CREATING AND CRITIQUING

Writing is composed to two main activities: creating and critiquing. On one hand, the writer uses words to create an expression of ideas, feelings, experience or imagination – or all of these. She/he creates paragraphs and chapters, moods, characters, stories, impressions, which are the writer’s product. On the other hand, the writer critiques the product, changing parts of it that don’t work or are irrelevant, adding, correcting, adjusting, re-forming, judging and evaluating. Both of these activities are essential to good writing.

One basic writing skill involves being able to separate those functions so that each can be carried out more efficiently and at the most appropriate stage in the writing process. Writers have many strategies for doing this, and to overcome the tendency of the critical mind to disturb the creativity and flow of the creating mind. Other writers must work hard to focus on the critiquing function, for it requires a certain amount of self-discipline, willingness to accept criticism, attention to detail, analysis, and brutal honesty.

Many established writers have editors to take over the critical function, though from what they say about their own writing processes, it seems that most good writers are very critical of their work, sometimes, overly so. For new or amateur writers, however, it is my experience (as a long-time writing teacher) that they lack sufficient will or ability to critique their work, and may be over-sensitive in that regard. Experience and a few good rounds with honest publishers will teach those who are committed to writing of the need for frequent, stringent critiquing to hone their writing skills.

Generating Ideas
Ironically, many good ideas stop at the front door. Writers may struggle for days, weeks, to get the first paragraph, even the first line, of a work down, finding that they just don’t know where or how to begin. They feel ideas just waiting to get out, but cannot seem to find a ways to let them out. The problem is that creativity needs stimulation, and a blank page does not provide enough stimulation to get the creativity humming. When trying out any of the strategies for developing ideas that are outlined below, remember that you are engaging in the creative part of writing. Do not critique or edit until after you have produced at least a good section of writing, or for a short piece, until you have the body of the piece on paper.

One way around lack of ideas is to let the creative urge take the lead. Start where it feels like starting. This might be with a scene that you’ve had at the back of your mind, a fragment of sentence, or an impression. Write it down just as it is, then just keep writing.

Another way around the initial block is to write how you naturally think – in partial sentences and images that bounce all over the place. Instead of forcing your idea into logical orderly sentences so early in the process, write them in the middle of a page, or draw them with rough, quick sketches, and keep recording impressions and ideas around the page as they occur to you. This method is sometimes called ‘free association’, or ‘mind-mapping’ or ‘clustering’.

You will often find that as the ideas are put down, you start to see relationships between them, or visualize scenes or characters associated with them. Use words, phrases or sketches to quickly add them to the cluster, remaining open to ideas as they come. It is important not to evaluate the ideas (“That’s silly”. “I don’t think that will work”) until you have produced as many ideas as possible. Quantity, not quality, is the aim of these creating exercises.

Another way to simply write. Sit yourself down and write for an hour (or longer), no matter what comes out. Don’t stop writing before the time you have set yourself is over. Do this regularly (every day, if possible). Some established authors have observed that you have to write out lots of rubbish before you can get to the good stuff. Other authors lock themselves in a room for a few hours or a day, and won’t come out until they have written a page.

One author I know talks out her ideas. She becomes different characters and tries out different scenes, all of which she records. She says that her favourite place to do this is in the car, driving. She frequently looks over to the next car to see a bemused expression on someone’s face as they wonder why she’s talking and gesturing to herself. Acting out ideas in your mind can give you a good feel for what works.

Developing Ideas
Once you have enough down to give you some possible working ideas, read through what you have written. Write down any thoughts or ideas that come as you are reading. Think of yourself as a conduit for ideas, rather than as a creator, which can be a daunting responsibility. Allow more ideas to flow from those you have already generated. Allow links to present themselves: relationships, causes, effects, consequences. Still avoid being too careful about how you are wording things – it’s still too early. You are playing with possibilities, and if you stop to polish this one here, that one there, you will interrupt the flow of ideas and associations.

When you have read all your notes and are not spontaneously responding to them, it might be time to select those that you think have some potential. Do not be disappointed if none of them seem to work together: you can make that happen later.

Narrative Theory
Theories of writing, especially of storytelling, have been around for many years, and in the past few decades, literary academics have been particularly occupied with theoretical approaches to creative writing. Although a writer can write effectively without knowing any of these theories, or without following academic debate and discussion, it is very useful for a writer to have some understanding of theory, for the illusion that creativity and inspiration make a good writer is just that – an illusion. Like all artistic enterprises, writing is essentially a craft. It involves developing particular knowledge and specialized skills, gaining experience, making errors or producing inferior works to occasionally produce a masterpiece, and learning from the errors.

The aim of narrative theory, in the simplest terms, is to make us conscious of technique, even in the most apparently effortless, spontaneous pieces of writing. It also makes us think about the ways in which writing is received by readers, and their part in making sense and meaning of it. All of this can help the writer do his or her craft better. It makes the writer more conscious of the elements that make up a narrative, and therefore, more able to study them in the writing of successful authors, and to analyse and improve them in his or her own writing. The importance of technique and knowledge about the processes and reception of writing becomes even clearer when we realise how many good creative writers achieved success after years of inferior or mediocre writing, or only after having honed their writing skills and developed their techniques in other areas of writing, like reporting, advertising or essay writing.

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