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Be a Better Writer--GIVING AND RECEIVING CRITIQUE

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--GIVING AND RECEIVING CRITIQUE

Postby glorybee » Sat May 03, 2014 10:02 am

One of my FaithWriter friends has suggested that I post a lesson on giving and receiving critique. I know that there’s a group now that is committed to giving constructive critiques on writing challenge articles, but there are still a lot of people who are uneasy about giving critiques. I hope that some of the people in the critique group will chime in here with their thoughts and suggestions, and I hope that this will be helpful to you.

A lot of Christians are reluctant to give critique at all; they see the similarity to the word “criticize” and they are uncomfortable with criticism because it feels not nice. But there is a difference between critiquing and criticizing; when you are giving constructive criticism, you are helping a fellow writer. It’s possible to do so in a kind way.

I’ve also frequently encountered people who say, “I’m not qualified to critique. I’m just a beginner writer…I don’t have a college education…I barely know what I’m doing.” None of those things matter. Writers typically are writing so that they will be read and appreciated by readers. So even if you don’t know a participle from personification, you can critique a piece based on what you have read and how it affected you as a reader. If you can also catch a typo or two, or point out a POV issue or a tense switch, that’s good, too.

So…here’s a list of things that you can mention in your critique:

1. Did the piece work for you? Did you enjoy reading it? If so, tell why—not just “I liked this story (poem, article)” but “I liked the way you used dialect” or “I felt as if I knew these characters” or “This showed me something about that passage of Scripture that I never realized before.” Similarly, if it did not work for you, tell why. “I don’t think a 5-year-old would talk like that” or “You used a lot of clichés” or “It was too depressing, with not enough hope.”

2. Did you see any typos? Go ahead and point them out—if the writer plans to submit this piece elsewhere, she’ll appreciate it. However, it might not be a bad idea to look through the other yellow box comments. It’s helpful to be told that I typed “teh” instead of “the”—once. I don’t need to be told it multiple times.

3. Even if you’re not an English teacher, there are certain usages that you may be aware of. Tell the writer if she’s used “affect” instead of “effect,” for example (or any number of similar usage issues), but see the caveat in #2, above.

4. If you’re a person who does have some knowledge of writing mechanics (grammar, spelling, punctuation, usage, sentence structure, etc.), then by all means, point out any errors that the writer may have made. However—if there are multiple errors and the writer (no matter the level) is obviously a beginner, do not feel as if you need to point out every error. Pick the most egregious error and give some gentle instruction, perhaps with an example of how the sentence should be written.

5. Did the beginning hook you? Did the ending satisfy you?

6. If it’s something highly original—something you’ve never seen anything like before—tell the writer. On the other hand, if it’s something you’ve seen several variations of, she needs to know that, too. Feel free to suggest a way to make it fresher, if something occurs to you.

Finally, I just recommend that you SSS—Say Something Specific. As nice as it is to read something like “I really liked this story—it made me happy and you’re a really good writer. Keep up the good work!”—that really does nothing to help the person to hone her craft. Just one specific thing—good or bad—will help her to know what she’s doing right or what she’s doing wrong.

Just as important as giving critique is receiving critique—but that’s far harder. I’m going to give you my friend’s words about this, in her letter to me. Maybe this will help some of you who are thin-skinned, and who find critique painful. Here’s what she said:

I still remember my first critique from you. Do you remember it? You made a
general critique in the comment section below my entry and I PM'd you and
asked for clarification. I wish I still had that document, but you said
something like, "Okay, there's going to be a lot of red ink on this, can you
take it?"

And I said "Go for it." And you did.

It hit me hard, like a punch to the gut, but after the comments settled in
my brain, I was able to go back and digest what you said. And it was helpful
and it helped me learn and grow as a writer. Plus, there was something you
added at the shore of that sea of red ink. You said something like, "I
didn't notice this on first reading, but there's something really compelling
about your story. You are definitely a writer to watch."

I don't remember your exact words, but it was something like that and I
don't know if you realize it, but those words helped me bore through many
times of doubt.


Those words were from Theresa Santy, also known here on the boards as WriterFearNot (a very appropriate name for this part of the lesson)—and also the winner of the most recent Fiction Page Turner contest. So—Writer, fear not. Accept critique, learn and grow, and use your writing to glorify God.

No homework this week, but next week you'll definitely have some homework to do. However, I'd love it if you'd add to the discussion by answering one of these two questions:

1. If you're a regular critiquer, what do you do in addition to the things I've mentioned above? Any other tips for would-be critiquers?

2. If you're a regular receiver of critiques, what do you most appreciate from comments and critiques that you get? What do you NOT appreciate?

And along that line, I'd like to plug the Critique Circle again. It's being looked at regularly now by several editors, and there's no better way to get a more detailed critique than you could get in the "yellow box" comments. It's a great place to put old Challenge entries, too.
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GIVING AND RECEIVING CRITIQUE

Postby glorybee » Mon May 05, 2014 7:50 am

I'm wondering why this post isn't generating any response. Have I stepped on toes? Everyone just thinking about it? Enjoying the spring weather?

Critique is a vital part of FaithWriters' ministry, so this is pretty important to discuss.
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GIVING AND RECEIVING CRITIQUE

Postby Verna » Mon May 05, 2014 9:02 am

Jan, you've given some really good suggestions for ways to be specific in critiquing. For one of my early entries of poems, you commented that the meter was off. So--I went to work and learned meter. I studied great writers, including our own Kenn Allan, sat down with an English teacher friend, and worked. I haven't perfected it, but I can tell you that it's far better than the early ones. with your help, I have become far better at my craft. Thank you.

Knowing how thin skinned I am, myself, and how I know some get discouraged with even constructive criticism I have deliberated long and hard before giving any--and sometimes even ended up sending it in a private message.

One suggestion I would add is for anyone who critiques to have some knowledge of what you're criticizing before offering it.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--GIVING AND RECEIVING CRITIQUE

Postby tomoral » Mon May 05, 2014 10:26 am

I agree with Verna. I am still learning myself, but I have seen some bad advice given to some writers on reviews. Not a lot, mind you, but some.

If I enjoy an article, I tell the reader. If there are some obvious spelling and grammar, I will point them out, but I do not go beyond my scope of knowledge, and I don't tell them I would like to see a storyline written differently. It's their work, and if I don't like the way they go with it, it's not for me to say.
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Keep them daily from the sorrow
Of the beasts in life

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GIVING AND RECEIVING CRITIQUE

Postby WriterFearNot » Mon May 05, 2014 12:27 pm

Critique is an uneasy subject, no matter how you slice it. It's not easy to give and it's not easy to take. And there are many varying opinions on it. For example, I don't have a problem suggesting a change in storyline if I believe consideration of my suggestion is helpful. I don't consider myself a writing expert by any means, but I have read quite a lot of books covering a big variety. So I do feel comfortable knowing how a piece of writing hits me as a reader.

A while back, I wrote a piece called Fernando's Flame (http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=42588). My critique buddies had differing opinions. One said it didn't hit her right that my animated lampstand (Fernando, who was like Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast) was having a conversation with God. Another critique buddy said she got it. I went with my gut, and kept both Fernando and God in the piece, and in the end, Fernando went down in flames, not placing anywhere. It appeared that the first critique buddy's response to my piece was similar to the judges' response.

If my buddy had not expressed her opinion, I would have been scratching my head for weeks trying to figure out why this piece that I thought was pretty clever, didn't even make a showing. Though it wasn't fun to receive her initial critique, it helped me understand that not everyone's brain works like mine. (Shocker, right?). And I don't believe it's a matter of who's right and who's wrong. It's a matter of who your audience is. Fernando crashed and burned with the FaithWriter judges, but he might not do too bad at a Mad Hatter tea party book reading where the guests are all wearing "Where's Timothy Leary?" t-shirts.

On the other hand, I can see how varying opinions could drive a writer to confusion. Who do you listen to? One of my critique buddies used to say, "Here are my comments. Eat the meat and spit out the bones." I love how that phrase expresses so perfectly what the receiver of critique needs to do. The writer needs to use discernment. Pray and meditate on the comments. Ask questions: Do these comments have truth in them? What does my gut tell me? Do these comments apply to the purpose of my piece and the audience I'm trying to reach?

Writers are smart and capable. Our brains never stop working. We have incredible analytical powers. If we take the time to consider critique of our writing, we can decipher what is usable and what is not. And if we use critique in this way, we can't help but grow.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GIVING AND RECEIVING CRITIQUE

Postby tomoral » Mon May 05, 2014 1:41 pm

"Eat the meat and spit out the bones"

I like that. I like that a lot. It is exactly the way it should be. :thankssign

Blessings, Lynn
God Bless the beasts and the children
Give them shelter from the storms.
Children are our tomorrow
Keep them daily from the sorrow
Of the beasts in life

http://www.faithwriters.com/websites/my ... p?id=57394

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GIVING AND RECEIVING CRITIQUE

Postby glorybee » Mon May 05, 2014 2:20 pm

Thank you all for your comments and thoughts. I'd respond more fully, but a family emergency may take me away from my computer for a few days.

Please pray--it's a very serious situation.
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GIVING AND RECEIVING CRITIQUE

Postby WriterFearNot » Mon May 05, 2014 2:23 pm

Oh Jan, sorry to hear that. Praying right now.

Theresa

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GIVING AND RECEIVING CRITIQUE

Postby Shann » Mon May 05, 2014 3:05 pm

When I first joined I wanted to give back because this site was an answer to prayer. I wasn't qualified to judge yet (back when the judges were volunteers) so I decided to challenge myself to try and read and comment on every challenge. One thing I always did is say a quick prayer and listen to see if I should leave any constructive critiques. I still hurt people's feelings which was hard on me, but now instead of blaming myself for misreading God's answer, I wonder if God had plans that I couldn't imagine and so I still try to go with what I feel God is telling me. There are times when I clearly hear say only positive things.

I try to give examples. Instead of just saying do more showing and less telling, I'll take a line and show them one way that I might write it. Almost all the people who respond to me are extremely grateful for the critique. When I do hurt someone or they get defensive I apologize and tell them I only shared my opinion and it came from a place of love. Again almost always I get a note back and they thank me and usually will even begin to see what I mean.

It's important to remember it's just one person's opinion and you don't have to take the advice or agree with it. My self-imposed challenge ended up blessing me far more than anyone I left feedback for. People began to recognize me and I've made many friends especially people who don't come to the forums. I also have become a better writer and lastly, now I'm actually an editor and almost always have several projects on my plate.

It's amazing how I set out to maybe help others, but in the end received the greater blessing.

Jan, I'm so sorry about your family emergency.
Dear Jesus, Please wrap your arms around Jan and her family. You know all of her needs and we lift them up to you know. Bless her and her family with strength patience and wisdom. Thank you for loving us and providing us with what we need. Your blessings are all around us even during the darkest days and we are so thankful that you are interceding on our behalf. In your name we pray. Amen.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--GIVING AND RECEIVING CRITIQUE

Postby tomoral » Mon May 05, 2014 6:35 pm

My sincerest and deepest prayer are with you, Jan. May God hold you all in his Mightiness and give your strength to weather the storm.
God Bless the beasts and the children
Give them shelter from the storms.
Children are our tomorrow
Keep them daily from the sorrow
Of the beasts in life

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GIVING AND RECEIVING CRITIQUE

Postby Hoomi » Mon May 05, 2014 9:34 pm

When we were doing critiques in the college class my daughter and I took together, I made the practice of also including a summary of the story or excerpt that I was critiquing. My thoughts were, this would have value in letting the writer see what I perceived in the story, and if that lined up with what they intended while writing. I figured it would also help in giving some context to other comments in the critique. If I didn't understand what happened in the story, that might have a bearing on additional points I might have made, which might have been different if the scene had been clear to me.

Multiple critiques on the same passage from different people is very valuable, in that if several readers make the same comment, it's probably a valid concern. If only one person dislikes a certain aspect of the story, that could just be a matter of personal taste, but if it's causing several people to stumble, we should look at reworking it.

While a negative comment in a critique is often hardest to take, they have been the ones that have taught me the most. I do appreciate negative comments being delivered with tact and sensitivity, but I want to know if there is something awkward or just plain wrong in the writing. Reading praise for something is encouraging and uplifting, but it doesn't help us become better writers.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--GIVING AND RECEIVING CRITIQUE

Postby lish1936 » Mon May 05, 2014 9:44 pm

Jan, I know that God specializes in serious situations. We're praying for Divine intervention in this crisis, and that your faith will not fail as you face this trial.

Lillian
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I write even when I think I can't, because I must. :-)

I love to write. Nothing escapes the crush I have on the written word. I'm hooked on words!!

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GIVING AND RECEIVING CRITIQUE

Postby lish1936 » Mon May 05, 2014 11:10 pm

When it comes to giving and receiving critiques, I think it's easier to give than to receive. In receiving a critique, it would help to remember that we are Faithwriters. The common thread that unites us is our Christian faith, and we should respond to a critique with a Christ-like spirit rather than a defensive one, even when we feel the comments are wrong or misguided.

Although I agree we should demonstrate due diligence in making sure our comments are editorially correct, sometimes someone slips up since most of us are not professional editors. I think one of the messages from this lesson is that we don't have to be all-knowing. In fact, mistakes on both sides make for wonderful, mutual teaching moments for author and the one giving the critique, if underscored with the right attitude and motive.

The broader issue is how much of our thinking and attitudes are under God's control. Christian love thinks no evil. This is a biblical truth that I often forget when someone pulls my sensitive chain, but it is nonetheless true.

I sanction Theresa's reference to buddies...mine are priceless. :D

Lillian
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I write even when I think I can't, because I must. :-)

I love to write. Nothing escapes the crush I have on the written word. I'm hooked on words!!

"Let words bewitch you. Scrutinze them, mull them, savor them, and in combination, until you see their subtle differences and the ways they tint each other." Francis Flaherty

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GIVING AND RECEIVING CRITIQUE

Postby Vonnie » Wed May 07, 2014 6:12 pm

Jan, Everyone likes to be praised for their work, but I joined this site to learn how to become a better writer. I am usually disappointed that I don't get more constructive critiques. Sometimes when I don't win or place in the 'Writer's Challenge', I wonder why my mistakes were not pointed out by some of the more experienced writers. There are a couple, like yourself, who really give great critiques. I really appreciate those people.

On the other hand, I am still learning so much and don't feel qualified to give very good critiques. So, I do understand those who don't say anything negative about my writing. I appreciate any comments from those, like myself, who are learning how to critique. I do try to point out anything I am quite sure needs work. I always like to encourage in some way each time. I love this site and am learning so much, just want to learn more, faster.

Thanks for your wonderful help on this forum. LaVonne

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GIVING AND RECEIVING CRITIQUE

Postby Cinnamon Bear » Sat May 10, 2014 5:54 pm

tomoral wrote:I agree with Verna. I am still learning myself, but I have seen some bad advice given to some writers on reviews. Not a lot, mind you, but some.

If I enjoy an article, I tell the reader. If there are some obvious spelling and grammar, I will point them out, but I do not go beyond my scope of knowledge, and I don't tell them I would like to see a storyline written differently. It's their work, and if I don't like the way they go with it, it's not for me to say.


Lynn, I know what you mean. A couple of months ago I noticed what seemed to be a rash of comments on entries by a few individuals who were not reading the entries carefully, and who were critiquing above their skill level. I'm not seeing much of that this quarter. My feeling is that these types of comments are not beneficial. An author in Advanced or Masters can just shrug them off, but it may be more difficult for someone in Beginners and Intermediate.

I myself don't feel comfortable leaving constructive critiques on entries because they are viewed by everyone and they will stay there forever. I realize that innocuous comments of faint praise are not of great value. So I rarely comment.

My writing has improved largely through the help of my Challenge buddies and from extensive and detailed private critiques such as those now available in the Critique Circle.

Cinnamon Bear

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