Read It and Weep (Not)

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I’ve been thinking about critiques—how to give and receive them. An online group I belong to, an offshoot of the My Name Is Not Bob Platform Challenge (April 2012), has bonded as an active, online community, and now we’re looking for ways we might support each other. One way is through “reading and responding” to each other’s work. I actually prefer that term to critique; critique sounds so clinical.

So how do we offer honest, valuable feedback? How do we go about responding to someone else’s writing without falsely patting the writer on the back and praising the work—without offering anything substantial that might help the writer improve the piece—or going to the opposite extreme with a “slash and burn” technique that leaves the writer in ruins and makes her want to rip the story up—literally—and never write again? I exaggerate, but you get my point.

If You Can’t Stand the Heat

I actually witnessed the latter once at a prestigious writers’ conference where someone I knew was so crushed by the critique of her poems by a craggy, handsome older poet, every bit as prestigious as the conference itself, that she packed up and went home. Overly sensitive, you might say. If she couldn’t take the heat she should have stayed out of the kitchen. Maybe so, but any criticism that is not delivered in a positive context, with integrity and compassion, is not worth its salt.

I know many of you are already practiced readers. You could teach me a thing or two, and I actually hope you will by leaving comments. Let’s get a dialogue going here! For those who might not be as familiar with the process, I’d like to offer some suggestions. None of these ideas are original with me. They’re common practice among many writing groups.

Cottage ruins, Cumberland Island, Georgia

Disaster-proof!

I taught creative writing to high school students for more than twenty years. Talk about potential for disaster—a room full of teenagers let loose to “critique” each other’s writing! We had to have guidelines, and I believe they apply as well to adults in a similar situation. So here goes:

  • Read the piece once, all the way through, without stopping to ponder too much or make notes. Then read it again, more closely this time, paying attention to what works and what doesn’t. Consider the elements of craft (I’m thinking fiction here)—plot, characterization, language, setting, opening/ending, etc.—particularly anything the writer has expressed concern about.
  • Always, always start by commenting on strengths: identify what the writer has done well. No generalizations allowed: no “I really liked it,” or “I think it’s good,” or “Great job!” Those statements may be true; you may feel them, but they don’t help the writer in concrete ways. Say specifically what you thought worked well and why: “The dialogue sounds real; I could hear those characters speaking.” “I was intrigued by the plot turn when  . . . [something happened].” “Your setting details really establish the mood of the story.”
  • Make your constructive comments specific. Notice I don’t say critical comments, but constructive, which means, hopefully, that the comments will be useful to the writer. Try couching your negatives as questions or “I” statements: “Could you clarify what happens here?” instead of “That’s so confusing.” Or “I didn’t understand the time shift when . . .” instead of “Wow, you really lost me!” or even worse, “This makes absolutely no sense!”

Tough Story-Love

Some of you may consider this a “touchy-feely” approach to critique. I’m not saying you can’t offer tough love for a story. It’s what most of us need. If all we want is vapid praise, we aren’t really serious about this writing business, and we aren’t willing to do the work necessary to succeed. But being a good reader also requires skill, hard work, and thoughtfulness. It’s a gift you offer to another writer.

Remember: as a reader of someone else’s priceless work, be respectful, be honest, be specific, be constructive! 

Tomorrow, I’ll address the other side of the critique desk (or more likely, these days, the computer screen). How should the writer receive feedback? Stay tuned. 

Meanwhile, please leave a comment about your own experiences as a reader of others’ work or as a recipient of “feedback.” Or leave a reader-tip to add to the above! I’d love to hear from you.

35 thoughts on “Read It and Weep (Not)

  1. I find that I need to do two critiques. My first one is rather harsh, because that’s how my mind works–I have to point the things that don’t work & how to improve them. That’s not the critique the writer gets. The writer gets my revised critique which emphasizes the positive things first and tones down some of my negative comments. It’s sort of like any kind of writing, isn’t it? The first draft is for myself; the second is for the reader.

    1. Yours is a good approach, Barbara. I do something similar because the negatives tend to jump out at me first. It’s important for the person on the other end to see what *is* working, though, in preparation for constructive comments (I like that term better than critique, actually). I’ve seen writers totally deflated by negative comments in a workshop setting. It’s cruel. The writer needs to be prepared for honesty, but tact on the part of the reader is always nice. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. It’s difficult to critique others’ writings, but beginning with the strengths gets one off to a good start. It’s also difficult, from one writer to the next, to attempt to ‘slash and edit” one’s syntax just because it doesn’t read right to you. However, we all need to remember that one needs to keep their own voice in writing as well. Critique is definitely a tricky subject to approach. ‘Twas my least favorite in college courses. 🙂
    great advice
    keep it up
    feel free to stop by trueLee Fiction and offer me some critique
    -JDLee

    1. Definitely, the writer needs to understand that he/she always *owns* the work, and it’s his or her decision, ultimately, what to do with it. I should have added that sometimes a reader’s suggestion may not be what I wind up doing with a piece, but it triggers my thinking about it and finding my own solution. And that’s a good thing. Thanks for stopping here, JDLee. I will stop over and see what you’re about!

  3. Well said. When others know the expectations, guidelines and boundaries it usually makes for a much better outcome. I’ve been in a writing group for 3 years now. Although some teared up (in the beginning) everyone has grown much closer and writing has improved tremendously.

    When we critique the writer lets us know what she wants us to focus on: interior monologue, pacing, dialogue, etc. Writer reads the piece (no more than 5 pages, out loud). Our group leader sets the time limit: 3 minutes. First are strengths, needs improvement or clarification (we’ll say ” what do you think about using…”).

    The writer doesn’t respond except to thank the speaker until everyone is finished. (that way we don’t have writers ‘defending’ their pieces). We turn in our copies to writer with our notes. We end on a positive note and support.

    1. These are great, concrete guidelines for any writing group to follow. I love “everyone has grown much closer and writing has improved tremendously,” in spite of some shakiness for some in the beginning. That’s the mark of great communication and a clear respect for the writers and their work. Thanks so much for your comment, Alvarado Frazier!

  4. Gerry: As a nonfiction writer, I only have academic experience in fiction and can not attest to the concept or value of writer’s groups or the offering of constructive feedback. I do, however, like the fact that you have emphasized the need for guidelines and to do so in a tone that is respectful and not personal. You are correct: the elements of a fictional story need to be addressed and critiqued rather than having comments pat the ego of the reader or the author. Well done. Thoroughly enjoyed this.

    1. Amanda, you’re so right; it has to be about the work, not about the person. It’s hard not to take criticism personally, especially if a writer’s just starting out and lacks confidence. As I said, we have to decide what we want/need for the work itself, but on the reader side, we also have to be sensitive to the individual writer’s needs. It’s a difficult balance but not impossible. Thanks for the comment!

  5. Gerry, so interesting to read your post – looking forward to ‘the other side’ as well!! This question of giving and receiving feedback is so much at the heart of writing in community that we devote a lot of time to it each semester – not just orienting women at the start but all the way through. So many things to consider – approaching one another with goodwill; regarding the giving/receiving of feedback as a spiritual practice (resonates with the Quaker friends, above). One of the ways we approach the practice of feedback is to help the writer ASK for the specific kind of feedback she is looking for. A current favorite: “where is the pulse?” Far too many to list here. It’s a discussion I’d love to have at greater length with you and anyone else interested. Thanks for putting it out there for all of us!!!

    1. Sarah, I loved “where is the pulse?” That’s goes right to the heart of things (no pun intended)? It’s a great way for me to think about my stories and novels that still need work (and also when I’m reading for somebody else). Thanks so much for weighing in here. There’s much wisdom in what you added!

  6. Thanks for this, Gerry – it’s a great method, and though its one that I unconsciously use, it’s helpful to have it spelled out. I belonged to a writer’s group for several years that I believe was successful because of the fact that we intuitively used this method of responding to each other’s work. Several of the group members were Quaker and a few of those were professors, and it was perhaps that combination of experience that allowed them to lead the rest of us into a “critiquing” style that just felt like a groups of friends working together to perfect precious projects that belonged, in some sense, to us all. There’s also a phrase that I’ve used in other kinds of groups when a “critique” is in order – “this could be ‘even better if’…” But starting with a positive, and being specific with both the positives and the “even better ifs” is very important, in my experience.

    1. “…felt like a groups of friends working together to perfect precious projects that belonged, in some sense, to us all.”

      Bonnie, I love your entire comment, but especially this. What a terrific group that must have been. Really, I think what we’re talking about here is the concept of positive reinforcement, which is applicable in so many different aspects of our lives and experiences. Thanks so much for the insightful comment. This is exactly what I was hoping for–a conversation!

  7. Great tips, Gerry! I often use the “shit sandwich” method. I actually stole this term from my husband. He often has to use it when dealing with parents of children he works with. The shit sandwich method goes something like this: Say something nice, say something critical, then end with something nice. Repeat. 🙂

    1. There’s a nice balance in your husband’s approach! And so true. It’s basically what I’m talking about here. Of course, sometimes it can be hard to find the positives, but I think that’s when we affirm the effort and encourage the writer to keep trying. Small steps . . . Thanks, E. B.

  8. Very interesting and informative post, Gerry! Although I’m not a writer, I can totally relate to critiques since I come from the design world. I really like to hear feedback from people on projects as it helps me to know what people like to see visually or what they might make an emotional connection to…..and I especially like hearing from other design professionals who have more expertise on the subject and can serve as a type of mentor. I look forward to your follow up post!

    P.S. It makes me nervous commenting on a blog with all writers – just trying to watch my grammar! ha! 😉

    1. I love it that you found relevance to your designing! I guess all of us who are into the “arts” in some way have similar experiences. Thanks so much, Kasey, for reading and commenting. Come back soon. (And your grammar is just fine!)

  9. I agree with your thoughts. I’ve seen many writers fall apart or become enraged after a critique. There have been times I have ‘skipped out’ on giving my opinion when the only good thing I could come up with was, “Your spelling is great.” On the other hand, I love that thrill of reading something and then knowing the author had it all pulled together.

    1. It’s awful when somebody falls apart, isn’t it? But you’re right; it’s nice when we come across a writer or a work that really shows promise. I love it, too, when I feel I have something to offer another writer, and her work gets better. There’s a whole range of experience, and we were all beginners once. Thanks, Kim, for the read and the comment!

  10. Well said, Gerry. This has been on my mind since you raised teh question with me yesterday, as we set out to open these opportunities for our group to share work.

    I use similar guidelines with my writing students, especially the “read it through once without commenting.” (My students are young, so then I have them write a smile or exclamation point next to their favorite parts, and question mark next to anywhere they were momentarily lost, before reading again to make comments.) Reading once all the way through, without shifting to editorial mode, forces a reader to wait and listen for where the writer is going, so those comments are more likely to honor the writer’s intentions.

    You are right that the two extremes — meaningless “I liked it,” or slash and burn — are the bane of fiction critiques. It takes considered effort to share feedback that a writer can put to use, and your suggestions are good guidelines. It would help if readers tried to express in a single sentence, “What do I think this writer is trying to accomplish?” and see if that helps guide the advice they offer. On Poets & Writers’ Speakeasy forum, writers were recently trading examples of their best and worst rejection letters. In every case, the most appreciated feedback was concrete, reflecting a close reading of the work and, in one way or another, that the reader “got” what the writer was attempting, even if the story hadn’t hit its mark. Slash and burn approaches, by contrast, are more likely to get a writer to shut down or lose confidence in their intentions, than be able to apply advice. We all end up needing thick skin, to an extent, but also need to be able to trade work with peers whose advice we know will push us, in an environment of trust!

    Thanks for taking the time to post this!

    1. “We all end up needing thick skin, to an extent, but also need to be able to trade work with peers whose advice we know will push us, in an environment of trust!”

      Wow, this says it all, Elissa. Thanks for taking the time to respond in such a thoughtful way. You offer such wisdom and a great addition to this post.

  11. I so look forward to getting REAL comments on my writing. Unfortunately, I don’t have anyone in my real live circle to give me that. I know I am just a fledgling and my work needs improvement. I am always hungry for constructive criticism. I have also had the misfortune to suffer the destructive kind from one (he who shall not be named) instructor. I love that this group is supportive, but honest.

    1. Well, this is my third try to reply; it keeps getting whooshed into cyberspace! I’ll keep this one shorter. “Supportive, but honest,” yes, the key to successful critiques, I think. I’m sorry you had a bad experience. I hope you’ll reach out to readers in our online community and find some folks you feel you can trust with your work. I don’t have a “live” writers’ group, either. My husband reads for me (talk about honest, and tough!), and I swap stories with a couple of women I met in workshops whose work I admire. We’ve been good readers for each other. I hope you’ll find something like that, too. Go for it!

  12. You know Gerry, I’m always taking creative writing courses, going to open mike nights, listening to the poets and writers in my community and some of the work sometimes is so far over my head that I truly feel completely lost. I’ve developed a technique of asking myself, “So, what do I understand?” and coming to it from that perspective is much more satisfying. (There’s always something I can empathise with.)

    1. This is a great insight, Veronica. Sometimes I remind myself that I don’t *have* to understand everything! Especially in poetry, sometimes the beauty of the language is enough. Thanks for the read and the comment.

  13. My first thought is that a template might be helpful for the reviewer. A list of open-ended phrases just like you have in your post. “I didn’t understand the time-shift when . . . ” Also, a listing of tentative words as a precurser to a comment, such as: “I may be wrong but it feels to me like . . . ” or: “I really like this part about ______ and I think you could say it better with less words.” Maybe that’s too harsh. It’s late and I’m just throwing out an idea.

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