Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Collaborative Self-Evaluation Rubric for Writers

It's a truism that the best writers are often their own worst critics. There's a reason for this: To become a good writer, you have to be able to give yourself all the painful feedback that other people tend to avoid giving you. (At this point, some readers will start muttering to themselves about writing groups and writers' circles, which also work. But they work in part because they train the author to become a self-critic, to internalize all of those other voices so the author doesn't have to ask someone else's opinion after each draft.)

It's possible to train yourself to do some of the things that good self-critics do naturally, without a formal writers' workshop. Below are four tests that comprise a sort of rubric. Think about something you've been writing, and walk yourself through the tests that apply.

The Obsession Test

Instructions: Think back on your writing process.

Question to Answer Afterward: At any point in this process, did you fall so in love with the potential of your project that you obsessed over revision or research, hoping to make it as perfect as you were sure it could be? Put another way, did you ever (perhaps at the beginning) work on it because you couldn't help yourself?

What Your Answer Means: If you didn't answer "yes" to this question, then you're forcing yourself to work on the project. It's a relationship defined by duty, rather than obsession. Chances are, readers will have to force themselves to finish it, just as you're forcing yourself to create it. If that's the case, it's not the end of the world. But you have to find a way to fall in love with your project before you continue much further with it. You might need to tweak it, or uncover its most original facet. You might want to go a direction that's more ambitious, more challenging. Or perhaps your project is already so big and challenging that it's daunting and demoralizing, and you need to take a cue from George Lucas: Pick the part of it you find most fascinating and develop just that part for now. (Lucas famously trimmed down a story way too big for the screen to come up with "Episode IV," the first of the Star Wars movies.)

On the other hand, if you did answer "yes" to this question, then you very likely have an idea or goal worth pursuing, even if you've lost sight of it recently. At times, the love will seem to fade away, and frustration will take its place; this happens, but will often pass. Work through it. And be prepared to do a difficult thing: Be prepared to let go. It won't ever be perfect. Get it as close as you think you can, and then start circulating it.

Criteria Evaluated by the Test: The promise of your core idea, thesis, and/or purpose.

The Disclaimer Test

Instructions: Imagine handing your written work to a friend, or colleague, or stranger.

Question to Answer Afterward: How many disclaimers would you feel compelled to utter while handing over the paper? (Example of a disclaimer: “It’s not done yet, and I wrote it at 2 a.m., while drunk, on a manual typewriter with only two working keys. And I collaborated with a monkey.”)

What Your Answer Means: If you feel compelled to prep your reader with lots of disclaimers (more than you normally would), you have something fairly critical to say to yourself about your work. You should listen to you.

Yes, it’s tempting to hand the work off to someone, hoping he or she will love it more than you do. But this never happens. No one ever loves your children as much as you do. No one ever looks at your darlings as they bounce on the couch and scream for cookies and thinks they’re as adorable as you do. The same goes for your written children.

If you feel the need to apologize, you’re already aware of a problem and need to deal with it.

Moreover, the problems you’re feeling awkward about are almost certainly the sort that your reader can’t help you with: structure/organization, strategy, development. That is, you’re probably feeling un-ready because all of the pieces of your masterpiece aren’t in the right spots yet—some might not even be in the picture yet.

Criteria Evaluated by the Test: Structure, strategy, and idea development.

The Reaction Test

Instructions: Listen to what your friend, colleague, or stranger says about your work.

Question to Answer Afterward: What specifically did the reader comment about?

Did your reader say something like “Hey, it’s pretty good! There are some grammatical errors here and there, but fix those and you’re in great shape”? If so, the only thing your reader commented on was grammar. I know, I know. It sounded like your friend had more to say; she didn’t. Trust me. Write down “grammar.”

If your reader asked questions, or said something substantive, like “I’ve watched Avatar about fifty times, and I never noticed the Cyndi Lauper references before. I’m not sure about the ones you mentioned on page 3, though. I think maybe you’re wrong about them,” then write down “content.” The same goes for creative writing: If your reader is mad you killed off a character, brags she saw your plot twist coming, or says the ending isn't realistic, write down "content."

What Your Answer Means: Here's a rule of thumb that's absolutely critical: People cannot help reacting to content if they've read it and understood it. It's involuntary. They can't watch a movie without having something to say about the twist ending or a character. They can't read a novel without commenting on how witty or dull the dialogue was. They can't read an argument on a controversial topic without agreeing, disagreeing, or asking questions.

If your reader doesn't do any of those things, it's because he or she couldn't focus on what you were saying.

The most common reason for lack of focus is that the reader is distracted by grammatical errors. If there are enough of them, they can make your text confusing or frustrating to read.

However, your reader is probably a friend. And no one likes a grammar nazi, anyway. So your friend probably isn't going to say, "I couldn't read this. It's almost illiterate." That's not a friendly thing to say.

Instead, he or she probably said something like "It's really good. I liked it. Just fix the grammar errors, and I think it'll be great!" If you want to make your friend feel very awkward, press for details about the parts he or she liked. Ask what he or she thought about your paragraph about "Rock the Vote." Chances are, your reader will have to open the paper back up to look at that again; she'll bite her lip and say "um" at least once as she stalls. You've trapped her: She wants to be helpful, but she didn't follow the paper, and doesn't want to hurt your feelings by saying so.

On the other hand, if you distribute your paper to three buddies or classmates, and they all react to the content -- if they all ask questions or argue with you, focusing on specific points, that's great. It's wonderful, even if they disagree. It means your stuff was readable.

All of this applies to creative writing, too. If you’ve written a screenplay and hand it off to someone familiar with screenplays, the comments might be about formatting instead of grammar, but they mean roughly the same thing. (Example: “It’s a great script. You just need to put it in the right font and fix the margins, and you’re in good shape!” This typically means the reader couldn’t get into the story because he or she was distracted by all of the document features that made it look like it wasn’t a screenplay. Formatting is the screenwriter’s grammar.)

It's ironic that the last concern of writers is the first concern of readers. Any good writer will tell you that you should worry about content first, and save editing (or screenplay format) for the last stage of your writing process. And that's true, for writers. But readers invert that order: They can't get to your content until you've squared away the formalities. It's not fair, but it's the way it is.

Criteria Evaluated by the Test: Editing and format (i.e., formalities).

The Viral Test

Instructions: Distribute your work to some folks, or post it online somewhere.

Question to Answer Afterward: Did anyone not allied to you by blood, politics, friendship, or sexual chemistry pass your work on to someone else or recommend it for others to read?

What Your Answer Means: If a complete stranger (or, better, a stranger who has a reputation in the field) recommends your work to someone else, you should be submitting it for publication, trying to get an agent, and taking other steps toward professional distribution. The person recommending your stuff is taking a risk to do so. If other readers don't like it, that can reflect badly on the person who recommended it. Professionals in the field, in particular, are careful with their reputations. If someone took a risk to recommend you, you ought to be taking more risks, too.

Criteria Evaluated by the Test: Reader interest (and, holistically, all the other criteria, too).


  1. I have to say, I completely agree with the Obsession Test. It really is all about the love you have for your project. Even the aggravation it may cause or the endless/sleepless nights of trying to work out a scene just right simply because you can't let it be anything else but perfect.

    The Disclaimer Test made me laugh. I sat here thinking back to how many times I've tried tacking some on to my own work. Though...I also remember the times I was told a few disclaimers by some of my peers: I didn't think their work needed those little blurbs. I fully believe some people just feel the need of throwing in a few of them as some sort of body armor. I know I've done it a few times in the past. :)

    Grammar is a biggy. Though, I also think what causes distraction in the story isn't just grammar or syntax, but the flow of it. Just as you wrote in the Obsession Test, a narrowed in story - something with a great flow that walks the reader along instead of flinging them North, South, East and West - is more helpful in pulling in a reaction that you can use rather than a typical "The writing is there, but I was lost."

    All in all, this is helpful beyond belief. It helped me realize a few things about myself and about my relationship with my writing.

    I'm going to be passing this along to my many writer friends via Twitter and Facebook. Ah, the magic of networking sites. :)

  2. Thanks, Natalie! You're absolutely right that some of these points cross-apply, particularly with creative writing. A reader might have trouble getting into something that's too broad, or too slow, and narrowing the focus might also cut down on the superficial "grammar reactions." But among novice writers, particularly in a writing class at the university level, the most common reason for content-less comments is grammar, so that's what I focused on here. For aspiring novelists who have nailed grammar down, I suspect, like you, that the most common reason for superficial comments would be structure. Maybe the story needs to open in media res, or the conflict needs to be locked earlier. That sort of thing. Thanks for the feedback!