Tag Archives: storytelling

Graphic Subjective Matter

There’s a lot of froth and excitement on the Interwebs about the recent episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which involved a graphic rape scene.

For a number of fans, this crossed a line and forced them to give up the show–a show which up to now has been extensively violent and sexual, with depictions of incest, dismemberment, beheadings, sadism, murder of children, murder of a pregnant woman and her unborn child, and the exploding of a human head with one’s bare hands… to name a few choice subjects.

The series is full of questionable matter, but we all draw our lines in the sand differently.

On the one hand, some question what makes rape any different from the above. The show’s writers are clearly depicting a horrible world in which people with power often abuse those without power, including through sexual assault. The perpetrator is an already-established cruel villain delighted by inflicting pain and stripping his victims of any shred of humanity left to them. Defenders of the show might say this accurately depicts evil, both in the individual perpetrator and in the world at large. This is the grim reality of the world Martin created in the novels and all too often reflective of the world around us. At this point, there’s sort of a sense that “you knew what you were in for when you clicked on this show, and you could turn it off if you really wanted to.”

On the other hand, is a rape scene necessary at all? Or is it a trope and a symptom of lazy writing? Abuse of women is all too common even in our modern “progressive” society, let alone medieval times–something I hope we’d all prefer to see changed. Doesn’t portraying such violence glorify or encourage the act? Is it just a cheap grab at the “feels” of the reader, an easy way to engender compassion or empathy for a character? Does the scene require graphic and detailed explanation? Will this moment serve a purpose? Or is it only there to prove the grittiness of the storyline? Are we pushing an edge to say something meaningful, or simply because there’s an edge to push?

I have to ask, what’s wrong with a simple fade-to-black? When the lovers passionately kiss and start pawing at each other, they can close the bedroom door without showing anything specific, and the meaning of that moment isn’t lost. When the sadistic villain makes obvious threats about what he intends to do with his captive, again, we don’t need to see it take place to guess at what actually takes place between scenes. When the killer is bearing down on his intended victim, we don’t have to see a knife plunge repeatedly into someone’s body to understand the peril of the moment.

I know, that’s a nicety for the prudes and the oddities who don’t want or need to see nudity and blood splashed on every other scene. There’s a reason this particular show plays on HBO and not NBC primetime.

And this leads me to think about writing and storytelling. Whether we’re talking graphic sex, graphic violence, or a combination of the two, I have to ask: What’s the point of it? Is it shock value or storytelling?

I’ve seen the question posed long before this episode of Game of Thrones. And I’ve given it some thought, but only in the distant sense of conjecture. Then I considered my fantasy novel, currently in first-draft form being read by a selection of alpha readers.

There’s a scene early on where the main character is assaulted. When writing, it struck me that rough men willing to murder an innocent and isolated woman would probably also have no qualms about taking advantage of her situation. I don’t provide a heap of details, and the moment “fades to black” before anything graphic takes place. In this case, the desperation she feels in the moment triggers activation of a hidden power as yet undiscovered, which leads to the rest of the events of the book.

One of my friends pointed out that the scene lacks the sense of utter powerlessness and helplessness that would take hold during an actual assault. There’s a sudden crippling realization, I’m told, that nothing you can do is going to stop this from happening.

Maybe that’s part of the fantasy, I guess… that in this one case, someone trapped in such a terrible situation suddenly finds empowerment and escape, and stops the assault before it goes too far.

A mantra I’ve often heard among writers is that “every word has to do double work” meaning every word counts and serves a purpose. There’s no room for bloat and fat. So if we include anything graphic in our creative works, it ought to have a greater point than mere spectacle or sensationalism. We can show how evil respects no boundary formed by civil society; that doesn’t mean we simply violate social bounds to show off.

I’m not sure that’s the guideline the show is following, but it works for me.

I’m curious: what are your thoughts as a reader or viewer regarding graphic violence and sexuality in a written story, movie, or television show?

Finding Voice

You must strive to find your own voice, because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all.

– Prof. Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society

In critique groups, writing conference presentations, and books dedicated to the craft, I’ve often seen reference made to “finding your voice.”

Sadly, the description of what that is and instructions on how to do so are all fairly vague–by necessity. Voice is a big part of what sets one author apart from another in writing. But it’s an elusive quality, hard to pin down sometimes, let alone to document in a how-to book. The consensus is, the best way to find it is to write, write, write. And then write some more.

I don’t think I could give a lot of clear, descriptive adjectives about the sound of my wife’s voice. But you can bet I’ll recognize it as soon as I hear it.

One good practice is to look at examples where an author has a particular style that sets them apart. Read how they write, and consider how the word choice and sentence structure create the desired effects.

I somehow missed that Prince Lestat came out at the end of 2013. I picked it up as a travel companion. Very quickly I realized I don’t much care for Anne Rice’s style of writing. In my late teens, I read some of her work and loved it. Now, I deemed it haphazard, a little wordy, with too much rambling for my tastes.

Then again, she’s making money with ease, so who am I to judge? We all like what we like, and she’s clearly got a fan base.

What I did like about the book is that it felt like dropping in on old friends. The chapters written as Lestat sound like that character in my mind… how he would say a thing, how he would interpret events taking place. While I may not like the writing style, the voice shines through.

Another great example is this gem I picked up solely based on a recommendation by Brandon Sanderson in one of his blog posts: The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp.

It’s a madcap adventure through an England on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, with an intrusion of magic into the real world. The “voice” Tripp uses for his characters and their descriptions of his world seem effortlessly perfect. Line after line stands crafted to drop the reader squarely into Kit Bristol’s head, with no cracks or flaws in the writing to jar the reader. It is chaotic and quite silly–no serious thinking required here. Therefore, it probably falls in a “love it or hate it” category. But for a light-hearted jaunt, or a mental break from the demands of the real world, the book serves well.

I now can see that’s more likely the result of dedication and hard work than a gift of luck or genius as a writer. And this gives me hope. Because otherwise I’d read something like his work, declare my inability to match such skill, and go play video games for the rest of my days.

Back Where I Started

On a deployment six and a half years ago, to a “secret” undisclosed location in Southwest Asia (that everyone knew all about), I picked up some D&D rulebooks to keep boredom at bay.

I read through the rules of the game, and noted some of the authors’ suggestions for ideas players could use for their characters–or Dungeon Masters could use to write stories those characters could star in, like a Choose Your Own Adventure.

And it struck me that no matter how well I planned a story, real live people would make decisions I didn’t anticipate, causing the Adventure to go in any of several exciting ways–but not the way I first envisioned.

So why not write the story the way I wanted to?

I sat under the Memorial Plaza’s massive double-tent (affectionately referred to by most as “the bra” for how it appears from a distance) or at the Coffee Beanery shop across the street, and I began to write.

I’ve written things before, of course. But during my two trips here several years ago, I decided to take writing seriously. Within a couple years of studying novel writing and elements of style, over the course of six plus months deployed (and time writing at home), I’d typed out over 100,000 words of a massive fantasy tale.

But the material borrowed too heavily from genre tropes. It sounded too much like World of Warcraft or Dungeons and Dragons in novel form. It had no unique element to separate it from the rest of the books on any fantasy shelf, along with too many elements I discovered had been done before and better than anything I’d write.

I decided to shelve the thing until I could devise some fixes to all the problems I saw. And I worked on other projects until I found the solutions to those glaring issues.

I regret that decision. It took me six and a half years to develop the discipline to finish a full novel manuscript–not of this fantasy project, just a novel–because I’d learned to give up part way whenever I felt a project had too many flaws.

So here I sit, where I began years ago, halfway through the almost-completely-rewritten manuscript of my long-planned fantasy novel. A lot has changed. Almost everything about the world, the magic systems, and the long-term plan for the story is different than when I first envisioned it. Also, I’m allowed to sit here in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt instead of wearing Air Force PT gear.

IMG_0941.JPG

Most important, I’ve proven to myself through NaNoWriMo that I can finish what I start, flawed or not.

So this time, I will have a completed draft before I depart for home. I may find my way out here again in the next few years, but I don’t want this novel to come with me for a fourth trip.

D&D 5th Ed: A Resurgence of Imagination

I quite possibly squealed with glee when I saw the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Player’s Handbook show up at our local base exchange book store. That meant they should carry the other books when those are published.

It's here!
It’s here!

I know there’s Amazon, but I still like picking up a physical thing and looking at it before deciding to plunk down my card or cash.

Some of my best-viewed blog posts are about 5th edition. It’s perhaps a trick of the title I chose; certain kinds of players go looking for ideas on how to build the “best” character to “win” at the game, so they’ll search online to see what combinations and tricks others have found within the rules to make (arguably) overpowered characters.

I suppose it’s the D&D version of human growth hormone, and it’s not banned… just frowned upon by some.

Leaving for a deployment plus NaNoWriMo kept me from focusing on setting up the long-awaited game for my family, let alone an actual group of people. But what D&D 5th Edition is doing well is just that: bringing groups of people back together.

Sure, your tabletop group today might bring along their tablets or iPhones for dice apps and fast tracking of information related to the game. The tabletop might even be virtual.

But people are connecting once again, telling stories together, and exploring that wonderful space between our ears. Some fear that in our digital, always-connected, everything-visualized world, there’s little room for imagination and wonder.

Thankfully I find these fears unfounded. My kids play with Legos and bring me their latest creations constantly. They also play Minecraft on the iPad or Xbox. But again, they often show off their wild palaces, deep caverns, and unique structures. They’re exercising and expressing their imagination with ease.

While I don’t fear for them in this area, I do want to encourage them–and their friends–and create spaces for their minds to play in. Because we have that ability to conceive of things beyond ourselves… beyond even the bounds of what we’ve seen or experienced before… beyond what actually exists and into what could.

Maybe that’s not for everyone. Whether the subject is video games, RPGs, or even TV shows and written fiction, I know I’ve heard the judgmental “I don’t waste my time thinking about things that aren’t real.”

How boring.

This article sums it up really well, even if the URL appears to be about something completely different (and super gross):

The awesome glory that is Dungeons and Dragons

Winner Winner

Winner-2014-Twitter-Profile

I’m happy to declare that I’ve validated the rough draft of my NaNoWriMo novel, “Not to the Swift,” and have won the event.

More importantly, I’ve actually completed a start-to-finish draft of a novel.

Up to this point, I’ve had outlines and chapters and scenes from multiple works-in-perpetual-progress, but never a finished draft. So the milestone is particularly exciting to me.

I could have uploaded the 50,000+ words my Friday evening, but the goal for me has been to actually get to a point where I could write two important words: The End.

It’s imperfect, no doubt dreadful in some places. There are scenes missing and plot problems I already realize I need to fix.

But for now I will enjoy the sense of victory.

Because if I can finish this one–about an unfamiliar topic in an unfamiliar genre–then I have no excuses for not knocking out the projects I’m really excited about.

No more excuses.

Cinema Sins

There’s a YouTube channel I admit (with some guilt) I find entertaining.

Cinema Sins posts clips from various movies, and they count up the number of terrible clichés, plot holes, and cheesy lines to give the movie a score. Needless to say, this game is like golf: the less points the better.

Their slogan is that no movie is without sins.

I watched the “review” of Divergent, which did not fair well. And while some of the critique might be valid, I began to wonder about what exactly they’re going for.

On the positive side, I can appreciate the criticism as a useful tool. As an aspiring novelist, they show great examples of what I might be doing wrong–instances where I might think “Wow, that’s cool” but then realize it was cool in those 15 action movies that each used the same scenario, plot twist, or snappy retort.

But on the other hand, I have to ask: What movie are these guys putting out there? What great amazing story are they writing?

Because it’s easy to sit back and look at everything Hollywood releases, tallying up sins and saying “Oh that’s so lame, that’s so overdone.” But it’s another story when you’re trying to create something unique, something special. (And arguably none of our stories are really all that unique. Most follow structures we’ve learned from other stories.)

Regardless of how many "sins" Cinema Sins finds in your plot.
Regardless of how many “sins” Cinema Sins finds in your plot.

I can’t help but think of the Roosevelt quote, always a great reminder:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

So there.

 

Ok, now I’m gonna go back into my draft and change some overdone plot twists.

Elements of Critique: Perspective

Elements of Critique: Perspective

Now that the A-Z blog challenge is done (thank God!), I thought I’d return to the theme I chose in order to cover three aspects that came up during the month of blogging. I’ll hit on perspective, participation, and planning, so that with the A-Z plus three posts, anyone could in theory organize and run their own critique group.

Three more “P” posts, for the price of none.

One of the keys to good criticism, noted in my ‘C’ post, is that it’s constructive. Critique is not about tearing down a fellow writer until they put up their pen or delete Word from their computer. It’s about working together building ourselves up into the best writers we are capable of becoming.

With any construction project, there are plans and considerations. Some of these will involve the overall style and aesthetics of the future building. Some will involve the math and physics required to ensure stable and lasting architectural integrity.

The math and physics are going to be objective – not contingent on anyone’s opinion. Will a support of such size hold up a roof of such weight? Will a foundation only so deep be able to bear the load of a building with so many storeys? There are equations involved, and these have to follow the rules of math in order to determine correct answers.

The aesthetics are subjective – open to interpretation and based in opinion. These probably involve the input of a designer and the owner. Will a large open welcome center suit our purposes? Would the project be better with a more curved appearance to the structure? Does the design suit the intended purpose? There’s no math for this.

Critique is exactly the same. But to offer good critique we need to understand the difference between what is objective and what is subjective. How we offer advice changes based on this distinction.

“I feel like perhaps some words are missing in this sentence, and it’s just my opinion but you seemed to jump from past tense into what felt like present tense, so maybe that’s a problem?”

I might as well say “Well, you know, I feel like two plus two kind of equals four.”

There’s no need to be overly careful about rules of grammar and punctuation. If we lack confidence, we can do a touch of research and make sure we’ve got the right idea about how the items in question should be formatted or used. Then we can speak objectively – with authority – about the use of a particular punctuation mark, breach of point of view, or format of a sentence.

Of course we cannot present objective critique in a cruel manner. We’re there to build up, not tear down. But if the math is wrong and the structure is inherently flawed, the building will collapse without corrective action.

So if I have the time to do a good critique, I will not only mark something as wrong but provide an explanation or reminder about what’s proper, based on objective rules. I may also present a helpful method for finding errors before submission.

When I do this, I take into account that the solution I see may not be the only option. And since I’m offering possible solutions, this is where my subjectivity starts to come in. “You could separate this into two shorter sentences or use a semi-colon to link the two parts. I’d suggest…”
This is where we start getting into the design of the building. What will look good? When talking about our writing, however, we each have an individual voice or style we follow. If my critique of someone’s writing turns their piece into my voice, then something has gone wrong. I want to savor and enjoy the distinctive “design” of their piece, so I tone back and make subjective suggestions in areas where no true rule applies.

We can’t critique tastes like a math teacher grading a paper. What I see as an awkward sentence may not be to everyone else. My thoughts on what is subtle or what is “authentic” dialogue, my take on whether a hook works well, these are subjective things. When a particular phrase seems weak, or I think something might be clearer in a different order, that’s my opinion.

I have to take into account my familiarity or lack thereof with the writer’s intended genre or audience. My style and tastes might not fit what is expected of their kind of writing.

Our writings are our babies, our darlings. If I say the baby’s ugly, then that puts the writer on the defensive. Defensive ears are notoriously unreceptive to advice. And while I could hope that everyone would be humble enough to receive input from even the most insensitive source, the fact is, we shut down or start to argue our side when we feel our writing is under attack.

So I try to offer my subjective input as an encouraging suggestion, expressed as “just my take on this,” or “this is what worked for me.” I won’t state my opinion as a fact like “this is a mistake you must correct.”

Recognizing the difference between what’s objective and subjective permits me to sound authoritative and encouraging at the same time. Hopefully that keeps defenses down and allows the writer to get the most from the critique.

Of course, we as critiquers can only do so much to communicate helpful feedback. The recipient has to be willing to receive. That’s the subject of the next add-on post: being a good critique group participant.

Elements of Critique: Zaftig

Here we are at the end of the A to Z Blog Challenge. This year, April caught me by surprise.

On March 30th or 31st, I saw a reference to the challenge and remembered how “fun” it was last year. I toyed with the idea of participating, and realized I could do a series on critiquing writing. Topics sprang to mind in a torrent, and I prepared my entire A to Z list in minutes…

Except for the Z.

What writing concept or element to critique falls under Z? I know, I can suggest people write “zany” things or whatever, but that felt lame.

I popped the Merriam-Webster dictionary app open and scrolled to Z to see if anything sparked an idea. And “zaftig” is the first thing that caught my eye, because I have no idea what that means.

“Zaftig” means (of a woman) slightly fat in an attractive way, pleasingly plump. A safe term might be “full-bodied.”

It comes by way of Yiddish from the German word for “sap.” Think of it as that which sets dead wood and wooden characters apart from something alive and meaningful.

Full-bodied, lively characters and meaningful articles are something I look for in critique.

For non-fiction, zaftig might mean that interesting angles are covered. When writing, I might have several analogies or personal recollections that would fit a given topic. But which of them are unique to the average reader? Which would present the most vivid picture?

I’ve tried over the course of this project to come up with examples that capture a reader’s interest as well as communicate a thought. I want to write something full-bodied and thorough, not emaciated and weak.

Word choice can reflect a “zaftig” mindset. Does the writer choose plain vanilla phrases to give the bare minimum detail, or do they select powerful words that evoke imagery and feeling in the reader? The letters on our screens and the ink on our pages should be ‘sappy’ — carrying life and energy to the reader.

And characters, most of all, embody this “zaftig” concept I look for when critiquing fiction. Are the actors in a story realistic people with dreams and goals or are they cardboard placeholders meant to call up a stereotype that will be forgotten one page later?

Our main characters usually get a lot of attention and thought. But what about the villains? Are they full-bodied, three-dimensional, reasonable and logical in their motivations? Or are they Snidely Whiplash, twisting an oiled mustache and cackling while tying yet another damsel in distress to the train tracks?

The villain should have some kind of redeeming or likable quality. It’s a rare person who has none at all. They should be as believable and thought-out as the hero, or they look like a caricature instead of a character.

Supporting characters are important too. Fictional worlds deserve to be populated with zaftig people, not the literary equivalent of Photoshopped crowds.

When I was young, my pastor always wore a three-piece suit to church. That was the only way I could picture him. One Saturday we drove past his house and I saw him mowing his yard in a T-shirt and shorts. I couldn’t believe my eyes; I thought he should be mowing in a suit because that’s the only way I knew him.

That’s what can happen to our supporting characters. They become one facet of their personality, to the exclusion of everything else. I think of friends with whom I only interact on Facebook or social media, compared to those with whom I experience the ups and downs of life in person. I “know” the Facebook friend, but I only see one dimension of them. It’s nothing like being face-to-face on a regular basis.

So I look for that character depth when critiquing writing. Or more likely, I note its absence.

For example, in my current project, I had two women watching the protagonist attempt to use divine healing. One was the motherly, kind-hearted, supportive encourager. The other was the scowling, stern, follow-the-rules, dissatisfied stickler. And they were going to maintain those roles for the foreseeable future.

They became wooden and lifeless, cardboard stereotypes.

When someone pointed this out to me, I realized I could switch their roles.

In a later scene, both women witness the protagonist using forbidden magic in an attempt to save lives. The motherly encourager becomes horrified and rejects the protagonist. The scowling stickler sees the pragmatic value of the deed, and approves of the choice. It’s a minor change, but it keeps the characters from staying in established and expected ruts.

Our writing is meant to take the reader somewhere, and our story arcs should force characters down a new path: Not one populated with faceless Facebook “friend” caricatures and deep grooves dug into the well-traveled route, but one with full-bodied characters and evocative writing to blaze an uncut trail into the unknown.

That sounds lively and interesting. That’s what I’m looking for, from those whose work I critique, and even more, from myself.

Thanks for hanging with me for these A to Z entries. On top of these posts, I have three extra elements of critique I will be adding to this series, covering the difference between subjective and objective advice, being a good participant, and the basics of an orderly critique group.

Elements of Critique: Adverbs, Why?

Never Gonna Give You Up.

Nickelback, or Creed.

Amy’s Baking Company. (It’s from an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares that created a viral outlash on the Internet.)

Some things are universally reviled. (Seriously, the baking company episode is amazing and horrible. My wife is watching it now and like a train wreck, I cannot avert my eyes.)

While compiling my list for the A to Z, I saw ‘y’ and the first thing that came to mind was the much-hated ‘-ly’ of adverbs.

Soon after joining a critique group, I discovered that “-ly” words have a huge target painted on them. They were one of several problems highlighted with comments and lengthy explanations from our hostess. At first, I thought, “Surely they’re not so bad. I can occasionally use them, right? Sometimes they help clearly and fully communicate the meaning of the sentence.”

I was wrong, or at least too optimistic.

It’s so bad that I find submission guidelines for magazines with statements like the following:

We do not use adverbs in our magazine. If a sentence is written with an adverb, rewrite the sentence with a stronger verb.

The general rule is that adverbs are a form of telling instead of showing. I feel I’m breaking my ‘R’ post of repetition since I talked about showing versus telling already. But adverbs show up so often, and receive so much negative feedback, I wanted to devote an entire post to this subject.

The problem is, using an adverb tries but fails to tell the reader how a thing is done, which makes for weak writing and less interesting reading.

If a character is walking slowly, writing “walking slowly” doesn’t give the reader a picture. It tells the reader how a thing was done, and does a poor job of it. What does that even mean? How slow is “slow” in this case? Is it a careful kind of slow, a stumbling gait, or a casual stroll?

“Snow fell quickly” is… something, I suppose. My mind pictures more snowflakes fluttering down to the ground with the adverb present, sure. But is it a blizzard? Is it blinding? Is it building up or melting away, weighing down branches and covering rooftops? Who knows?

“The wind blew strongly in Lyllithe’s face” tells nothing. Is she uncomfortable or is she hypothermic? Does she struggle to make headway? Are her clothes flapping with each gust?

On the other hand, “Lyllithe stumbled through knee-deep snow, shivering and rubbing her arms in the driving wind” is showing the reader a picture through action.

The difference is obvious. So I look for adverbs when I critique, and point out these problems where applicable. On my better days, I’ll provide a suggested verb or two.

The magazine’s standard is a good rule of thumb: When an adverb feels necessary, consider if there’s any other stronger verb instead. There are exceptions, and we’ll see adverbs in published material. (I even used an ‘-ly’ adverb in my fourth line.)

These don’t have to be forbidden, but they should at least be rare. After all, even “Never Gonna Give You Up” is good sometimes for a laugh or a rick-roll.

Elements of Critique: Unclear

Imagine trying to get anywhere if directions on Google Maps had a “shuffle” setting like an iPod.

“Turn down 10th street then drive 5 miles on Highway 20? How do I get to 10th? I’m still on Washington, I have to get on Highway 20 to even reach 10th.”

Writing is like a road map for the mind. This is particularly true of non-fiction pieces with an academic style. The writer is giving the reader directions to follow the story or topic.

If the reader hits a giant Detour sign and wonders how they arrived at this point, something has become unclear. Good critique looks for lack of clarity in a submission.

Sadly, this is one area where “no news is good news.” It’s more difficult to search for good transitions and sufficient descriptions than to note their absence. I don’t think of all the times I’ve driven home with no delays, but every time road construction blocks my path, I remember it.

I’ll give some examples of what I look for, to ensure my point is clear.

For fiction, this may mean when we encounter whatever weird creative stuff is in the story, the writer needs to provide some additional description or information. The writer knows the world and can picture all the details of setting. Significant thought has gone into the backstory of each character, giving them real motivations and reasonable goals. The writer understands the rules of the society or culture and how those impact the scene.

The reader knows none of that until it’s put onto the page in a way the reader can understand.

Any time the writing slams the brakes on my reading and makes me ask what’s happening, I note that reaction in critique. That’s not what we want for our eventual readers, so it deserves the writer’s attention.

Similarly, with non-fiction, if the topic is unfamiliar or the knowledge presented is obscure, more description or background may be necessary. That will depend on the purpose of the writing and the audience for whom it is written.

A pamphlet might cover a problem with a broad brush approach, touching on many things while not going into deep detail. This will differ from a self-help book with entire chapters devoted to each symptom of a problem. A persuasive speech will make its case and potentially overlook the reasonable counter-arguments that might weaken the writing.

The rule of tight writing is to include only what the story or piece needs. Unclear writing might happen with both too much and too little information. It’s hard to define boundaries here. When critiquing, I have to trust my inner reader a bit and go with how a piece feels to me. If nothing else, that might be small feedback that confirms what the writer has heard from others.

Beyond “too little” or “too much,” there’s a bigger issue: a lack of transition.

Whether it’s an action scene, a detective chasing down a lead, or an article giving advice on writing critique, there has to be a sense of following a trail, going down a path, getting to the point. Writing can’t bounce around like a super ball.

When writing jumps from one point to another, that’s a place to highlight for critique.

Try having a conversation with a teenager. Their minds race and their mouths jump from topic to topic without any seeming rhyme or reason.

“I went skating with my friend – no, not Amanda, it was Vickie – hey did you know that Vickie got first place in the band competition? I want to learn to play the flute. Did I tell you about the sleepover tonight? I didn’t? Oh. I need five bucks for a gift for Tiffany. Who’s Tiffany? She’s Johnny’s sister. Who’s Johnny? Ugh… I told you about him last week. Can I go skating tomorrow? I need five bucks for that too.”

There’s a thought process that takes the teen to each of those points. But we can’t see it, so we can’t follow it. The same is true of writers and readers. The reader can only follow what the writer gives them as road signs and directions.

A good transition touches on both what came before and what’s coming next. It connects where we were to where we are now. Crossing that bridge in writing tells the reader the previous point has been made, and it gives them an idea of what’s next.

The purpose of writing is to communicate thought–a multitude of individual thoughts, in fact, arranged neatly in a logical progression into either a story (fiction) or a presentation of facts or opinions (non-fiction).

In critique, when bad directions, detours, and orange cones block the flow of those thoughts, make it clear to the writer. That way, the bad news becomes good news. The error can be fixed, the path smoothed out, so that future readers can take that same road trip and simply enjoy a clear view of the scenery.