Sunday, July 18, 2010

Being a Helpful Critique Partner

I've been a part of two critique groups and am currently a critique buddy of Fabulous Writer Friend. I taught writing in the elementary and middle school grades and worked with hundreds of stories and essays by my students. I write for assessment companies and sometimes they'll send the stories back for revision with comments. I've had helpful comments and some very not helpful comments. I've learned a lot about how to help others from the help others have-- and haven't-- given me as a writer.

How do you give helpful feedback? I think the key is to find the purpose and balance.

1. Purpose-- What stage is your writing partner at? If he/she is drafting, this is not the time to red-line through the whole thing. You need to watch out for things like credible character development, plot construction, point of view and voice. Big things. If they are polishing a final draft, you'll need to keep an eye out for more detailed kinds of things-- are they repeating a sentence structure too often? Are their verbs as precise as they can be? But it doesn't do much good to nit-pick on punctuation if their draft has a huge hole in the plot that you overlook in your fervor to catch every pronoun without a clear antecedent. The best way to know this is to ask them. "What kind of feedback are you looking for?" If they've been writing for very long, they can tell you.

2. Balance-- Any writer needs both encouragement and constructive criticism. Note the word "constructive." Here are some non-constructive criticisms-- real life-- I've received from people I've worked with as a freelance writer.

"This doesn't work."
"Clever title-- needs to be changed."
"This simile falls flat."

Boy, laying all that out there is sort of painful. Luckily, though, I more often receive nice comments (and I keep selling my work, which is the best compliment) and sometimes helpful comments such as, "This dialogue reads too old for the protagonist, probably because of this vocabulary word here. You might consider changing it." Or "This stanza feels like it's repeating the same theme of the previous without adding anything new. The word length is quite long for a poem for this age group, so you could cut this stanza without losing any impact." And she was RIGHT.

Whenever I get constructive criticism, it may sting for a moment, but there's this lovely "AH-HAH! That's IT!" feeling. A writer can recognize the truth in a statement that helps her writing and be grateful to receive it. Insulting feedback only hurts and makes writers feel defensive and want to quit. If you have a partner who is doing that to you, find someone else to critique your work. And if you are critiquing, remember it's really easy to hurt someone when you are leaving remarks on their document. Remember they can't hear your tone or see your smile to soften what you say. Be gentle, even if you have to tell them there's a major problem. Treat others as you would like to be treated.

What I've found to be a helpful tool is to use the Comment tool as I read. Anything that stands out to me as a reader, good or bad, I leave a comment on. I don't usually make suggestions about how to improve problem areas unless it's really clear-- I just note that something confused me. I do not want to tell a writer how to write their story. That is vanity. I've had a few people rewrite so much of a page that it doesn't sound like me anymore. It sounds like them. That wasn't helpful. But I've also had people just be a cheerleader through my work. It feels GREAT. "Awesome line!" "I love this!" Who wouldn't want to read that? But if that's ALL you get, your work isn't going to improve.

And the goal, is, of course, to improve. Even if a writer never gets published, to improve one's craft as a writer is always a worthy goal to pursue.


  1. Testing, for my friend Amy who couldn't post a comment...hope this is working...

  2. I'm following! Great seeing you tonight!

  3. You are right. The goal is definitely to improve. Sometimes, I feel like some critics lose sight of that. It's all about encouragement.


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