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Critiquing a young writer's first chapter

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Jabrosky, Jan 22, 2014.

  1. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    So this young man who watches me on DeviantArt asked me to review his story's first chapter. I've given it a gander and I have to say I don't care for it at all. It has myriad spelling and grammar errors, too much opening exposition from the omniscient narrator, a very high tell-to-show ratio, and not enough spaces between lines of dialogue. There is so much I don't like about it that a detailed critique of the whole piece would be an exhausting undertaking for me.

    I suppose I could just briefly summarize the major problems I perceive with the chapter, but the problem is that this kid has a lot to learn about writing. Listing all the skills he has to develop over a long period of time might discourage him, especially as he has severe depressive and self-loathing tendencies. On the other hand I don't have the heart to lie to him just to make him feel good.

    How would you handle an inexperienced young writer such as this?
  2. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver


    Tell him not bad for a first try? Then point out the worst of the issues, and see if he listens.
  3. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    If there are a lot of technical issues with it I'd start with the really basic ones, like grammar and spelling. If you were to point out everything that's wrong you'd be in for a lot of work and you'd probably overwhelm the kid.
    I'm not sure everyone will agree but to me it seems like spelling and grammar are the issues that are easiest to understand as being important. You probably shouldn't point out everything, but enough for him to understand it's an issue.

    To me, if someone doesn't understand that correct grammar and spelling is important, it seems as if they'd have an ever harder time getting to grips with more advanced concepts.

    Also, try and find something positive to say about his story. Two of the most valuable things a human being can give another is their time and attention. If you show the guy that you've taken the time to read their story and consider it, that in itself is valuable to them. Try and see beyond all of the errors and mistakes and look at what ideas he has and what he's trying to do. Try to give some feedback on the best parts of that.
    A. E. Lowan likes this.
  4. Greed

    Greed Acolyte

    I would mention the things that you liked, the broad ideas rather technical skill perhaps, and then point him towards some of the resources that you found useful when you were learning. Certain writing guides (Stephen King's On Writing is one I would recommend) and even particular blog/forum-posts you might have found useful. That would save you the task of labouring over every single point with him, and also give him the joy of discovering the lessons for himself.
  5. HUnewearl Shiro

    HUnewearl Shiro Scribe

    I agree, a good starting point would be spelling and grammar. And, if you feel up to it, pointing out some of the more glaring problems with general language, if they exist. I was recently looking through some document files that I've moved across multiple PCs, mainly things I wrote back in '04 and earlier. When comparing them to the things I've written of late, it's very easy to see where I've improved with regards to language use, and most importantly (to me) the repetition of words and phrases because at that time, my vocabulary was limited. Things such as those are quite simple fixes in most cases, and if he can take those on board and update his work, it may be easier to them critique the deeper issues regarding narrative and such.
  6. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    Tell him to work on his grammar and spelling.

    Exposition by an omniscient narrator and more telling than showing are by no means objectively bad things (no matter what anyone has told you) so just say you didn't like those aspects, but DON'T say they are "wrong".

    I'm not sure what you mean by not enough space between lines of dialogue.
    Jabrosky likes this.
  7. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    For example, he'll have two characters talk within the same paragraph. It's my understanding that each line of dialogue should be its own paragraph as a general rule.

    I suppose his current writing style could work for a children's storybook, as they tend to be written differently from the adult fare I'm used too. I guess I will focus on the spelling and grammar issues now.
  8. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    This is in line with my understanding as well. I believe a common advice is that if a quote is part of a paragraph, no other person than the one speaking should be referenced in the paragraph. I wouldn't say it's a "rule", but it's something to keep in mind to avoid confusion about who's speaking - at least until you're sure you get it right anyway.
  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Spelling is something that can be addressed by using a spellchecker. You could let him know that any beta reader, and certainly any agent, is going to stop reading when confronted by too many mistakes. Grammar is more difficult--I don't trust a grammar checker--but the issue is as important. Advise young person to seek out someone who can review for this. I tell people this: spelling and grammar are to your manuscript as neatness and timeliness are to your job application. It doesn't mean squat, but it's enough to get you tossed in the reject pile. Since it's easy to be neat and timely, why would you not do it?

    When a writer has many problems, I try to isolate one (beyond grammar and spelling). I'll say there are other problems, but will suggest the writer look to dialog or pacing or paragraphing. Whatever.

    If I think I see some potential, I'll offer to take another look after the rewrite. Nine times out of ten, I never hear back because most people who write something are unable to do the hard work of editing. If I think there's no potential, I'll politely claim I'm frightfully busy in the coming months and suggest some other places where Young Author might find another reader.

  10. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    I ended up telling him to work on his spelling and grammar, but also that he had a neat premise and that his prose has a children's storybook-like feel. He took it rather well.
  11. bjza

    bjza Dreamer

    If we're talking about a middle to high school aged writer, then as an English educator I'd actually recommend not focusing on spelling and grammar in this situation. Briefly mention that it's a distraction, sure, but a young writer - one who is writing for fun - needs to tackle problems that are fun to solve. The thing that will improve their writing most is to keep at it.

    (I also don't mean to imply spelling and grammar aren't important. They definitely belong on the rubric for a graded assignment. Homophones and sentence structure are generally just not the things that attract young writers to the craft.)
  12. The Dark One

    The Dark One Archmage

    I get this problem all the time (as I'm sure many of us do). I'm regarded in my community as 'the writer' so I regularly get requests from people to have a look at their child's/friend's/spouse's work. A complicating factor is that the requests always come from people I know are fans of my books - so I don't like to disappoint them.

    I've discovered a bit of a routine though which helps me through the ordeal (and it usually is). I say up front that I'm really busy and imply that I would normally have to say no to such requests...but I'll take a quick peak in their case.

    This means that their expectations have already been lowered and they are likely to feel grateful for any time at all. However, I am in fact always interested in people who want to be writers so, after sneakily dashing their hopes, I (nearly) always give them more than they expected with my response to their work. In giving feedback, I only ever focus on the story - I don't mention the obvious technical faults (unless they are so bad they just have to be mentioned - but even then I'd be offhand about it because I know that anyone who writes long enough to become good at it will learn to spell and use adequate grammar). The one thing I always leave them with is a number of questions to elicit the motivations, goals and obstacles for their MC. This always unclutters the narrative and gives them a sense of plot - which I think is by miles the best thing you can teach a young writer.

    The next problem, of course, is that once you clear away the obstacles for them, they will assume you take a deep and abiding interest in their work and are on the edge of your seat waiting for the next instalment. When I get the inevitable question, will I take another look in a week's time? I always say, show me when it's finished.

    In about ten years of fielding such requests I've only once been shown a finished novel.
    wordwalker, bjza and A. E. Lowan like this.
  13. psychotick

    psychotick Auror


    I'm so tempted to say give it to my editor as she usually returns my ms' with comments such as "are you completely bonkers!" and "waxing stupid again!" But since she's my sister I have to put up with it!

    Cheers, Greg.
  14. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    Like people have said, better to focus on the story's essence (and look for something positive or constructive) than bog down in grammar.

    Looks like The Dark One has it figured out:

    I've got to start using that plan to screen people. :) Especially the tie-it-all-together advice about plotting.

    Also, depending on circumstances, you might not need to write out every thought that comes to your mind. New writers need that feedback, but they can't usually take in as much as we think of saying all in one session, unless we take four times as long detailing and sugar-coating each point-- which I've done, certainly. Each case is different, with a balance between giving specific feedback and sending some of my favorite links.

    Especially for spelling and other basics-- cleaning that up would be the ultimate time-sink. Much better to find their favorite error and give them a link to the Grammar Girl page that covers it; if they don't take the hint and keep researching, they aren't writers.
  15. gethinmorgan

    gethinmorgan Scribe

    I've done this before, and no matter how much I try to sugar-coat it, I've come to realisation that if they can't take the heat ...

    Be brutally honest. Those with a thin skin would never have made it anyway. Those ready to listen, try something else - even those able to take advice and then ignore it - would appreciate the truth, which is always better than all the IMO's and 'the characters were interesting' pleasantries.

    IMO of course :)
  16. Rhizanthella

    Rhizanthella Sage

    Depending on his age, tell him its great. No one is perfect when they start out. Kids see older people or more experienced writers and want to be like them, but at that point, they just aren't. If he continues to have the passion for writing, he will learn on his own. Sure, point out things here and there like you did, but all in all, encourage him. Its great that he's even writing at his age, assuming he's perhaps middle school age? If its not his thing, he'll grow out of it. If it is, he'll take the advice you gave him and grow on it, improving as you tell him. I only suggest the little by little thing as you say he seems to get discouraged easily. I suppose let him know that writing is a big task and takes a lot of dedication and self-confidence to progress. Not that you have any more to do with him now... but there ya go. ;)
  17. Malik

    Malik Auror

    Tell him to post it on GoodReads and start on the second book in the series. :insertevillaughhere

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