Critiquing: Why It’s Not That Hard

Being in and amongst a large group of writers, where people like to share their work and exchange feedback, the subject of critiquing comes up quite frequently. Often, I hear people – particularly beginning writers say, “Well….I can’t really critique that well. So why should I bother?” Or maybe, “I’d really like to critique, but I don’t know how, and I feel like I wouldn’t be any good.”

This leads me to answer another question. What is critiquing all about? Most people seem to think that “critiquing” is to be equated with being a copy editor, or some such position. They seem to be under the impression that it is an arduous task that only people with expertise can accomplish. But the reality is that the process of critiquing is a simple one that anybody (even non-writers!) can do, and do well. It’s not a fine-tooth comb, and the belief that you have to be an experienced author, or an English major to critique a piece of work is simply not true.

The fact is, critiquing just means to analyze something, and then provide your opinion on things that could be changed or made better. This is where I often get the question, “Well, what if I don’t know what to look for?” The answer to this one is: you’re not necessarily looking for errors. You’re giving your opinion. And opinions can be something as simple as saying, “This paragraph confused me”, or, “I don’t understand why this character said that”, or, “I can’t really picture what this room looks like. Maybe you should describe it more?” Even something like, “What if he did this and then she said that instead? It might help this paragraph to be more interesting.” These are perfectly acceptable critiques that even beginning critics, and non-writers can give.

As a writer in a group of writers, I value people’s opinions, even if it’s just the answers to simple questions like, “How do you feel about what’s happening?”, or “What do you think of this character?” People like to think that critiquing is a glamorous task that takes a lot of effort, when it isn’t. Granted, sometimes it takes a little bit of time (though not always); but it’s something that writers should be willing to do for one another, to help and encourage one another to improve and expand their talents.

 Bleeding Pen

And it’s true that there are different levels of critiquing, and those levels do come with experience. But everyone still has a different opinion, and to a writer, many opinions are like gold. We want them. We crave them. And even if you don’t consider yourself a professional critic, you can give them.

Everyone has a strong suit, whether they think so or not. Some people are good at writing (or at the very least, imagining) action. Others are brilliant with character development, and know how real people act. One thing that often helps beginning critics to feel comfortable offering their opinions is to realize that there are things that they are good at, regardless of the fact that they may be beginners. There are things that they can visualize and comment on. One does not have to have loads of experience with writing to tell someone that, “This character isn’t really seeming human right now.”

Another common misconception about critiques is that they must be detailed, and hit on everything that could be changed or made better in the story. This is also not true. Personally, I love critiquing, and generally do pretty detailed critiques, but there are also times when I can’t devote three hours of my day to a piece of prose. Those are times when I prefer to give more of a generalized critique that may take me five minutes to type up. “I don’t feel like the protagonist had a clear enough motive for what he did in this scene”, or “The swordfight didn’t seem very vivid. Maybe add some more description?” One or two general comments on what you might change or improve in a scene is often just as good as an in-depth critique for someone who just wants as many opinions as they can get.

Something I’ve noticed when it comes to “lesser experienced” critics, is that they are often afraid that their opinion won’t carry much weight, especially if they are critiquing someone who they consider to be “better” than them. The truth is this: when it comes to writing, we are all on a journey. Even those who may have more experience with the craft of writing are still improving. They still value opinions, even from those who may not have the experience that they do. Critiquing is a field where everyone, no matter their age or experience, has something to offer.

This is why I encourage younger writers to “get in there and give their opinions”. Of course, it can be hard at first both to give and to receive critiques, but deep down, it’s something that every aspiring author desires. So when I get the “I don’t feel like I would be any good” statement, I remind people that critiquing isn’t about “good” and “bad”. It’s about opinions. It’s about breaking out of your comfort zone and being willing to give what you have to offer.

Is Modesty Causing You to Stumble?

Hey, this is the dreaming_hobbit taking a step away from the quaint, motivational posts about improving your writing, and entering a topic that can be somewhat controversial amongst Christians. Yes, I’m talking about modesty. Don’t kill me. 😉  

Modesty is a common trend amongst the conservative Christian crowd; and it should be. But I hope it’s not taking a plunge in the dark to say that throughout my teenage years, I came to the conclusion that conservative modesty may be more detrimental than beneficial in some [a lot of] cases. Now, before pandemonium hits, allow me to clarify that this is in no way an avocation for women to dress provocatively. Absolutely not. But, before I explain, there are some questions that must be answered.

What Is Modesty?

This depends on who you ask. The answer from your average ultra-conservative Christian may be along the lines of something like this: “Modesty is the way that all women must dress to keep men from stumbling. If you don’t, you’re not being a proper sister in Christ, and in fact, you’re sinning.” Well, hold up for a minute. We all know that dressing immodestly practically makes your body an object to men, but what is this statement doing? “If you dress provocatively, you’re just making an object of yourself. But actually, you are an object, so you’d best just hide it.” Phrasing modesty this way doesn’t make your body any less of an object. All it does it make it an object that must be hidden.

In reality, and I believe, modesty is not an issue of outward appearance. It’s an issue of the heart. Does this mean you should disregard it altogether? Of course not! As a Christian, I endeavor to honor the men in my life; and what’s more than that, to honor God. But honoring God is more than just setting up rules. It’s a belief. You honor someone because you love them, not because you’re forced to. Modesty—true modesty—comes from the heart. A woman can be 95% covered, and still have an immodest heart. And the truth is, a man can lust after the covered woman just as much as he could a girl in jeans and a t-shirt. This brings us to another issue.

What About Men?

After talking with my dad and my boyfriend (among other guys) about this subject, I’ve come to realize that modesty, as much as it is presented in the ultra-conservative circles, is not purely a feminine issue. What about the guys? As Christians and brothers in Christ, are they thinking modest thoughts? This is not a one-way fight. In fact, to be completely honest, it’s just not fair to push this issue over on the girls because, “men can’t help it.”

Of course, it should never be a Christian woman’s goal in life to make a man stumble. However, at the same time, Christian men need to have enough self control not to lust over every woman they see. This is an example of an area where brothers and sisters in Christ need to work together. The reality is that dumping this issue on women can be terribly, terribly damaging.

Furthermore, I have been told by guys that this legalistic view of modesty sometimes even feels like an insult to them. Shocked? Think about it. What are they being told through this? “You’ll never overcome your mental weaknesses, no matter how much you try. You can’t do it. So we [the girls] will do all the work for you. Because you’re too helpless to get out of this dark pit.” Can I be the first to say – ouch? Guys need encouragement; not discouragement. They need to be able to believe that they’re capable of overcoming their weaknesses in this area. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of help from their sisters in Christ, but when it comes to girls flaunting their modesty in the guy’s face, the benefits go away, and it can become a form of condemnation—even to men.

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The Trap

Growing up, during my early teenage years, I lived in a pretty staunch conservative home. We had rules. We dressed the way we did for the same reasons I stated above: because we had to, or it was a sin. During that time in my life; modesty was not what it should have been. It was a law to live by, rather than a desire. And in reality, a desire will have more longevity than a regulation ever will.

It wasn’t until I was about fifteen that I, along with the rest of my family, began to realize the true danger in regulating modesty in this manner. It became apparent that we had stumbled into a trap. Saying, “You can only dress in skirts so that you don’t cause a man to stumble,” was pretty much telling me that this whole issue of modesty wasn’t actually about honoring God. It was about showing off. Just like a woman can flaunt her body; she can flaunt her modesty, if her heart is in the wrong place. She can essentially say, “Look at me; I’m so modest”, which is basically a condemnation to any woman who doesn’t dress in the same exact manner, even if that woman is in no way dressing provocatively.

This begs the question, why? Why do you dress the way that you dress? Are you doing it to please the Lord, or is it just a rule because “that’s the right thing to do”? Am I saying that it’s bad and wrong to wear long skirts and loose shirts? Not at all. As I said; this is not an issue of appearance, but motivation. If God is calling you to dress in a certain manner, by all means, listen. He has a reason for it. And if you’re truly following God, you will not dress immodestly. But creating a rule that says (for example); “Girls may not ever wear pants, shorts, or tank tops, because that is vile and of the devil” is just not right.

Rules like this are what make modesty a detrimental thing, as opposed to beneficial. It’s what can cause people to stumble into the trap of legalism, which is the same trap that the Pharisees were in during Jesus’ day. And what did Jesus call them? A pit of vipers. What did He tell them? To let go of it. He gave men the choice to follow Him because they desired to, not because they were forced to.  

It’s About the Heart

When I get dressed in the morning, I am not thinking about men, or impressing them. When I go shopping, I’m not holding up skirts to make sure that they go below my knees, and then automatically putting them back on the shelf as disqualified if they don’t. When I put on my everyday jeans, shorts, t-shirt, or whatever, I’m thinking about God. Am I honoring Him? And I don’t mean with my outward appearance, though that comes with the territory. I’m talking about, am I honoring Him in my heart?  

Forcing someone to eat fish will not make them like fish. It’s the same thing with modesty. Forcing a girl to wear skirts at all times is not going to magically make her modest. She is the only one who can truly decide to be modest, because in order for it to be real, rather than an act, or because she is showing off, it has to come from her heart. Nobody can make that decision for her.

This goes for men as well. As a man, are you choosing to honor God in your thought life? I believe that the reason modesty is directed so often at women is because you can’t force a man to control his thoughts, but you can force a woman to control the way she dresses. And I’m not saying any of this because I’m a girl, and therefore biased. I desire to be modest, but I don’t desire legalism.

Dressing For Attention

It is very frowned upon in conservative circles to dress “for attention.” It’s deemed “vain, worldly, and sinful” to dress because you want to be noticed. And I agree. As Christians, we don’t live to please each other, but to please Christ. It should not be the goal of any woman’s life to be noticed by a man, or anyone else.

This brings me to one last point. One of the biggest contrasts between the followers of Jesus, and the followers of the law (the Pharisees) in Jesus’ day was motivation. Why do you suppose that the Pharisees stood on the street corners, or on the temple steps to pray, and pray loudly? To be noticed, of course.

This is a tough point, and it’s where motivation and the heart come into play in a major way. There are two ways to dress for attention: either you’re flaunting your body, or you’re flaunting your clothing, and how modest it is. Both do the same thing. They get you noticed. The object of noticing may not be the same thing, but the attention is on you nonetheless. If you have an attitude of “look at me”, people will look at you, and not in the manner that Christians desire.

This is where asking one question can change everything. “What is my reason for doing this? Am I seeking to please God, or am I trying to “stand out” among men? Am I dressing for attention, or because this is a rule? Or am I dressing this way because this is what I feel God has called me to do?” Because the truth is, it’s what’s inside you that will make you stand out in the manner that all Christians desire. It’s what’s in your heart that will set you apart from the world in a godly, humble manner. If pleasing God leads you to dress in traditional modest clothing, amen! You’re not flaunting your “perfect modesty”, because it’s about your heart, rather than your rules. Your attitude is not one of pride, like the Pharisees, but one of godly humility. However, the same can be true if you choose to wear jeans and t-shirts on a regular basis. I can love God in denim just as well, no matter if it’s in the form of pants, shorts, or a skirt. Because that’s what it’s really about. If you’re seeking to please God, always ask yourself, are you dressing for attention (in either form), or not? 

The truth is, anything can become a stumbling block if we let it become an idol. Is modesty causing you to stumble?

 

4 Novel Openings That Turn Readers Off

The opening line, paragraph, and pages are the most crucial parts of your entire novel to kindling your reader’s interest. If they’re not going to make it through your first few pages; they certainly won’t make it through your first chapter, let alone your entire manuscript. And just like there are ways to hook your reader in the first few pages, there are also ways to turn them off to the story altogether.

 

I’m talking about using clichés. Because openings are so vital, it’s important to evade the traps that can so easily ensnare your creativity. In other words, it’s important to avoid clichés that can shut down your readers before they even get started. Don’t take the easy way out of the difficult task of writing a compelling and intriguing opening. Today I’m going to discuss four common clichés when it comes to opening a novel (or any piece of writing).

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  1. Weather

“It was a dark and stormy night…” We all know how cliché that sounds. Especially if this is a story about creepy old mansions that are abandoned and quite possibly haunted. But it’s not just that line that is cliché; it’s using weather as a novel opener. “The sun beat down on the grassy fields surrounding Dublin” is just as bad. It makes me think of an author sitting down with their reader in a coffee shop and trying to make small talk. Most often, weather just doesn’t work as an opening. It’s boring. If there is a battle going on, we don’t care that the sun is shining and the sky is blue. Tell us about the stuff we’re interested in. “The sun glinted off the tip of my opponent’s sword” is a much more exciting way to let us know that it’s not raining, which is all we need.

 

  1. An Introduction by the Character

“Hello, my name is Russell, and I am a wilderness explorer…” Okay, so that’s not the opening of the movie “UP” (thank goodness), but you get the idea. When a novel starts out with the character giving an info dump about themselves, it’s generally pretty boring. Your reader starts to get bored with hearing about your protagonist – someone who they should be interested in. This is where holding back information is actually beneficial to the story. If we don’t know everything about the character in the first paragraph, we’re more likely to continue reading, because, if they’re shown to be interesting, we’ll want to find out more. It’s much more fun as a reader to discover who someone is, rather than be told right out of the gate.

 

  1. Flashbacks

“But that was a long time ago…” If it was so long ago, why mention it now? And if it’s important, why not start the story there? Why make it a flashback? And if the character needs to have memories, isn’t there a better way to do it than sticking it at the front of your novel in one giant clump of prose? This is another opening that can come across as an info dump. Only instead of an info dump about the character, it’s an info dump about his or her past. Like I stated in the last paragraph, it’s more exciting for a reader to be able to learn as they go along. We don’t want info dumps. A character with a hidden and possibly rocky past can make for a very intriguing part of the story, but if we’re told everything about their past in a flashback on the first page, the interest usually wanes, if it doesn’t vanish altogether.  

 

  1. A Letter from Character to Reader

“My dear reader, listen carefully to the words which I am about to speak, for they will change your life…” This is just old-fashioned, and therefore cliché. And also, second person is a very difficult point of view to work with. Generally, it is best to avoid having the character speak directly to the reader. It feels very formal and somewhat stiff to read an opening like this. And as is the case with most modern fiction, people read for the purpose of relaxing and shutting down to the world for awhile. We want to get away from the stiff formalities and just live in someone else’s world for a bit. This sort of opening is essentially a monologue, and monologues are boring.

 

 

Now, I realize that there are exceptions to each of these four clichés, but for the most part, they don’t work well for openers. Why? Essentially, it is because each of them is some form of an info dump on the reader. For example – with weather, remember, we’re not reading a newspaper; we’re reading a story.

 

The number one turnoff for me as a reader is when I am told all that there is to know about the story, the world, or the characters in the first few pages, or even the first chapter. I don’t want to know about it. Shocker? Well, what I mean is, I don’t want to know about it yet. I want a reason to keep reading, and drowning me in facts about the story isn’t what’s going to do that. Instead, it makes me think, “Well, now that I know everything, why should I bother investing myself in this book?”

 

Novel openings need to be tactful, colorful, and interesting. They need to be fresh and unexpected. If you feel the need to use one of these clichés, put a twist on it. Throw a wrench into the norm. Instead of having the letter be to the reader, have it be to the main character, from a deceased relative. If you’re going to have your character do an introduction about him/herself, make it something interesting and unexpected. Maybe even comedic or ironic if that works with the story. (i.e. “I’m Flynn Rider, and this is the story of how I died.”)

 

The point is, how you choose to open your novel will do one of two things: It will either make your reader want to continue, or it won’t. Simple.

 

Or is it?

 

Openings can be difficult to write. They are difficult because they are important. You basically have a one-chapter window to capture or lose your reader. Don’t let the difficulty cause you to compromise your story.