You can pop over to Sophie Playle's today to read the penultimate in the blog tour natters.
I thought it would be good idea to reciprocate, with something a bit different - Sophie founded and edits Inkspill magazine - and has started a critiquing service... she has a degree in Creative Writing from UEA to back it up, too. So I asked her some questions about this - and it sounds rather good.
- What are Inkspill’s strengths when it comes to evaluating and giving feedback on a piece of work?
Inkspill Critiques provides a writer with an objective and informed view of their work. Unlike a lot of other editing services, Inkspill Critiques provides a dual approach to feedback: a holistic report, which looks at the wider issues of structure, characterisation, pacing, writing 'tics' etc; and detailed line edits within the text, providing more specific suggestions and proofreading. The service is flexible and aims to fit around the individual needs of the writer.
- Can you describe Inkspill’s process? ie: How do you approach a critique? How do you ensure it is being as helpful as possible to the writer?
The first thing I do is read through the piece. It is important to experience the work as a whole, as a reader and not an editor, in the first instance in order to gain the most useful perspective. Then I set it aside for a while and let my thoughts about it brew. I think about my reactions as a reader, what the writer is trying to achieve with their piece, and the extent that these two aspects correlate.
I read through the piece again, adding the line edits using the 'comments' feature of Microsoft Word – 'track changes' are not used because, as with all recommendations, the author must make the final judgement. Finally, I write up the report in a separate document, breaking down each major issue.
When I email the critique to the writer, I always emphasise that such comments can only ever be personal opinion, but that I have endeavoured to back up my comments with logical reasoning and evidence. The writer must decide to what extent they will follow my suggestions. I also let the writer know that they are free to query any suggestion or criticism that they don't quite understand, if further explanation is helpful.
- How has your own experience of being critiqued helped you put together this service for writers? Have you had particularly good feedback, or particularly bad, in the past?
In my teenage years I joined an online critiquing forum for writers. This introduced me to the concept and practice of critiquing a person's work, and I learned a lot from the other writers in the forum. It was a useful experience as it provided major access to beginner writers and their works-in-progress – very different to the literary analysis of published work I would do for my GCSEs and A-Levels. Unfortunately, the forum closed down and the writers went their separate ways, though many of us are still in touch online.
I learned that I had a knack for providing critical feedback. I'd always been good at reading into a piece of writing in an academic sense – I got 100% on my English A-Level coursework, for example. I'm also quite an empathetic person, and as a writer myself, I can approach creative criticism with a level of understanding and sensitivity.
I went on to study English Literature with Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Our final year focused on workshopping each other's work and, in a private tutorial, my tutor said that I was one of the best students at providing feedback and that I should seek a career in editing. That was quite a buzz! My goal has always been to work in a job that I enjoy, and I enjoy nothing more than working with creative writing.
After spending a year in the publishing industry, I went on to do a Creative Writing MA at Royal Holloway, University of London. The MA was heavily workshop based. I found the level of honest constructive criticism incredibly useful and inspiring. We were all very quickly emotionally comfortable with each other to delve into heavy constructive criticism, knowing that that's what we were all craving. At first, I am always very unsure of everything I write, and the positive feedback I received was incredibly motivating. The negative feedback I received was always backed up with reasoning, which made it invaluable at helping me improve my work and my craft. Often, opinion would be divided and you had to go with your gut.
I remember workshopping some opening chapters of a new science fiction novel I was toying with – the class was completely divided. Some loved it, others strongly disliked it. In a way, I was quite pleased that I'd evoked such strong and divided opinions. Hopefully, that was a sign that I was pushing my boundaries as a writer.
Overall, my own experience of being critiqued has always been useful, and it is this that I hope to offer to other writers through Inkspill Critiques.
- I like your focus on the writer being the one who must put the work right, not Inkspill. Can you explain this a little? Why do you take this line?
Writing is an incredibly personal experience. The writer pours their thoughts, creativity, time and effort into their writing, and only they know what they truly want to achieve with it, what its purpose is. I approach the critique from the perspective of a reader and a writer, but always as an outsider to the work – the author's perspective is unique.
The writing is always their creation. If an editor offers more than grammatical correction or creative suggestion, then they become more like a collaborator. I also think if an editor takes over the work, it is dishonest. If you submit a novel to an agent, for example, that has been substantially re-written by an editor, they will get a skewed perspective of your abilities as a writer. By keeping the writer in the driving seat, so to speak, they remain in creative control and the work remains completely their own.
- What is the most difficult thing about offering critiques?
Remaining objective and sensitive to the writer's vision. I have to be careful not to impose my personal preferences into a critique, and make sure I can back up my suggestions with objective reasoning and literary analysis. I have knowledge and understanding of the 'rules' of writing, but I have to keep in mind that all rules can be broken if the rule-break serves a purpose and is done effectively. Whenever I come across something in writing that I instinctively don't like – sudden switches in point of view, for example – I have to take a step back from the writing and consider what this effect is trying to do and to what extent it has been successful.
- What are the most usual errors you’ve seen, made by newer writers?
Very broadly: overwriting, inconsistent use of point of view, inconsistent use of tenses, too much telling and not enough showing, too much waffle and weak story concepts. Mostly, this is down to a lack of personal editing skills or general lack of experience as a writer. Everybody gets these points wrong at some point. There is so much to think about when writing, and freedom of creativity should be the first thing a writer focuses on. The rest can be tackled over time, until the writing becomes naturally smoother.
- How does it feel to know you’ve helped a writer progress?
I get a real thrill from working with a piece of writing that I know is fantastic, or could be fantastic, and knowing that I can help the writer bring it up to the next level. I also love working with beginners and knowing that I can give them some advice that will really affect the development of their craft.
Even at this stage in my writing life, I sometimes get comments on my own work that are really eye-opening – the simplest comment can sometimes have a strong effect my writing. I hope that I can provide that level of usefulness to the writers I work with. I want to be as helpful to the writer as I can possibly be, so it is really nice to get a positive response to a critique.
Thanks for having me on your blog, Vanessa! If anyone wants to find out more about my critiquing service, you can visit my personal website or the official Inkspill Magazine website.