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March 9, 2010

The Art of a Good Critique

Filed under: Blogs — vernonfueston @ 2:17 pm

You will probably find that in all the process of learning to write, knowing how to give a good critique is one of the most important skills you will learn.

The process of critiquing other class member’s writing assignments is, next to simply sitting down and writing, the most important activity you will do as a developing writer.  It is certainly more important than getting your own work critiqued.  I say this for a couple of reasons.

First, you can read all the writing textbooks you want, attend all the workshops and writing conferences you can fit into your schedule and talk about writing in groups until the cows come home, but you won’t become a better writer until you apply what you’ve learned.  But there’s a problem.

It’s very difficult to see bad writing when you do it.  If you could see it easily, you wouldn’t write badly in the first place.  Besides, our minds tend to fill in the blank spots in our own work.  It knows what we meant to do.

But critiquing the work of others allows a writer to spot writing mistakes and suggest corrections.  If a writer does this enough, in time mistakes on his or her own pages will become obvious.

And second, if we tell somebody else enough times to cut bad writing, even when it’s painful, eventually we learn to follow our own advice.  We do this if for no other reason than to avoid being hypocritical.  It is just as tough to correct or eliminate those lines or words that don’t work but with which we’ve fallen in love.  Critique toughens us for the hardest emotional work we have to do, fixing our own drafts.

Here are some rules for making a good critique:

1.  Don’t be obnoxious.  Remember that other writers are just as attached to their work and just as sensitive about it as you are.  Critique is not being “critical.”  We aren’t in the business of tearing things down.  One good method for avoiding hurtful criticism is to express our objections as suggestions.  “You might consider using shorter sentences,” works so much better than, “Your language is too flowery and full of fluff.”

2.  In any critique, begin with what you found strongest in the work.  This can be difficult at times, but do it.

3.  In any critique, always suggest what could make the piece stronger.  If those around you know that this will always happen, they will be less inclined to take offense when you suggest something they might do to improve their work.

4.  End your critique with positive and sincere praise for progress made, quality of work – whatever.

It’s always difficult to offer suggestions on someone’s work.  Nobody likes to find fault with the work of somebody they care about.  Just remember, the reason we are offering critiques in the group is to develop your writing.  Giving an honest, well thought out critique will help develop you into a professional writer more than anything else except sitting down and writing something.

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