5 Guidelines for Critiquing The Rough/Discovery Draft

On Friday, I wrote about the writing process, and talked about the importance of allowing yourself to write a rough or discovery draft. Manuscriptpage

A question that comes up, and I've had quite a discussion about this lately with my separated-at-birth-sister Candace, is what happens if you are in a critique group and working on a discovery draft.  You want to bring your writing in to get some sense of guidance, and yet you're working on a rough draft, which is going to be, by its very nature, rough.  So do you go back and labor over every scene or chapter after the group has critiqued it? Or should you just not take your work in yet?

There's a fine line here.  I'm a huge fan of writing groups, I could not exist without the one I'm a part of, and I think you sometimes have to guard your work in the early stages.  Because far and away the best thing to do is write one entire draft from start to finish, without getting hung up on making scenes perfect along the way.  Why?  For a couple of reasons:

  • When you get to the end of the first draft, you know a helluva lot more about the story than you did when you started.  Guaranteed.  And part of that knowledge is going to involve rearranging things.  Once you get to the end, suddenly you realize that you have to change things up in chapter six.  And since you're going to go back and rewrite chapter six anyway, there's no reason to make it perfect along the way. 
  • Because it is just way too damn easy to get hung up on rewriting the first 50 pages until they are perfect and never make it to the end of the book.  I've seen this happen repeatedly.  Just write a  discovery draft all the way through to the end and get it under your belt.  You'll be thrilled with yourself.

Should you want to take your rough/discovery draft into your writing group (and I do this all the time), follow these guidelines:

1. Make it clear that this is a rough draft and that comments should be made accordingly.  In other words, readers do not need to dissect sentence structure and word choice at this point.  Have them comment on big picture things, such as if the plot is making sense and characters are acting congruently (which they probably won't until future drafts, but you can start to see where they go astray).

2.  Apply what you've learned from critiques to future scenes and chapters.  If readers say your dialogue sounds wooden, experiment with making in more natural as you continue to write new scenes. 

3. Consider presenting the work in bigger chunks, if the format of the group allows this.  It is often easier for readers to follow threads and throughlines if they can read several chapters at once, as opposed to reading one chapter in isolation.

4.  Take good notes.  I have one notebook dedicated to notes about the current project, and I take notes as I listen to the critique.  As soon as I can when I get home, I go over the notes and make certain I understand them.  I scribble a few ideas about how I'm going to utilize the changes.  And then I go back to making forward progress on the draft.

5. Don't take it personally.  It's about the work, not you.  If you internalize any commentary in a personal way, you'll not be able to carry on with finishing the draft.

All right, time for you guys to chime in.  How do you deal with writing a rough draft?  With taking criticism?

And stay tuned, because over the next few posts I'm going to be discussing each phase of the writing process in depth.

Photo from Photl.  Yes, I've found a new source for photos.  Don't fall over in your chair.


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16 Comments on "5 Guidelines for Critiquing The Rough/Discovery Draft"

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Candace White
02/07/2011 07:31

I view this like I view most things in the writers world, theres more than one way to get at the truth of the story. Inevitability I have to go with what works best for the way I write, when INSPIRATION (fickle witch that she is) is sitting on my shoulder and whispering in my ear. I don’t want to get to the end, I want to get to the truth of the character, of the scene, of the conflict….And I want it down on a piece of paper in black and white as good as I can get it… Read more »

02/07/2011 08:19

Hey Sis, And my point is that its not about getting to the end–that getting to the end allows you to discover truths about your character and the story that you otherwise would not know. Time and time again when I’ve gotten to the end of a draft and the characters did something unexpected, I’ve then realized that I got their motivation from the start wrong and I have to go back and delve more deeply into that. I don’t consider plot and conflict and arc plastic elements of the story, I consider them vital underpinnings. I may think my… Read more »

02/07/2011 09:17

Helpful, Charlotte. Thanks!

02/07/2011 09:46

Thanks, Leisa!

Ledger D'Main
02/07/2011 10:07

First drafts should be chilled with a frothy head that reaches just a half inch beyond the rim…

02/07/2011 10:08

Ledger, how long do we chill them for?

Ledger D'Main
02/07/2011 11:21

Only long enough to eat three pretzels or a handful of stale popcorn, elsewise the bubbles will loose their fizz and not be able to tickle your nose hairs…

02/08/2011 11:13

Hi Charlotte: Nice post. For me, I allow the rough draft to be rough, but I do write toward…sign posts. I have the work mapped out at a very high level, knowing basic things, like what the catalyst will be, what the climax will be, where the story takes place, what (at least) two or three of the major transformations will be, and who a lot of the characters are. But, I allow myself to allow other things to happen, other characters to appear. I push through to the end with a rough draft mentality, but I pause in the… Read more »

02/08/2011 15:53

Hi Charlotte, I write essays and newspaper columns and pretty much follow the same process for both. Just start writing in pen, scribbling down all sorts of ideas. Then after I’ve got a few pages, I go to the computer and type it in. Then I head back to the beginning to find my intro and keep trying out ones until I find the one I want. I then just keep running down through my draft, weeding out sentences that just don’t fit. Tightening the writing as I comb through. Every sentence must fit smoothly into every other sentence. It’s… Read more »

02/08/2011 16:19

Its funny too, Giulietta, I sometimes fail to heed the voice telling me about those sentences that don’t work right. Then when the editor or group finds them, I’m hitting myself on the forehead, wondering why I didn’t listen to myself. I think you’re right–laziness. Ah, sloth! Gotta love it.

02/08/2011 19:50

Thanks for the great quotes and links, Roy. And you make a good point, that preparation goes a long way to a successful discovery draft. I love your system of all caps for second draft notes. I seem to recall a color-coded highlighting system that you used for critiquing at Spalding!

02/09/2011 10:07

Oh, I still do the color code method, but that is between the second and third drafts. That’s more fine tuning of the language, like yellow for cliches and common phrases, pink for adverbs, blue for grammar issues (split infinitives, nouns too far from their verbs), and so on. :)

02/09/2011 14:24

Roy, Love it! Glad you are still doing it, as it is so very Roy-like.

02/11/2011 11:35

When I was still working on my first draft, I was reading Writing A Novel by Nigel Watts. I was somewhat relieved to read his advice about this very subject. He believed that it would be a mistake to show anybody your writing in its infant stages, because it is too easy to crush the writer’s inspiration/creativity with the wrong comment – it’s too vulberable a stage. I kept my WIP pretty close and have only shown two people tiny little bits of my first draft (after it was completed for the most part). I supposed everybody is different though.… Read more »

02/11/2011 11:46

Sharon, I so believe it is an individual decision as to when you want to share your work, so bravo for you for holding firm. Being in a writer’s group has helped my writing–and my critiquing–enormously, and I know its not for everyone. I’m willing to bet you have more expertise than you think.


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