How to Critique – Combing Prose

Prose
PART 4: CRITIQUING IN DETAIL – COMBING PROSE

Prose Broken Down
Here I’ll talk a little bit more about things to look out for when critiquing the prose of a story as best I can.

Word Flow
This is an important thing when writing poetry: whether the words all flow together in a nice rhythm that’s easy to keep up with and makes sense.  It’s just as important when writing a story, though it’s a bit different than with poetry.  You need to pick just the right words to go together to get the right flow and rhythm of a story.

Now, this is where people get a bit too nitpicky, as what flows well for one person could flow terribly for another; it really depends on the way you read it.  That’s why when critiquing, if you think there’s something off about the word flow, it’s a good idea to go back and read it several times over in as many ways as you can think of.  If you finally find one way that sounds right, either move along and decide it’s right, or tell the writer you figured out the flow after a while, but there may be a better way to convey that flow with a different order of words, different words entirely, or with specific punctuation (which is technically a grammar thing, but if it helps the flow, it’s a good thing to point out).  Sentences that run on and on can be seen as something that flows poorly as you might end up reading it in a really monotonous voice (so unless that’s the point, that’s a good time to change things around).

Showing vs. Telling
We’ve all heard the phrase, “Show, don’t tell,” but chances are you’ve seen published books that do some telling.  And that’s okay.  When it comes to critiquing for this sort of thing, you need to tell the difference between when telling is fine to do, vs. when it would be best to show.

You shouldn’t never tell, because there is vital information you need for a story that can’t always be shown in the story, so telling is an important thing to use, it’s just using it the proper way you need to look out for.  For instance, don’t TELL character development.  That is something that should be shown.  On the flip side, it isn’t important that we’re SHOWN every aspect of a character’s life, and in that case you can just do a short, general telling (Sophie lived with her mother and two sisters in the hat shop her father once owned, but after he died she had to take over the business herself).

Telling is okay in short bursts, so don’t go around and say “this is telling, get rid of it” just because something is telling.  You need to learn the difference between good telling and bad telling and when something genuinely can’t be shown because it would be going out of the way of the rest of the story to do it (as in it’s technically important information to know, but if you had to show it, it almost feels pointless to the rest of the story).

Details and Descriptions
Some people don’t like writing descriptions (like me).  Other people like a lot of description.  It’s good to get a balance between the two.  Too much detail can just be an information overload and it actually harms the picture in the reader’s head more than helping show what a thing should like like, and it just becomes boring and a chore to read.  Too little detail can make you feel like the character is just in a blank white room and there’s nothing going on around them.  The bare minimum of detail that is needed in background/places is simply talking about things that a character is going to interact with (or if the character is just the type to notice tiny details).  Unnecessary description is just annoying and makes the story longer than it should be (WHAT COLOR IS THE COMB).

A lot of people want to describe exactly what every single character looks like, but describing what a character looks like is difficult to do well without it just coming off as forced.  The times to do description the most is when something or someone is unusual and/or it is important to the story in the long run.  Now, some people will get upset when they don’t get a clearly described picture of either characters or places (and to some small degree objects as well) in a story because they can’t “picture it in their head”.  If you’re one of those people, just remember that some authors do this because they are letting you imagine it yourself.  Lack of detail is not always a bad thing.  It can become a bad thing when the world and characters become a blank white slate and then something suddenly appears out of nowhere.  On the opposite side, too much detail, as I said before, can be detrimental to the story for droning on and on about something that, in the end, becomes completely inconsequential to the rest of the story.

Condense For Power
That’s a phrase I’ve seen a lot in critiques I’ve gotten which doesn’t make sense to me and is also somewhat annoying, but that’s all I have to say about that.  Condensing the prose is a good thing to do if it comes off as being too long-winded, repetitive or redundant, telling the same things we’ve already heard over and over again, etc.  If you think something that is said in a paragraph over five to eight sentences could be summed up a lot easier in three or less, that’s a time for condensing.  However, you shouldn’t say to condense something just because it’s a long paragraph.  Long paragraphs are okay when used in moderation.  Condensing something should be done only if every single word is not important for the rest of the story.

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5 thoughts on “How to Critique – Combing Prose

  1. I agree with the description, a good balance between too little and too much can really keep the story from being to bogged down. And the show and don’t tell is something I think a lot of young writers struggle with, I know I did and sometimes I still do, but it’s always good to be aware when writing it or revising.

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