Teaching the Art of Critique

I’ve been asked to help out with critiques at the upcoming Oregon Christian Writers Conference. Critique is equal parts skill and art, and it takes time to get good at it. I’ve been practicing almost twenty years now, but I still have things to learn.
Writing Tip for Today: What are some things to consider as you practice critiquing both yourself and other writers?

  • Beware the Rule Set in Stone. Zealous yet inexperienced writers often glom onto a writing rule, then ardently point out transgressions wherever they occur. I know one critiquer who never lets a “just” get past, and another who insists you should never use a dialogue attribution. Trouble is, rules can be broken and yet the writing can still work. While most rule-breaking-that-works happens with writers who have mastered the rule, new writers can sometimes pull it off too. Learn to see all writing rules in the context that art goes beyond rules. It either works or it needs work.
  • The Good, Bad & Ugly. As a person giving feedback, your job is to help the writer by connecting with the artful places and by exposing weak spots. Try the sandwich method of critique: Lead off with a positive, insert the not-so-positive and end with another positive. In our zeal to show off our critique chops, we can sometimes forget that there is a very human writer at the other end of our critique. Instead of saying, “This is awful,” or “you did this or that,” try giving feedback as a positive suggestion. EX: “You could try adding more active verbs.”
  • Do What You Can. If you are still learning to critique, do what you can right now. Some of the first things we hear as writers are, “Show don’t tell,” “Use active verbs,” and “Drop most ‘ly’ words.” You can tighten your writing or help others tighten their own with these 3 simple solutions. Later on, you’ll be able to spot structural issues or address character depth, but for now, you can cut your critique teeth on the basics. In my little opinion, it’s more useful to hear that I could’ve shown where I told than to hear “I liked it,” or “it flowed well.” And please, leave the nits for the written comments. No one likes to sit through a critique about comma placement.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

1 comment on “Teaching the Art of Critique

  1. Excellent suggestions. The nit-pickers need to leave those kinds of nuts and bolts to an editor (unless there are so many errors of this type that it needs to be addressed) I like the sandwich approach, too.

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