.

Perhaps the biggest downfall of writer’s link ups is that constructive criticism has somewhat of an air of anonymity attached – even if your name and/or blog is visible. The best thing to ask yourself, when posting a comment is this: how would I say this if the writer was sitting in front of me? Unfortunately, we don’t have the opportunity to deliver our critiques in person, making everyone a little less accountable for their responses to a writer’s work.

By the same token, if you joined a writing group, one that met in person, would you ignore the work of a few writers entirely? Would you only take the time to comment on the work of the people you know? Would you deliver a thoughtless commentary on the reasons why you think the piece is terrible? Would you assume that you are more of an expert in writing than everyone else in the class? If you are a reasonable person, the answers to those questions are probably no.

You never really know the credentials of the person you’re critiquing. For example, I recently read an uninformed (and inaccurate) critique on the work of what turned out to be a published and highly-educated writer. Every writer needs constructive criticism, but it is hard to take seriously if it is delivered in a sophomoric, thoughtless manner.

Experts and professionals working in a creative environment, deliver their comments respectfully. Experts and professionals form a community that is nurturing. While it might be difficult to read and comment on the work of everyone who links up at a writer’s blog, consider taking the time to carefully read and thoughtfully comment on at least three. You’ll make someone’s day.

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