Monday 29 July 2013

Editing, critiquing, marking fiction: similarities and differences

Some common points

All three activities involve looking at a text and seeing what works and what doesn’t work. There will be the larger general problems:
  • Is the general structure sound?
  • Are the characters believable?
  • Is there enough story?
  • Does it make sense?
  • Is there a good mixture of slower and faster pace?
  • Is there enough tension? 
Then there are the paragraph by paragraph elements.
  • Is the tone / voice right?
  • Is there the right balance of different narrative elements – action, description, dialogue, exposition?
  • Is the writer “showing” enough?
  • Are there any darlings that need killing off?
Finally there is the nitty-gritty.  
  • Do the sentences actually make sense?
  • Are the punctuation and spelling correct throughout?   
  • Is the grammar correct?
  • Where there are mistakes, are they forgivable and is what is produced effective?
Whether editing, critiquing or marking I will be making comments on some or all of the above. Even if I don’t comment, I will be thinking about these matters.  

How they differ

If I’m editing I’ll pick up pretty much all of the above. I’ll use ‘track changes’ though only actually change the text if there is a spelling, punctuation or glaring grammatical mistake. The rest of the editing is completed by comments in the margin, often in question form. This will produce a heavily annotated text and a few sides of general points.
Critiquing can take many forms. If I’m doing this for one of my critique groups I have to be a little gentler and remember that I’m not marking or editing. People are doing this in their spare time. They may be right at the beginning of their writing career. I try then to use the three-step method: say what is good about the text, identify the greatest weakness and  suggest what will make the greatest improvement. In order to do this, of course, I need to consider all of the above. I may need to keep separate notes that the writer does not see to inform what I eventually write.
And of course, in my summative remarks at the end of an assignment I’m marking I will also use this three-step description.
Critiquing can, however, also include giving a thorough analysis of a text – for example if I am acting as a beta-reader for a writing friend.


This is annotated in a different way as we have special soft-ware for this. This again will be as detailed as editing. However, marks have to be worked out in a fair way. One wouldn’t expect the same level of expertise in a first year as in a final year student or indeed in an undergraduate as in a Masters or PhD student. However, unless commentary is made on all aspects of an assignment an opportunity for developing the student is missed. So, I tend to comment on everything I notice but mark just what is pertinent to the module concerned.  

How this is of value for me as well

All of this exercises my general editing muscle so in fact I can be quite critical of my own work. As we also have to moderate our colleagues’ marking I see the comments others make and learn from those too. I find it quite difficult, actually, not to comment, in my head at least on every text I read and on every story I consume in other formats. Fortunately this doesn’t detract from the enjoyment usually and the intellectual exercise involved can actually make a less satisfying text more interesting.
Many of my peers don’t agree with me on this one. I do see editing, critiquing and marking of value to me and not just a chore. Marking only becomes a chore when the pressure is on to complete it in a short time. I actually rather enjoy the process.   

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