Self-Critique: The Red Pen in Your Hands

By Meagan Jones

The “Writer’s Workshop” blog posts are meant to be a collage of writer’s tips, tricks, and strategies, including the first steps to publishing, writing prompts, strategies for writer’s block, and a general jumble of ideas to help you in your quest to create and publish.

I firmly grip the red pen, but my hand’s shaking, and the pen spills drops of red ink on the freshly printed paper. I think vaguely about how there have been studies about red pens – how they negatively affect the human psyche. Red, scribbled all over a paper, is a student’s worst nightmare.

But I’m not a teacher, or professor, or anyone like that. I have a red pen, firm beneath my fingertips, hovering just two millimeters above the page. And I’m not correcting anyone else’s work. I’m correcting my own.

Guess what everyone! It’s… you’ve guessed it! Critiquing season! Last week, I discussed some tips on how to operate in a workshop environment. This week, we’ll talk about what it’s like to critique your work – all by yourself.

We, as humans, judge ourselves constantly, consistently. We judge how we dress, how we talk, how we do tasks. It shouldn’t be that hard to make that leap to critique your own work then, right?

Hmmm.

From my personal experience, my judgements about myself or anything around me have not always been helpful. For one, because they don’t push me to fix the problem most of the time. For critique, the whole point is that we want to fix what we’ve written. But it’s easy to look at a paper and think, This sucks.

Not really helpful, is it? Especially if you’re like me – I tend to run with it, and if one thing is bad, then everything is bad. And that’s when I have to step back.

So. What should we do when self-critiquing? For me at least, when critiquing anything (this idea will also apply to the workshop environment) it is good to try and analyze it first. What was the author trying to get at? Where does it take place? What motivations do the characters have? That sort of thing.

As the author, in this self critique, you know exactly what you were trying to get at – usually. But the key, in self-critique, is thinking like the reader who has never seen this piece before.

Thinking like a reader is hard. Very hard. Because most of the time, we’ve put so much into our work that it’s hard to detach ourselves from it. Here are a few strategies I use for self-critique:

  • Take a step back. Go for a walk or something (I know I recommend walks for everything, but it really does help). Think about something else other than your work for a while. You need to come back to it with a clear head.
  • Read your work backwards. This comes from a long time of recommending this strategy to people I tutor in writing (as I am also a writing tutor at UMF). Read your last paragraph first, your second-last second, and so on. Focus only on those paragraphs.
  • Go through a checklist – Looking at Characters, Setting, Plot, Theme, and Tone are good examples. Do you include enough details about Setting? Can you figure out a character’s motivations from how they act?
  • Read your piece out loud. You can usually catch differences in tone and things like that in this way. If possible, you may want to record yourself reading.
  • Remind yourself of a specific thing you like in the piece – something you think you did well on. Don’t drown yourself in the things it “does wrong.”
  • Make a plan for how to revise it. This is very important. You don’t have to revise it right after you look for its problems, but make a plan so that you can come back with ideas on what to do. The point of the exercise of self-criticism is to make it better – that’s what you should strive for.

Self critique is best used in conjunction with a workshop, or with just someone else looking at your work. Look at your work, have someone else look at your work, and then look at your work again. Repeat the process over and over again until you’re satisfied. Your work won’t have a bunch of red pen marks all over it in the end, I promise.