A number of years ago my goal in life was to write the great American novel. As part of my learning the craft of writing I enrolled in a course one summer at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. An exercise from the class still resonates with me as being one of the more useful ways to grow as a writer and I thought I’d share in the hopes you’ll find it useful too.
Before getting to the writing exercise allow me to give the Gotham Writers’ Workshop a recommendation. It’s been about a dozen years since I took a class there and I still consider it time well spent. Even the one course helped take my writing to a level it hadn’t seen before. If you happen to be in the New York City area you might want to sign up and I just noticed on their web site they also offer online courses.
On with the exercise.
An Exercise In Critiquing
During the 10 or so week course every student was asked to submit two pieces of writing for the rest of the class. This was a course in fiction so submissions ranged from poetry to short stories to chapters from a novel. You would make a copy for everyone in the class including the instructor and each would have a week to critique what you’d given them.
If you’ve never shared your writing with a group of strangers before, it’s no easy task. It’s a quick step outside your comfort zone.
The critiques followed a specific format. If you liked something you underlined it. It might be a word or an entire passage. If you liked it you drew a line underneath. Consequently if you didn’t like something you drew a squiggly underneath. Anything you didn’t understand received a question mark. None of the above came with any explanation. Just the underline, squiggly, or question mark.
In addition to the above each critique asked you to do two things
- Write 3 things you likes about the submission
- Offer 3 suggestions for improvement
During the week after you handed out your work you would sit quietly while everyone else discussed it. The teacher would go around the class asking for something someone liked or asking for a suggestion to improve the work. All the time you were to remain absolutely quietly while a discussion was held about your writing. It was your chance to be the proverbial fly on the wall. Much more difficult to do than it sounds.
We weren’t exactly a group of professional writers so finding 3 things you liked about a story wasn’t always easy. The meat of the exercise for me and the part I really want to share with you is the last part, the 3 suggestions for improvement.
In having to come up with ways to improve someone else’s writing you were forced to really think about the craft. The more I put into the suggestions, the more I found my own writing improve. Unfortunately many in the class didn’t spend the time working on these critiques. Their loss I guess.
Suggestions for improvement could be anything from rewriting a passive sentence to one using an active voice to making major structural changes. The key for me was again how much effort I put into helping someone else.
An example I still remember was for a story where the protagonist in a very key scene at the end was only introduced a sentence or two before the key scene. A new character came across to me as a cheap way to solve the conflict in the story and my suggestion was to introduce the character in the first couple of pages and weave that character into a few choice scenes throughout the story.
Thinking about ways to improve someone else’s writing helped tremendously in improving my own writing. I emerged from the course with a stronger writing voice and a better understanding of the craft that is writing.
How To Use The Exercise To Improve Your Blog
I don’t think you have to take part in a writing workshop to make these critiquing exercises work for you. Once again coming up with ways to improve a piece of writing that isn’t your own can greatly improve your own writing.
One way to apply the exercise is to take an in depth look at another blog. Start with a single post and critique it the way I described above. You can probably skip the underline, squiggly, and question mark part, but these markings were a good way to slowly ease you into the process. You can look back at the things you underlined and look for themes to decide what you truly liked and you can look at the squigglys and question marks as fodder for something to improve.
I’d suggest doing this for a variety of blogs, some that you like and some that you don’t. Look at blogs related to your topic and look at blogs that are completely unrelated. Taking the time to consider different types of writing on different topics will require you to think about the craft of writing in a more diverse way.
Try not to look only at great writers. Spend time with writers of varying skill levels to get the most from the exercise. The comparison between good and bad will help you see what the better writers do to make them better and you’ll be able to use those observations to improve the writing of the other blogs you critique as well as your own.
An Offer To Critique Your Blog
The one thing you won’t get critiquing someone’s blog is feedback on your own. If you know a few bloggers you can offer to trade critiques with them. Four or five people who take the exercise seriously should be enough. You can all critique one blog in the group per week and by the time you’ve gone around the circle two or three times (if not sooner) I think you’ll notice an improvement in your writing.
I thought to get you started on the process I would offer to critique a few posts. If you’re interested in having me critique one of your posts using the method described, either leave a comment with the URL of the post you want me to look at or drop me an email with the same information.
After the holidays I’ll write a post on each of the critiques I can get to.
Whether or not you want feedback about your posts from me or a group of fellow bloggers give critiquing some other blogs a try. Often things that we can’t see in our own writing we can easily see in the writing of others. And remember this is an exercise where the more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it. If you do take the time and put in the effort you’ll find yourself with a deeper understanding of the craft of writing.
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