Elements of Critique: Appearance

Welcome to the A to Z Blog Challenge for 2014, and thanks to you readers who are coming from that list to check this out.

This year I’m covering elements of critique: What to look for to make our writing stronger.

A critique is all about getting other eyes on our efforts, finding out what works and what doesn’t, seeing around our blind spots by taking advantage of the eyes and experience of several others.

Critiquing someone’s creative work can be daunting. You’re picking apart something they poured their heart into. But when everyone realizes the end result is a far stronger piece of writing, the slight pain of criticism and the terror of becoming vulnerable become well worth it.

When you hit “Publish” and send your words out into the Internet, or when you click “Send” on that e-mail delivering your manuscript to a submissions address at a publisher, the people who see your material have one unconscious motivation:

To dismiss it as quickly as possible.

Blog reader feeds and e-mail inboxes fill up fast. People don’t have time to wade through hundreds of articles. We naturally skim through, ostensibly looking for something to catch our eye. In reality, we’re flashing past plenty of material that for whatever reason we deem inconsequential, not worth our time.

Likewise, any editor accepting submissions is going to be inundated with pitches, queries, and manuscripts. The sooner that pile can be whittled down, the better. There’s a hundred more where this manuscript came from.

So the very first element of critique that I want to focus on is appearance.

Any editor or publisher is going to provide guidance for how submissions must be formatted. Magazine editors will post guidelines to give a prospective writer all the details necessary to know how to prepare their query or pitch. Even my critique group provides a formatting requirement, and they will pick on submissions that don’t follow the standards.

For example, If I send my piece in Helvetica font when the publisher demands Times New Roman, right from the outset, I’ve told them a few things:
“I don’t pay attention to what you want. I want you to pay attention to me.”
“I’m above following your rules. I will be a problem to work with.”
“I don’t have time to look at piddly details. That’s what I have you for.”

When a guideline tells me to use a specific style (AP Style Manual or what have you), I should get a quick primer for what that means. It might mean typing ‘OK’ instead of ‘okay.’ Or it could mean not using the Oxford comma when making a list of 1, 2, and 3. (The comma after 2 and before the ‘and’ is the offending comma.)

Tiny details. Simple matters. Easy to miss, with potentially large consequences.

The critique group I belong to has guidelines, and we mostly follow them. There’s room among friends for “I forgot” or “Something went wrong in Word” as excuses.

The editor or potential reader isn’t there to be my friend. I don’t want to give him or her any reason to ignore what I have to offer.

You only get one chance to make a first impression. Make sure it’s good.

Appearance matters.

Tomorrow I will look at background.


11 thoughts on “Elements of Critique: Appearance”

  1. Absolutely invaluable information. I am judging a contest now. The prize is a major publishing deal with a top 3 publisher and a large advance. 95% of the entries are being disgarded because the writers did not follow the guidelines.
    It is frustrating.

    1. Thank you for a good comment as proof to back up what I’m saying. If I get rejected as a writer, well, that’s sad and I will hone my craft.
      But if I let myself get rejected because I can’t use the right size and font, that’s just lazy and shameful.
      I want someone to take the time to read my work; I better take the time to make it worth their attention.

  2. Well put, David! I’m sure you are going to cover it during the A to Z but I think the problem may very well start with not getting feedback from people who are further along on the journey. Even if that “someone” is a book on the craft of writing. Best is to be part of a critique group. Look forward to the rest of your A to Z posts!

    1. I agree completely. Before I had a critique group to provide in-person insight, I tried to learn from a variety of books on writing. Those certainly helped, but it isn’t the same as a face-to-face setting where you can discuss what someone sees wrong and suggests as a fix for a flaw in a piece.

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