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Prose Critique Basics


Critique... we all want it. We all need it. But what exactly is the embodiment of this fear-inspiring, often frustrating word?

Ever since dA rolled out their advanced critique system in 2009, I've made it a point to read through many prose critiques, mainly in seeking a person to look at my own work. While most critiques are helpful to some degree, it never fails to surprise me how many exist out there are nothing more than in depth comments. Just the critic's opinion or view on the piece, which is usually made of nothing but positives. In short... a review. Of course, the receiving authors snatch up whatever feedback they can get, but are all those stars really fair to them?

A critique is by definition, the art of criticizing, which in turn means (according to dictionary.com): to censure or find fault with. So it stands to say that a proper critique would imply the seeking of faults, right? Not an Amazon.com type of review, or a literary form of kissassery, or pretty stars on a board. Although the overall impression an author makes on a reader is important, what many want and need are the nitty-gritty, line-by-line details about their mistakes. Because we all make them.

Now maybe you're new to critiquing. Or to writing in general and don't feel qualified to give something more advanced. Or maybe you're just afraid to offend the author. Here are a few tips concerning prose critiques to (hopefully) dispel some of those apprehensions:


1. Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation

All three are a given, but still key points to check for, and addressed if broken. Sometimes writers don't understand how to punctuate tags. Or maybe they keep misspelling that one word. Or they have an affinity for paragraph-length sentences with a half dozen or so connectors. Whatever the case, call the author on them. Don't let these seemingly harmless errors slip... because an editor won't.

If the piece is so riddled with mistakes, don't be afraid to nudge the author to use their grammar/spell-checker. Word's checker can be tweaked to look for just about everything, and there are many other online checkers as well. Suggest they Google 'free grammar checker' or supply them with one of your own if you have one in your bookmarks.   

And if the author says they typed the text straight into dA's submission box from their loose leaf notebook, don't be afraid to tell them they're crazy.


2. Paragraphing and Formatting

There are no set in stone rules on paragraphing, except one: the actions/dialogue from one character need to be separated from those of another. In all other places, paragraph length can be half a page or one word. It all depends on the pacing and impact the author wants to make.

Still be on the lookout for giant walls of text that never seem to end. One long paragraph makes for headache-inducing reading material and most times can be broken up.

As far as formatting is concerned, what looks incredible in Word and Works can chase critics away on dA. Don't be afraid to suggest adding spaces between the paragraphs for the revise. Many publishers require those anyway, so that reflects well on the author. And you if you gave them the LD. ;)

For more on formatting literature on dA, you can refer them to this helpful deviation.


3. Point of View (or POV)

This is a common issue for beginning writers. Did the story skip around between the first person or third person? And was it intentional? Some writers like to switch around with the hero/heroine being in first and the other characters in third.

If written all in third person, was it limited or was it omniscient? Did it stay limited or omniscient?

If written in first person (a POV that is becoming more common), were the POV changes obvious? Most authors who use first person exclusively change chapters when they switch heads.

Was excessive head-hopping involved? A lot of published authors do this, in one head for one paragraph, then in another for the next. Seems harmless, but those authors are published twenty times over and New York house bestsellers. They can get away with it. For the rest of us minions, the best rule is to contain your sections/parts to one head only. There is nothing wrong in changing POVs mid-chapter/mid-piece, as long as it's done with breaks. This is usually done with a * * *, or some other kind of divider. Many publishers require a # or a ###. It all depends on the publisher of course, but there usually is a symbol marking the change. (A header that says 'Kimisomethinsomethinsan's POV' does NOT count!)

Most new authors who head-hop or slip into omniscient do so without realizing they've done it. You as a critic should point out any dalliances in POV.


4. Dialogue

Was there too much dialogue? Or not enough? This is all opinion based, as there is no right or wrong here. Every author has their style, but it's still something to let he/she know if it bothered you. If the characters got too chatty during a poignant sex scene, or went off on long internal dialogue sprees during a sword fight, let them know.  

Did a character tend to talk in long monologues? People usually give one to three sentences during a typical two-way conversation. Not that monologues shouldn't happen in prose, but sparingly. Point is, the conversation should flow realistically.

Does the dialogue seem too stiff? Contrite? Dialogue shouldn't read like a narrative. People cuss, use contractions, pause, inflect, stutter, slur and all sorts of other interesting things when talking.  

Did the character speak as you'd imagine a person from their locale/time would speak? An English baron from the Regency period would not speak the same way as a New York cabbie from the present.

Did the dialogue push plot? Or did it fizzle? If you got nothing out of a conversational exchange, mention it.  

Did the dialogue show the character? Were you able to sense the conflict, attitudes, and intentions in their dialogue without the author telling you directly? Something even the best of us need work on. If you're good at dialogue, point this out.

Another common mistake to look for--overuse of tags on dialogue. Of course what constitutes overuse is always an opinion, but if it bothers you as a reader, it could bother another. Or an editor. Let the author know. Tags tell. They do not show.


5. Show vs. Tell/Passive vs. Active

These two issues can constitute their own deviation, so I'm not going to try to explain what they mean. If you are critiquing, chances are you understand these concepts to some extent. But the basics...

Verb usage. Is the writer using the most active (or most appropriate) verb for the job? Are they using too many? Are they in the proper tense? Are there too many present participle verbs (verbs that end in ING)? PP verbs tend to weaken action if used too frequently.

Adverb usage. A subject of much heated debate as to whether or not to hate all things LY, but it's widely accepted that too many adverbs weaken writing. 'Very' and 'really' are ones to point out, as well as any adverb/verb combo that can be ditched in lieu of a better verb. You can find more on adverb usage here and here. Note: adverb usage in dialogue is immune, since most people talk using them.

Adjectives. Even those can be overused as well. Usually one, sometimes two, are all an object needs. Sometimes, not at all. Pillows are usually soft. Skyscrapers usually tall. If the noun has an implied adjective and the author uses it anyway, call them on it.

Did the author use all the character's senses in the scene? Sight, sound, smell, touch, taste? Did you feel like you were there, smelling and tasting the food on the table? Or did the author just tell you the dinner was delicious? Be wary of too much telling and link them up with your favorite show vs. tell website/dA deviation. Usually telling is accompanied by the verbs, is, are, was, were, have and had.  


6. Plot

Was the main plot clear and believable? Did the hero have a clearly defined problem to solve? The conflict in a novel should be somewhat defined by the end of the first chapter. If you're on chapter five and are still clueless as to where the story is going or who the hero is, mention it.

That being said, did you feel the story started at the right place? Should they start the story at chapter two instead? Most of us struggle with beginnings. First chaps are important to an editor. Most say they know whether or not they are going to accept a story by just the first few pages. If a first chap doesn't hook you into wanting more, let the author know.

Once the plot gets going, are there scenes that don't seem to further the plot? Or the subplot(s)? And if a subplot was used, was it useful to the story as a whole? Did those subplots add to the overall story or did the author seem to stick it in just for complexity?

Were there too many flashbacks, internal monologues, and/or backstory narratives, which took your focus away from the plot? And, more importantly, were those diversions important to plot?

Pacing. Did the plot/subplots move fast enough to keep the reader's attention? Or did it move too fast, forcing you to re-read?

Did you feel by the end of the piece that the story's conflict was solved to some degree? Was there any resolution after the story climax, or were you left hanging?

The dreaded plot hole. These are usually seen as weaknesses or flaws in a story, and writers try to avoid them to make their stories seem as realistic as possible. Did the actions of the character/movement of the story make sense? Or did it seem like the author was flying by the seat of their pants where continuity and realism is concerned? AKA, pantsing.


7. Characterization

This also could be its own deviation. Tread with caution on attacking an author's characters. We get very defensive over our fledglings.

Did the main/minor characters seem real? Or were they stereotypes or one-dimensional cardboard characters. Was the cop a cliché of every other cop you've seen on TV, or read about in a book? Or was he a real person with real issues beyond the badge?

People do not exist in a vacuum. They have family, friends, a job, worries, ambitions, etc. Was the main character(s) believable while still remaining interesting?

Backstory. Were you distracted by too much background information of a character at one time? Did the author seem to dump a lot of information on the background of a character in long speeches, or did you learn about that character here and there in smaller pieces? Were these pieces properly placed (given where needed)? Most new authors have a hard time handling backstory. They want to dump it all to get it out of their brain. Be wary of info dumps.  

Protagonist. Did he/she undergo some change in the story? Were they too perfect? Too flawed? And be nice about labeling someone's baby a Stu or a Sue. You don't want to become the subject of someone's journal rant.

Antagonist. Did they seem real as well? Or did they seem so evil or one-sided that they were more like cliché villains? If the villain was defeated, were you relieved? Or saddened? The latter could be a sign that the author put too much character into the wrong character.


8. Setting/description

Is there enough description of the background in the story to paint a picture that seems real enough for the reader? Did you feel you were transported to 'that time or place?' Setting and description requirements are different with each genre. Fantasy calls for much more description on a scene than a romance does. The same can be said for historical vs. modern pieces.

Was there too much description in modern pieces that readers might become bored? A living room is typically a living room. One or two sentences should suffice. Unless there was something unusual about the room. Like mutant chimpanzees having a pillow fight on the sectional.

Was the author's descriptions accurate if a specific time/place is named? If they didn't do their research, it will show here.

The same applies for objects/clothing. Did the author spend too much time describing something mundane that had little bearing on the story? Or too little? Again... any lack of research will show.


So now that you know some fundamentals, are you still shy? Just remember, there's no set rules in giving critique, and no one is judging you. These are just some examples of where to start. The more you comfortable you get in being a critic, the more flaws you'll be able to pick up on a read though, and the more confident you'll become. Treat each piece as if editing your own, with a caring but objective eye.

Even if you do not write, anyone with a passion for reading can give a critique. All it takes is a grasp of language skills and story-telling, and the unfettered ability to express your opinion. Don't be afraid to. Writers won't break. If they asked for crit, don't deny them. This is the foremost way for them to improve.

And for the rest of the world to reap the benefits of their endeavors.
Update 1/11/11. Just updating an older piece for submission to :iconthewritersmeow:, for the new critique folder project. If you have anything more to add to this, please let me know.

Credits: The information was gathered from [link] , [link] , and my own experiences. I know not everyone will agree with this and that's okay. Feel free to crit my piece on crit. :lol:
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:iconmodji-33:
modji-33 Featured By Owner Feb 4, 2015
Totes agree (sic)
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:iconmeganlawler94:
MeganLawler94 Featured By Owner Aug 18, 2011  Professional Writer
Can I get a direct link to the deviation about formatting literature pieces? I clicked on the one in the piece itself, but it brought me to a group's favorites folder.
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:iconangelstained:
angelStained Featured By Owner Aug 15, 2011   Writer
Terribly sorry for the mis-link. [link]
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:iconangelstained:
angelStained Featured By Owner Aug 15, 2011   Writer
Hello, you have been featured in my article here: Wonderful critics, wonderful writers #2. Please take a look at it; thank you for creating this greatness!
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:iconsolaris-ember:
Solaris-Ember Featured By Owner Jan 18, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Small issue: "Beware wary of the info dump."
"Like mutant chimpanzees having a pillow fight on the sectional." :lol:

I have bookmarked this. It should definitely come in handy. :)
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:iconkira73:
Kira73 Featured By Owner Jan 20, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
You're awesome! Thanks for the catch. *goes to fix*
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:iconsolaris-ember:
Solaris-Ember Featured By Owner Jan 20, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
No worries. :)
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:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 12, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
:clap: So useful! (And don't forget the tense changes along with POV changes).

I feel like I should write a guide on what I want to see in a critique or something...though perhaps I will leave it to you :D
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:iconkira73:
Kira73 Featured By Owner Jan 12, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
You should do one. :)
Reply
:iconneurotype:
neurotype Featured By Owner Jan 12, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
Effort.... I probably will, though, eventually. :paranoid:
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:iconza-zen:
za-zen Featured By Owner Jan 12, 2011
no wonder you're so good =]
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:iconkira73:
Kira73 Featured By Owner Jan 12, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
I wish. :XD: But thanks, hon. :huggle:
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:iconwtfgirl:
WTFgirl Featured By Owner Jan 11, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
So taking this to mind when critiquing now. I would just give what I'd like to know I'm doing wrong ^.^
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:iconkira73:
Kira73 Featured By Owner Jan 12, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
:) Glad it can help.
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:icontariencole:
TarienCole Featured By Owner Jan 11, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Great work :)
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:iconkira73:
Kira73 Featured By Owner Jan 11, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
Thankies. :)
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:icontariencole:
TarienCole Featured By Owner Jan 11, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
my pleasure :)
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:iconleonca:
Leonca Featured By Owner Jan 5, 2010  Hobbyist General Artist
Thanks for this. =) It may be a while before I get to use the crit feature, but I’m sure this will come in handy when I do.

Unless there was something unusual about the room. Like mutant chimpanzees having a pillow fight on the sectional.

:rofl:
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:iconkira73:
Kira73 Featured By Owner Jan 7, 2010  Hobbyist Writer
That little line had to be used. You never know about some people's living rooms.

Thanks!
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:iconsarraphine:
sarraphine Featured By Owner Sep 27, 2009
*ahem* you reminded me to watch my 'ing's...:blush: ;p
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:iconkira73:
Kira73 Featured By Owner Oct 4, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
:D Those pesky things.
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:iconsarraphine:
sarraphine Featured By Owner Oct 4, 2009
yes, indeed...bad habits are hard to break :blush:
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:iconsarraphine:
sarraphine Featured By Owner Sep 25, 2009
This is a great idea! Many people have no idea how to deliver a critique in a respectful manner and on the flip side, many do not know how to take one and make use of it.

Since you asked for others to chime in I'll mention a couple of things.

1) I have to agree that going line by line and picking out grammar and misspellings is too much like editing and not critique. If the author makes huge mistakes, then yeah, mention it but don't take up too much time and dwell on those mistakes.

2)Dialogue tags art typically ignored, but stick to the basic ones unless you cannot convey meaning through the characters words or actions.

3)Use adverbs only if they add to/tell something you cannot with a more concrete verb. (the same goes for adjectives)

4)On describing environment and clothes, etc.--Are the details important? Do they tell/show something about the character or place or are they just fluff? A characters living space can indirectly tell loads about that person and their lifestyle.

5)Lastly, I think any author wants to find out if the reader 'gets' the story. They want to know what they are doing right and where they are falling short...at least that's what I like to know. :D
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:iconkira73:
Kira73 Featured By Owner Sep 26, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
I'll definitely have to add those in when I update. Now to get off my rear and do it...

Thanks!
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:iconsarraphine:
sarraphine Featured By Owner Sep 26, 2009
;P

I thought of something else, not really to add just a comment. The first thing I learned, and probably best thing about sharing work with your peers is that inevitably someone will point out something that will help you make it better.

:D
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:iconbpc73:
BPC73 Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009
Quite a productive rant. You have some great information here and I agree with Darc and Leonie this would be an excellent news article.

I don't think many people think about what should go into a critique. I know I didn't.

:smooch:
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:iconkira73:
Kira73 Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
Venting can be productive. I should've cleaned the house or something.

I'll do that when I get some more info together. Thanks. :kiss:
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:iconulyferal:
ulyferal Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
Speaking of writing original fiction....could you answer a question for me?

I love paranormal fiction...all those vamps, were creatures,faires, etc..

My questions is...how do you describe that type of writing. Is it
called: Romance, Science Fiction, Horror?

I don't know what genre paranormal fiction lands in since it seems to cross into all types of fiction.

Under the Romance heading for most book clubs, there is science fiction, horror, western,and pure sappy romance.

So would my type of writings be under Romance then classified as Paranormal under that. I'm confused.

When people ask what type of fiction I like to be able to write I have difficulty giving it a specific title.

I can only answer with....the weirder the better in the (I guess) horror venue except that isn't exactly right since I like both horror that uses weres, vamps, the fae, magic, and science fiction that deals with other worlds with these same type creatures in it.

Do you see my difficulty? What type of writer am I trying to be? What genre is it called?

Thanks for any help you might be able to provide me.
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:iconkira73:
Kira73 Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
Just did a quick run-through of your a few of your works in your mature section (because I'm all over mature stuffs ;)). With a M/M coupling (with explicit sex involved), the genre you'd most likely be published in is erotic.

Erotic has all the same subgenres as romances. Ellora's Cave [link] and Loose Id [link] are my two favorite epubbers, but many more erotic ehouses exist out there.
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:iconulyferal:
ulyferal Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
Thank you. I know about Ellora's Cave. Got some of Christine Warrens stuff from there. Thanks for the info!
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:iconkira73:
Kira73 Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
That's someone I haven't read over there.
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:iconkira73:
Kira73 Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
Paranormals do cross over into so many genres. YA, horror (of course), fantasy, erotic, and romance.

A romance is classified as a story of two people coming together, no matter what the setting may be (roms have so many subgenres, its absurd. I've even read a western, paranormal, gay erotic romance. Kid you not. Boundaries are often crossed.)

Roms have sex to some degree. Para-roms... they typically have more explicit sex scenes than regular roms, and more of them (IE Feehan, Ward, and Leigh). There also needs to be a happily ever after, or at least a happy for now. If your paranormal doesn't have that, then it's probably something else. I'll check out your work.
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:iconulyferal:
ulyferal Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
Thank you so much for that clarification. I have two books planned that will take years to do but have the outlines for at least. Ones a memoir of sorts about my years as a cat groomer...going for humor with this and the other is another planet inhabited with cats (like my fanfiction). All my stories are 'fall in love' types with oodles of angst and terrible trials of danger, woe-is-me factors. So I guess I am a Para-Romance writer. Yeah!!

And thanks for checking me out. Its fics in the SWAT Kats world but everyone is different except for the main character that I put in tons of outrages situations. And I have a fixation with MPREG right now. LOL
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:iconkira73:
Kira73 Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
No prob. I'll be watching for your fics. :D

I have to admit I know nothing of that fandom, but I like reading big cat shifter fics. They are always so yummy.

MPREG? Male pregnancy?
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:iconulyferal:
ulyferal Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
Yep! LOL. Got to be very good at it and I have the highest readership for that specific type fics on ff.net. The top ones with over 8,000 hits were: Beyond the Shadow of the Moon, Joining a Pride, and The Tiger's Mate (a crossover with the cartoon Talespin). The only shifter stories have is when the Kats on SWAT Kats change into their primitive selves. One I'm working on right now is The Definition of Peace. Another was call Werekats.
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:iconulyferal:
ulyferal Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
How wonderful this is! I'm basically a beginner in the lit field. I do write a lot of fanfiction but haven't been able to break into the real fiction arena too well yet. I feel I need a lit course to understand some of what you said...like tag lines...what are those? I know there's a lot I need to learn and formal schooling was more than forty decades ago for me. I agree about proper critting. I see far too much of the worst kind on ff.net. I tried to be helpful with my crits and I do beta work for some six authors who have fantastic ideas but no grammar or writing skills to say it with.

I've made a copy of 'guide' of yours for my own use. Thank you so much. Even if it was a bit of a rant, it had excellent points that have helped me a great deal.
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:iconkira73:
Kira73 Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
I started out in fanfic too. I still have a few open ones I need to finish. :blush: But they are great practice for a beginner writer. Plus, since you attract a wider fan base with the more popular fandoms, you are more likely to be read.

Tags... those are the 'he said' or 'she said' that comes after dialogue. All you have to do is pick up any fiction book to figure out how. Or Google it. Thank God for Google. :D

FF.net is the worst for feedback. I started posting there, then stopped, then started again. I'm considering just ditching it because of the amount of 'Moar plz' and 'Awesome chappie' comments I get. I like the way they have their lit upload setup, though.
Reply
:iconulyferal:
ulyferal Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
I have a lot of fans but they too only respond that way. *sigh* The only site that gave me excellent feedback and helped improve my fanfic stuff was on furryfanworks. Right now I'm on WE Books and learning the ropes on how to right original fiction.

I was notoriously bad for that he said stuff and just recently stopped doing so much of it. I didn't realize it was tacky and really a filler. Only use it had was to tell you who was speaking but the story should be written well enough for you to know that without the tag. My most recent fics show that lesson learned, earlier ones are definitely riddled with them. LOL
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:iconthy-robocop:
Thy-Robocop Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
This looks good! I will keep this in mind for when I write stories or critiques.

Some friends of mine are setting up a Young Writer's society over at my University, and I am sure they will find this guide very useful. Can I share it on their Facebook page?
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:iconkira73:
Kira73 Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
Go right ahead. :D It's just a beginner's guide but if it gets folks critting, I'm all for it.

Thanks!
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:iconthy-robocop:
Thy-Robocop Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
Thank you!
Reply
:iconhiddenrelevance:
HiddenRelevance Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009
Oh man what an excellent guide! I wish I could get some of my non-litter friends/watchers to see this. Almost every time I indicate that I'd like a critique I get someone saying that "they just can't critique since they don't write."

That just annoys me so much! I mean really, once something is published, who's going to determine if it's successful: other writers/authors or the readers in the general public? If you read at all, then you can critique lit... period lol
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:iconkira73:
Kira73 Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
It is hard to crit someone when you know squat about grammar and punctuation and such. But to have someone who can say, 'Wait a minute, how can she be holding a candle in one hand, a book in the other, and be opening the door at the same time?' Doesn't take a person with an English degree to call an author on the impossibilities. And characterization. My very best critter (my hubby) can't write worth a lick.

Thanks! :D
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:iconhiddenrelevance:
HiddenRelevance Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009
Yeah, it is, and I think that's what the non-writers think they HAVE to do. As opposed to considering it just one of the things they can comment on.
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:iconleoniesaintevire:
LeonieSainteVire Featured By Owner Sep 16, 2009
I agree with Darc! You should make this a news article.
Reply
:iconkira73:
Kira73 Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
I think I might. After a few tweaks, that is.

Thanks! :D
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:iconpenfury:
Penfury Featured By Owner Sep 16, 2009
Excellent primer for the beginning writer/critter. I'm going to print it off to check my own work against while editting my current works. Because sometimes it's easy to overlook things in the heat of the moment, that's why. :D IT's a fav for me.
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:iconkira73:
Kira73 Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
Just a basics for the beginning critter. I'm hoping this will prod some folks into critting more.

Thanks! :D
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:iconpenfury:
Penfury Featured By Owner Sep 17, 2009
:D
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:iconspunkonastick:
SpunkOnAStick Featured By Owner Sep 16, 2009  Professional Writer
Send this to The Writer's Meow, Kira! I'll make sure it gets featured.
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