41 Questions to Improve Your Writing and Critiquing

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When refining, rewriting, editing and critiquing, what should you be looking for? Sentence structure? Character believability? Setting? Sometimes it can be a bit much to keep everything in your head, so I’ve written the following list of things I look for (or need to remind myself to pay attention to) in order to make my writing, and my critiques of other writers, as effective as possible. Hopefully it works for you too.

Style

  1. Is sentence length varied?
  2. Do sentences flow naturally?
  3. Is the information being communicated accurately and effectively?
  4. Do sentences start and end with strong, evocative words?
  5. Are long, wandering sentences used effectively, or should they be broken into shorter, punchier and easier to follow ones (depends on the situation. Long is good for lists and important points. Short is good for immediacy and impact.)
  6. Are there too many -ing and -ly words bunched together (happening, doing, jumping, running, happily, excitedly, remotely)? Too many of these words weaken prose.
  7. Are there semicolons? Rip them out.
  8. Are there parenthesis? Can they be justified? If not, rip them out.
  9. Are the colons? Can they be justified? If not, rip them out too.
  10. Are two words used where only one will do?
  11. Are there phrases like ‘in fact’, ‘there was’, ‘she had said’, etc. Rip those out.
  12. Are the words on the page interesting in themselves? Trade common words and phrases for unique ones. Make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar.
  13. Is the same word used twice in a paragraph? If so, there better be a reason for it. Clarity and rhythm are good reasons, lack of vocabulary is not.
  14. Does it read like I spent all my time looking at a thesaurus? Simplify.
  15. Can a dumb reader make sense of your complex ideas? Consider simplifying your explinations.
  16. Does a smart reader feel they’re being talked down to? Make your ideas bigger.
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Descriptions

  1. As a reader, can I inhabit the scene with the information given?
  2. Are all the senses engaged? Can the prose make a blind man see or a deaf man hear? If not, add more.
  3. Is the flow of narrative slowed by an overabundance of description? Pair it down or rearrange it.
  4. Are the details portrayed in logical order?
  5. Are descriptions of everyday things lending value? Again, make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar.

Characters

  1. Do we know the character enough to justify the current scene?
  2. Does the characters actions make sense from the characters point of view?
  3. From reading the current scene, can I imagine how the character might behave in a different situation? If not, the character is not as well defined as it should be.
  4. Can I picture the character in my head? If not, add more description and do it early.
  5. Does character speech feel natural. Read aloud.
  6. What mannerisms does this character have? Do they have a tick, a habit, or feature that sets them apart?
  7. What does each character want? How badly do they want it? What are they willing to do to get it?
  8. Do character actions reveal something about the character, or are they superfluous?
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Scenes

  1. Is the current scene vital? Justify it, if you can’t, cut it.
  2. What is the purpose of this scene? Furthering plot, building character, etc. Every scene should do what it does well.
  3. Does the current scene feel familiar? Is it familiar to another scene in the work, or familiar to something from somewhere else? If so, there better be a really good reason.
  4. Where is the tension / suspense? (from wikipedia: Suspense is a feeling of pleasurable fascination and excitement mixed with apprehension, tension, and anxiety developed from an unpredictable, mysterious, and rousing source of entertainment) How many layers of tension / suspense are there? More on this next.
  5. Is there a basic level of tension? If there are two characters, they should each want something different. If characters have the same wants, then something should get in there way. If life is easy, then the read is boring.
  6. Is there a middle layer of suspense? Something else above the immediate scene should be looming. Something outside of the characters current control.
  7. Is there a grand level of suspense? There should be a singular overarching thing that drives the story, gives it a time limit, forces the characters to make difficult choices again and again. If it’s a villain, it better be a damn good one.

Cohesion

  1. Can each scene be explained in one or two sentences? Hone them.
  2. Can each chapter be explained in one or two sentences? Hone some more.
  3. Can the entire plot be explained in one or two sentences? If not, focus, hone, find the heart of the story and throw the rest away.
  4. Is the word count justified? The entire reading experience should feel tight, even if it’s 200,000 words or more. If there is a moment of boredom, cut cut cut.
  5. In the end, am I fulfilled but wishing there was just a little more. Perfect, time to start the next book.
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From Mind to Paper: Creating a Character

Above: Ginko from Mushi Shi.

Writing is a process. Prose don’t appear on paper perfectly executed. First drafts are a spew of consciousness, a firehose of concepts splattered haphazardly with the wrong words in the wrong order, the wrong setting with the wrong details, the wrong character featuring the wrong motivation. But you have to start somewhere.

First I mash my mind onto the keyboard, sleep it off, then begin the process of refining everything. Rearrange sentences. Alert the senses. Mold your characters into believable people. But for now, let’s focus on that last point – characters.

Clive and Nemesis

These are two very different characters featured in Grim Curio. You can read a scene featuring both of them now in The Working Copy. Among their differences, Clive is a bit character, created out of necessity to carry a few scenes forward, Nemesis is a major character, antagonist, created to foil some of the plans of James and co. Beyond this, their very conception is different, Nemesis being a premeditated character and Clive being a necessitated one. So let’s look at the differences.

Conception of a Character

Above: Harry Lockhart from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

When bringing a character to life, I’ve found I tend to follow one of two paths into inception. There’s the Premeditated Character and the Necessitated character. Premeditated refers to the days I’ve spent constructing a character and theorizing her place in the story. Necessitated refers to the moment I reach a point where I realize I need someone new to carry the current scene(s) forward.

Premeditated Thought Process

I need an antagonist and I want it to be a person that’s unlikable yet somehow relatable. How do I do that? Make her a girl. Make her young, like sixteen or something. Thrust her in an scenario where the only way out is by ‘going to the dark side’. Have her emerge confused, conflicted, wracked with insecurities but steadfast in her convictions. Etc. This could lead to an interesting villain.

Premeditated is the most obvious method, I stroll through the day, mull on a character and think how this person exists in the world I’m creating. Like Whinnie the Pooh, I think think think think think. I sit to write, fingers frozen over the keyboard while I consider from which angle to attack this person first.

Necessitated Thought Process

James needs to go to Clayton, how does he get there? Does he walk? No, too dangerous. What then? He hires somebody to drive him to Clayton in an ATV. Ok, so what is a person who does this like? For that matter, how many people like him exist in this universe? Not many, maybe 5, they’ll be called runners, and this guy, let’s call him Clive, is the only one James trusts. But why does he trust him? Because of his reputation as the only runner you can really trust. This guy must be expensive, how does James hire him? On and on, deeper and deeper, etc.

You can see how answering question after question a character might emerge, pieced together until he’s fully formed. These tend to be bit characters, but they often morph into major ones without me premeditating it.

The Execution

Above: Alfred Borden from The Prestige.

Writing Premeditated

Premeditated characters are a pain to get started. They feel fully realized in your head, but they’re not. They’re an amalgamation. Inspiration comes from my influences, my experiences, bits from people I know, bits from things I’ve seen people do, and most of all just my own sick mind. That’s not a person, that’s a blob and a blob must be sculpted.

You take this mass and begin to massage it as you write the first scene where they appear. For me, this scene is almost always emotional, tense, proving who the character is in a dire circumstance. That’s just me though, the action nerd wanting to see what my puppets will do when facing the gun.

As it turns out, these scenes are rarely the right way to introduce a character to a reader. They are good for me because now I get to learn more about who this person is. But for a reader coming across this sort of scene as way of introduction, everything feels disjointed and unearned.

Writing Necessitated

Necessitated characters come about in a much less deliberate way. Often they are a means to an end. James needs to do something and needs someone to interact with to get the job done. Enter minor character.

But each character needs to feel fully formed, no matter how or why they’re conceived. In action, I tend to set the scene, flesh it out, write the major points I want to hit, then go back and add. It’s exactly the opposite of the premeditated character. Instead of a blob that I need to refine and temper, it’s a brick I need to add to and build up until a fully formed house emerges, or at least one that looks fully formed.

Closing Thoughts

I have more to say on this topic, but I think this will do it for now. Come back soon when I follow up with some critiques I received for the writing of Nemesis and the changes that led me to make. I hope you find it informative and interesting. Until then, have a great weekend.