Writers Journey: The Fine Art of Criticism

We’ll be looking at criticism for the next few weeks and I’ll be reviewing the steps within the author’s editing process, then the whole process of editorial review at and before the publishing level, as well as what happens when the critics finally assess your story or novel.

The fine art of criticism begins with the author and continues in many stages through to the editorial phase of any work. There are many pitfalls along the way, and some of them are natural and occur because it is impossible to be perfectly objective about one’s own work. The closest you can get to being truly objective is to put something away long enough to absolutely forgot that you’d written it in the first place. When you pull out the manuscript and wonder what had compelled you to write this or that detail, or what possessed you to add this or that scene, then you have a good grasp on what it’s like to be on the other side as the reading audience or the editor looking over your work for the first time. This is why a lot of authors have taken years to perfect a work of art. Some, like E.M. Forster, sat on manuscripts for up to forty years and sometimes it was not by choice. But the time to perfect the manuscript, to age with your piece, is nevertheless valuable.

What a writer looks for in tightening up a draft is manifold really. At the start, the most important factor in your drafts is to take the large view and work to the small view. This is why it’s vital to just keep putting down pages daily and building up the material you have to work with. As a writer, we’re one of the few artists out there who have to build out material first and then sculpt it in editing later. A sculptor is given clay, but writers must first build their clay out of words.

Once that large mass of words is on the potter’s wheel, the writer begins to work with it. Building up or tearing off pieces as necessary in order to create and shape the larger design of the novel or short story. This process can happen very quickly or over years because inspiration is not on a time table. But the first edits that come in the process of the author’s criticism are usually large structural edits to plot, to character, and to setting and tone.

There is research to conduct, and verisimilitude to attain. Whole scenes may be placed in different areas of the novel, or cut wholesale in favor of only retaining the ghost of their presence somewhere else. There are many books that will teach formulaic structure to a budding writer, but the best structures are found within. And no matter what you’ve studied, the best guideline for structure is the current work itself.  Ours is an age of science and fact, but keen artists are aware of the life of a work that isn’t measured in biometrics. Good work has a life and can speak to the writer about what it specifically needs.

A writer may start anywhere, but more often than not, the beginning of the book is the last block to fall in to place even during the initial drafting of a novel or story. Often, writers will return to the beginning of a story and consider rewriting it or appending a whole new opening scene to the work. There are times when the story’s opening comes as the natural first piece and is only marginally changed in later drafts. A rule of thumb for a good opening comes from Edith Wharton, when she encourages writers to make their opening scene a kernel of what the whole story or novel is actually about. And this is worth bearing in mind even today.