Ah, critiques. We need them and we dread them -- both giving and receiving. We want our critique group to push us to do better, but not push us down. We want to help our fellow writers, but we're not always certain what to say or how to say it.
I was fortunate enough this last weekend to be in a small workshop with Kristin Abraham, English Instructor at Laramie County Community College, where she discussed how to offer constructive criticism in a writing group or workshop.
The biggest takeaway for me was that a whole heap of praise is needed for every criticism. Many things are right with every piece. The act of putting it down on paper is an act of creation and personal expression that has value.
With that, here was what she taught us:
- Remember why you are there: To help and support fellow writers as they create.
- Don't forget the PRAISE: For everyone's success, it's important to share what works well and what makes the person a unique and strong writer. The PQS format is a good one: Praise, Question, Suggest, in that order. Often the suggestions will flow naturally from the questions, and that final step may not be entirely necessary.
- Speak in terms of the piece, not the author: What is the poem or essay or story trying to do, not what the author is trying to do. The critique is not of the fellow writer sitting in front of you. It is a critique of different aspects in one particular piece of writing. It is not a judgement of the writer's existence as a writer. (Note to self: Also good to remember when accepting critiques.)
- Don't harp on it: If you agree with one person's question or suggestion, it is enough to say you agree and move on. The writer heard it the first time. Repetition is not needed nor, worse yet, an extended conversation that yes, yes, we all agree this is a problem and this and this and this is why. Two exceptions: 1) if it is a debate where members of the group disagree as to whether it works or not, OR 2) if you are agreeing with the praise. Keep praising.
- Don't forget that the author is in the room: Don't get SO caught up in the debate that you are forgetting the intended goal: to help and support fellow writers.
- Emphasize your perspective: It may sound counter-intuitive, but the best way to critique is to put the focus on yourself, as in your reaction to the piece. This is one situation where "Me! Me! Me!" is actually the most considerate approach. It is more constructive to say, "This confused me," than to say, "This is confusing."
- Avoid overload: Don't feel the need to point out every single thing you think could be improved. If their sentences are too long, point out one or two examples. Don't mark every instance all the way down the page. Again, an exception: you cannot overload praise. Keep praising.
- Be specific: If you liked the imagery in a poem, point out a specific image that struck you particularly. If you felt as if certain areas could be tightened, point out a few specific examples (but see #7 and reel yourself in.) Generalities can be overwhelming and can give the writer no starting point.
- Be flexible and open: Be willing to modify your commentary and change your mind. This helps you to embrace your personal perspective (see #6) and stick to the point of the group (see #1).
- Relate the piece to your own writing: Saying "I've done that before," or "I ran into the same issue in my writing," reduces any air of superiority and again (Did we mention #6?) helps emphasize your perspective. Your fellow writer may be more receptive if he or she feels as if you have something in common.
I know my temptation is always to pull the weeds first, when what I really need to prioritize is admiring the flowers. I'm reasonably certain (OK, 100% certain) that I've inflicted some unfortunate critiques on others. I look forward to taking Kristin's principles and doing a better job of helping and supporting my fellow writers in the future.
Kristin Abraham is the author of The Disappearing Cowboy Trick (Horse Less Press, 2013) and two chapbooks: Little Red Riding Hood Missed the Bus (Subito Press, 2008) and Orange Reminds You of Listening (Elixir Press, 2006). Her poetry and lyric essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Best New Poets 2005, Columbia Poetry Review, LIT, and American Letters & Commentary. She teaches at a community college in Wyoming, and lives in Colorado, where she serves as editor-in-chief and poetry editor of the literary magazine Spittoon.