How to Be an Effective Critiquer

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When I was in college, I took many different writing workshops and literature classes, which was appropriate since I majored in Writing & Literature. It was a small college with a relatively small staff and the different classes were taught by many of the same teachers (some even across different studies).

I had one teacher who I thought was an excellent instructor. Her name was Jane Lazarre, and she’s the author of numerous novels and nonfiction works. What made her a good instructor was that she gave constructive criticism, the kind that you could look and analyze and work with. If she felt that a chapter needed work, she’d give specific feedback and tell you exactly what she felt it needed.

Then I had another teacher, who I will just call Mary Quitecontrary. In contrast to Ms. Lazarre, Ms. Quitecontrary was an ineffective teacher. The reason is because she just basically told students how she felt about something but never why. She was never, ever specific. I would get a story back from her and she would just have written in the margin: “Needs work.”

Um, what exactly does that mean? What exactly was it that needed work? My characterization? My plot? My dialogue? What?

I was young and unsure of what I should be doing at the time, so I never really pursued these things with her. What cracks me up is that when it was time for me to graduate and I had a one-on-one with an adviser, I don’t remember any of the conversation at all except for the part when she told me that Mary Quitecontrary told her that I wasn’t a very good writer. I was so stunned that I didn’t think to tell her that I didn’t think that Ms. Quitecontrary wasn’t a very good teacher. I wish, I wish, I wish I had.

The funny thing is, I don’t even remember her name. I mean, after making such a wounding statement about me, you’d think I’d remember it above all others. But I don’t. I just remember how terrible she was. But I do remember Jane’s name because she was good.

And that’s how it should be. It’s important to remember the ones who have helped you along the way. Not so much those who have hurt you. Those people should not play a very big part in your life or your memories. Of course, it’s unrealistic to say that you will forget those who have hurt you. Wounds leave scars. I still remember the names of my biggest bullies in grammar school and junior high. You just can’t bury all the pain. I think the point is to flatten them down as much as we can to make room in our lives for those who have supported and bolstered us, to give our supporters the room in our minds and hearts that they deserve.

Don’t mistake cruelty for honesty, or honesty for constructive criticism. Someone can be honest without being cruel. They can also be honest without being constructive. The ideal critique is honest, considerate, and constructive. That’s a combination not easily found. I have found those qualities in my writer’s group, and I’m very fortunate. I’ve heard some horror stories from people who received cruel, unhelpful criticism.

Notice I used the word “criticism” above, rather than “critique.” There’s a difference. Criticism is a weapon wielded to hurt; a critique is a tool used to help someone with a task or project. Critique becomes criticism when it’s meted out cruelly and in such a way that the person can’t use it effectively.

A good critiquer is honest but compassionate, choosing her words carefully. The writer should be able to walk away with at least an idea of what needs to be fixed. And sometimes this takes practice. I think it also takes some receiving of good critiques to understand how it should be done.  

I’ve tried to do that in my critiques and edits in the hopes of paying it forward. The bashing out there is enough–let’s not do it to each other.

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