Since The Ghost Light came out in January, I’ve been having a lot of fun visiting schools and talking about maths and mysteries and answering kids’ questions about being an author. One of the questions I get asked at almost every school visit I do is this: How can I become a better writer?
It’s a great question with a zillion answers, but my top three are this: Read a lot. Write a lot. And re-write a lot. It’s the last one that I think is the hardest and the most important. I rewrite my books loads of times, first by myself and then (once my brain is jelly and I can’t tell a good sentence from a steamboat) I get some help from my critique group.
‘How can I become a better writer? Read a lot. Write a lot. And re-write a lot.’
A critique group works like this: You get together with a few fellow writers, all read each other’s writing and give each other feedback, explaining what you think works and what you think doesn’t. It’s a way to test your writing, to see if the funny bits are really funny and if the exciting bits are really exciting, and that everything makes sense. BUT if you don’t have any experience with critiquing it can be pretty intimidating. Maybe you don’t feel like you know how to give someone else advice, or maybe you’re worried about people judging your writing. So here are a few tips for getting the most out of the experience.
- Be honest, but not brutal-It won’t help your friend’s story if you say you love it when you don’t. But there’s a big difference between saying ‘This is the worst story I’ve ever read’ and ‘I think you could make this scene more exciting.’ A little tact goes a long way.
- Be specific-Instead of saying a scene doesn’t work, think about why. The more specific you can be, the better chance your friend will have of improving. (For example, don’t just say it’s boring, explain that they spent too long describing the weather and lost your interest.)
- Mention the good things too-When you’re critiquing it’s easy to look for things you don’t like, but try to mention the things you do like too. It’s nice for the writer, sure, but pointing out what DOES work will help them improve what doesn’t as well.
- Critique the writing, not the writer-It’s very important to focus on the writing and the story and not the person who wrote it.
- Don’t be offended if they don’t take your advice-Remember, your suggestions and ideas are just that, yours, it’s up to the author if they take them or not.
- Listen-Resist the urge to explain what you meant to say. This is hard, but it’s important to remember that when you write you won’t be there to explain the story.
- Absorb and reread-It can be overwhelming to hear a lot of people suggesting changes. If it’s all a bit too much, make some notes and read them later when you’ve had some time away from your story. Sometimes a critique you find really annoying, can start to make sense when it (and the story) are less fresh.
- Don’t take it personally-This can be difficult, all art is personal, but do your best to remember that if someone doesn’t like what you’ve written, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you.
- Don’t be afraid to make changes-Some of the best writing comes from taking chances and trying new things. If you aren’t sure about something, give it a try. You can always change it back later if the idea doesn’t work.
- Don’t be afraid to say no-at the end of the day, this is your story and only you can write it. If you’ve really considered the advice from your group and you really don’t think it will work, that’s ok too.
So if you want to become a writer, and you’ve read a lot, and written a lot and rewritten a lot-why don’t you give a critique group a try?