Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Reading and Giving a Critique

I had three students in a competition last weekend, and the judges weren’t particularly good. One was terrible: all day, on every critique she basically wrote the same two sentences. You had to conclude there wasn’t much thought put into that.

The second made a suggestion to one of my students on technique that would have been physically impossible for this particular student. We had to disregard that suggestion as impossible. Pity he spent most of the page writing about it. He did have one helpful gem within his comments, though.

The third was very brief. It had no positive points or encouragement, but the four sentence fragments were very good points that were dead on. I had to reframe it for the student, because he just heard "I did everything bad."

The three judges knew music and what wins competitions, but they knew very little about teaching, obviously. That’s okay. Everyone still learned a lot, and that was the important part.

I can’t say I have much experience with critiquing writing or receiving writing critiques, but perhaps some of what I know of music can translate into writing. After hearing about a friend who stopped writing for a month after a professional edit (and she admitted it was well-done and spot on, but just wasn’t expecting it), and after reading the horror stories and hurt feelings in the comments section of Bookends Inc Jessica Faust’s post on Writer’s Revenge, I had to let myself ramble.

First: On Receiving A Critique

  • Expect no positive comments: It’s not that the judge is mean, or that she hates your work. It’s not that that’s the way a judge is supposed to judge, either. But it’s just the way it is, sometimes. The judge sees what needs fixing or what she thinks needs fixing, and she wants to make sure she gives you all that information. She might forget to phrase things gently, or maybe she just doesn’t know how it comes across on the page. Or maybe she is mean. But if you expect no positive comments, you’ll be in a good mindset to learn.
  • Never ask for a critique when you need encouragement: They are two different beasts. You’ll only get both together from very talented and experienced editors, who know just how to put things to make you feel good, all while directing you on how to improve and tighten your work. If you need encouragement, ask for encouragement. If you need a critique, ask for a critique. One does not usually beget the other.
  • Translate the critique: Reduce the ramble and repetition to the critique writer’s main points. Reframe all comments into an action. For example, "too wordy" could be translated into "prune adverbs and remove sentences that don’t serve a story purpose." "I hate your voice" can be translated into "Have partner/friend read out loud and figure out what mood, impressions, and style my voice conveys."
  • Don’t toss the baby out with the bathwater: If a critique writer makes a few stupid suggestions, it doesn’t mean they’re all stupid. As in Judge #2 above, he was misguided in 19 out of the 20 sentences he wrote. That one sentence, however, was worth its weight in gold.
  • Notice what she/he didn’t say: If the critique only pointed out the things you need to fix, then assume that everything that wasn’t mentioned was either acceptable, great, or excellent. For whatever reason, the critiquer didn’t mention the good things. That doesn’t always make her a mean person. Sometimes she just wants to give you everything she knows on how to improve your writing.

Second: On Judging/Critiquing/Editing

  • Adult are way, way, way more sensitive to children: Really. I don’t know what else to say. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. It’s just the way adults are. Young kids are more comfortable with not knowing things and receiving corrections. As we grow older, we grow more issues and more insecurities. We feel we should be experts, even when we’re still learning. It’s just the way it is. Phrase your comments accordingly.
  • Write a "positive sandwich": Forget whether a writer should be thin-skinned or thick-skinned. What they should be doesn’t matter. You’re judging, so obviously you want to help. If you believe in your advice and you want them to take it, then you need to give your advice in a way that they will hear it.
    A "positive sandwich" is just like a hamburger. Point out something they did well (bun), point out something they can improve (meat), and then point out another thing they did well (bun).
  • Make every suggestion an active, positive comment: See translation above. Instead of saying, "too many adverbs and weak verbs," say "To really make your writing pop, try removing some of your adverbs and finding more vivid verbs in those sentences. That way, your action sequences will feel more fast-paced and thrilling to the reader."

Sound overly nice and mushy and too soft on writers? Well, maybe. But you get more flies with honey. Sugar. More bees. Something. It doesn’t mean you don’t suggest what needs suggesting, or you lie about what needs fixing. It means the difference between being a good teacher or a not-as-effective teacher. When you’re critiquing, you’re really being a teacher.

Saying all positive things isn’t of much use to a writer. I’m not advocating judges or critiquers to just say "good job." A sandwich isn’t a sandwich without the meat.

The point is that if you’re going to take the time to critique, why not do it in a way that will make the writer hear you better, and seriously consider your suggestions? Why not frame your comments in a way that makes the writer thrilled and excited to get to work, to dig into her work again and try your suggestions?

What’s the most effective critique you ever received? Have you ever received advice that made you itchy to get back to work? Excited to make changes? Thrilled that you can see a way to make your story stronger? How did they do it?

3 bonus scribbles:

StarvingWriteNow 4/24/2007 01:51:00 PM  

I tried to critique as fairly as possible in the last contest. I even got a thank you from one of the people I judged so I felt good about that. On the other hand, I've received critiques from contests that were totally unhelpful, like you said. Just numbers, no info.

BTW, that Sparks came from weekend inspiration, just like you thought. But where's your contribution? And BTW #2, I've officially dubbed you, me and Eddie as the "Smut Sluts" of the retreat. We seriously need to all room together next time.

spyscribbler 4/24/2007 07:35:00 PM  

Thanks, Bernita!

Gotta love those thank yous. It's a dying nicety, you know?

Wouldn't that be a blast? I had the best time. Totally refreshing!!!