How to Constructively Critique "Good" Writing
You know who I’m talking about. The talented ones. Those who enter the writing workshop with their 20 page masterpiece and their fancy vocabulary while you sit with your 8 pages, struggling to think of a new way to say "said."
You agonized the night before over their piece because it intimidates you. Their command of the narrative is so amazing that you got lost in reading and forgot that you were even supposed to give critique. The dialogue was so realistic you swear you could hear the voices and their sentences were so beautiful that you're left feeling completely inadequate in comparison.
Trust me, I’ve been there, I know how it feels to envy the writing abilities of my peers, but the rules of workshop state that you must give critique. So, feeling entirely unworthy of serving up any sort of judgment, how do you manage to put any sort of criticism (constructive or otherwise) on their work? It took me two years to figure this out, but I finally did it, and what I know now I will pass along to you by offering a few tips that you can work into your future critiques.
Are you Chicken?
I know it can be tempting to chicken out and just write “this is great!!” all over their piece, but resist the easy way out! Blind praise doesn’t help anyone, not even a hardcore narcissist (they could use the humbling experience anyway). There will always be writers who you think are better than you, but it’s important to remember that no one is perfect. Even popular, published authors aren’t perfect.
When you’re faced with having to critique a good writer it is very easy to feel like you have nothing of merit to contribute, but that is not true. Every writer brings to the table a whole different perspective on life and, therefore, on writing. Whether it is nonfiction, fiction, poetry, or an instruction manual, everyone interprets things differently. And if you’re willing to tell the writer how you reacted to their piece, it just might be what they needed to hear. For example, what if the writer was telling a story that you found to be serious, but during workshop the writer reveals that they had intended the piece to be humorous. That doesn’t mean that you misread the piece, it might mean the opposite actually; that they didn’t convey the meaning properly. Just because someone can write with flowery prose doesn’t mean that the point they are trying to make is actually reaching the audience.
Try this: If you can’t find any “problem areas” tell the author how you interpreted a particular scene, this may help them realize that they either did a good job conveying the emotion they wanted, or that they have to rewrite in order to get their desired reaction.
You Say/They Say
Something to keep in mind while you critique “good” writing is that just because you think their writing is great doesn’t mean that they think they are a rock star. Authors are often their own worst critic. They could be well on their way to creating the next Grapes of Wrath and never even see that it has that kind of potential. While you’re telling them that they write poetry that could rival John Keats they are scolding themselves on writing like a kindergartner. Yes, a writer’s self loathing can be that extreme. It’s dramatic, but we’re writers, we live for drama.
That being said, I should also point out that there comes a time when giving critique that you must beware the ego. You will, at some point, come across a writer who thinks that he/she is already published. They will act as though they don’t need the class or workshop and they will probably try and make anyone who gives them even the smallest negative comment feel like garbage. Why are they there then? I don’t know, but they drive me crazy. The best way to deal with these people is to give them your honest critique, smile when they try and bring you down, and keep in mind that they haven’t even met the big bad world of publishing yet.
I was told once (by my writer husband) that all writers are a little conceited. And I think that you have to be in order to make it in the world of writing, but it’s also important to practice humility as well. While writers can be their own biggest critics it is important that they recognize that what they’re doing is worth while, otherwise, why bother putting words to paper at all? It’s a tricky balancing act, but so worth it in the end.
Why is this important information to know for giving critique to good writing? Because it reminds you that they are human and that whatever you say to them (good or bad) is nothing compared to what they already tell themselves. In the case of ego maniac writers, try to remember that though they can brush off a comment you make initially, it just might nag at them in the back of their mind later when they get home.
Try this: Rather than providing a good writer with blind praise try asking questions that might get them thinking. If you like the plot they have established, but find yourself curious about what direction the story might have gone in had the main character gone to a library instead of a bar don't hesitate to write that question down for the writer to read later. You may not get an answer from them, but this might help them think about their story from a completely different angle.
Why should you bother offering critique to a “good” writer? You might think that they don’t need it if they write well and besides, someone else will probably tell them something better (you know, the other “good” writer in the class). Cut that out! That thought process does your own writing a disservice. Everyone wins during a workshop filled with thoughtful critique, even you. If you don’t want to critique a good writer because you don’t think they need it, then critique them for the rest of the class and, at the very least, do it for yourself. Not only will the writer gain insight into improving their work, but other members of the workshop also benefit form hearing what you have to say, no matter how small. Giving good writing a thorough critique helps you to develop your own skills as a writer and reminds everyone that nothing is perfect.
Try this: Perhaps you really enjoyed their whole story, but there was one scene in particular that you really liked. Ask the writer to expand more on that section because you think it was really funny, touching, or just plain interesting. Not only is this a great compliment for them to receive (so much better than just “this is so awesome!”) but it also points out the potential that the story has for expansion.
Believe in You
I can’t even count how many times I thought “that’s what I was thinking” during workshop discussion. I was too nervous and shy to voice my opinion because I thought I might have been mistaken in my thought process or that I’d sound stupid. Looking back, I wonder how many of my opinions could have really helped someone if I had just said it out loud or wrote it down on their piece. When it comes to giving critique, even to “good” writing, the most important advice that I can give is to believe in you. I know that sounds cliché, but clichés are popular for a reason (they are often right!).
You know more about good writing than you give yourself credit for (perhaps you’re just being your own worst critic, yes?). Like I said above, you bring a completely different opinion to the workshop experience than anyone else in the room. You have different life experiences that many can gain perspective on just from hearing you voice your thoughts. For example, say you’re a car guy with an extensive knowledge of what makes your Mustang purr, but this writer glossed over the section where their main character is fixing their car. You could drop them a couple lines that they could work into the piece, to help give that scene credibility.
While I can’t offer a specific formula for critiquing “good” writing the way that I can for “bad” writing, I hope that these points have helped you see that you have something to offer when it comes to sharing your opinion. The next time you’re faced with having to critique a writer that you feel is far above you remember that no one is perfect, blind praise isn’t enough, and don’t sell yourself short. You have a completely unique perspective on life and on what makes “good” writing...well, good. Share your thoughts, even if it’s just writing it silently on their paper. Speaking out can come later.