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  • [TIPS OF THE TRADE] Focus on the What: Critiquing with Compassion and Rigor
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[TIPS OF THE TRADE] Focus on the What: Critiquing with Compassion and Rigor
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
March 2014
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
March 2014

Fellow writers often ask me to comment on their work in progress, and I’m always looking for ideas about how to do it better.   

So at the huge AWP conference in Seattle a few weeks ago (13,000 participants, 700 events), I made a point of attending a workshop called “Poetics of Generosity: The Fine Art of Constructive Praise,” which promised to help me encourage my fellow writers to do their very best work. 

I’m glad I went.  The five panelists – all writing instructors at Grub Street, the New England-based creative writing center – presented an approach to critiquing that was new to me and very exciting.

Listen to how these compassionate writing instructors describe what they do:

“Focus on the what,” said Ron MacLean.  “What shines?  Your aim is to tell the writer, ‘Here is what is already good.  Here’s what I loved – even if I can’t say why.’  You want the writer to go home thinking, ‘How can I do more of that?’”  

Lisa Borders told us the “what” principle forms the foundation of her novel-in-progress workshops.  Instead of handing hand out chunks of their work in advance for line-by-line critiquing, participants bring 10 or 15 pages to class and read them aloud while the others follow along.  Discussion focuses on the question: “What is this novel about?”  Often the writer is utterly surprised by how fellow classmates perceive the work.  And that’s the point.  “The comments connect the writer to the beating heart of the book,” Lisa said. 

As a teacher, Lisa encourages generous impulses.  “It’s more work for the instructor not to let people go for the jugular,” she said.  Nonetheless, she insists on keeping the keeps the emphasis on what is working, not on what isn’t. 

“My focus is on intention, not destination,” said Ron.  “The point is engagement rather than passing judgment.  Imagine yourself into the writer’s vision.  Rather than fixing problems, try to mine and discover possibilities.  Help the writer recognize where the power lies.” 

Christopher Castellani agreed.  Rather than trying to ascertain whether a piece is good or bad, and why, he aims to state what he sees happening in a story.  “Description, not evaluation, makes all the difference,” he said. 

As writers, we’ve all experienced others kind of feedback – the crushing criticism that makes us want to put a piece of writing in a drawer rather than try to make it better, or the empty praise that offers support but not much else.  Sitting in this workshop, I thought about how I’ve toiled away for too long on projects that never came together.  Could I have benefited from a class or writers’ group that offered the kind of descriptive approach these teachers recommend?

I began to feel a little uncomfortable, though, as the session went on.  Doesn’t becoming a serious writer involve severity, strictness, even a kind of violence?  (Faulkner’s famous “kill your darlings” came to mind.)

Isn’t it the job of writing teachers, and others, to let the writer know when a work falls short of being publishable – and to point out exactly how?

Not so fast, said Ron.   The “editorial board model,” he said, may not actually help the writer to improve.   “Is it our job to stamp out bad writing,” he asked, “or to encourage what’s great, what’s fresh?” He urged, “Let go of yourself as a gatekeeper of good writing.  Instead, empower good writing.”

Ron described a writing workshop he once attended in which the first five minutes were called “happy time.”  For those five minutes, the participants talked about what they liked about a piece.  Then the “real” work began, as they got down to what they didn’t like, what wasn’t right.

That’s all wrong, Ron said.  In his view, “happy time” is the real work.   “Identifying what resonates for us and encouraging the writer to do more of it gives the writer the maximum information to improve.”

The point of constructive praise, these teachers said, is not to be “nice.”  Just the opposite, Ron said.  "Constructive praise is the most rigorous way of all.”

“I think it’s cruel to be only kind,” Lisa agreed. “Just being nice is not kind.” 

All the panelists acknowledged that, for teachers and others offering feedback, the “what”-based, praise-based approach can be more difficult, and more time-consuming, than focusing on the flaws. 

“Most writing teachers don’t have a critical framework for praise,” Christopher said, “and we have resisted developing one.”

What do we gain when we focus our attention not on judgment but on engagement and understanding? 

As I walked out of this provocative session, that question was ringing in my ears.  

Join the conversation.  Tell us your approach to critiquing.

* * *

Ellen Cassedy’s book is We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press, 2012), which won the 2013 Grub Street National Book Prize for non-fiction, the 2013 Towson Prize for Literature awarded annually to a resident of Maryland, and the 2012 Silver Medal in History awarded by ForeWord Reviews. Her first post for SheWrites was “Who Cares about Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will ...” Her [TIPS OF THE TRADE] series appears monthly. See all of Ellen's Tips for Writers.

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  • Ellen Cassedy

    Rita Gabis, your comment about critiquing is so important.  "Honesty and generosity go hand in hand."

  • Rita Gabis

    I'm lucky this semester.  My wonderful writing students actually push for supportive yet open commentary.  I've found with colleagues and with students that the initial tone I or we set is all important.  With colleagues, I never share work unless there is mutual trust.  In the classroom, I tell my students that commenting on work is often as hard as writing, and that they must treat all work as if it were their own--close, careful readings, comments that will help the writer aspire not retire!  In grad school I saw writers decimated by the "tear down" method…for me honesty and generosity go hand in hand.  Thanks Ellen!

  • ellen, I love the idea of asking fellow group members what they think the book is about. I think I will try that if I can make my group tomorrow night. 

    I wonder, does anybody else have great ideas like that, for what techniques have worked best from people who have critiqued their work? 

    or what didn't? 

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Great comments, Meg and Pam.  So true that we learn so much by hearing other writers' work critiqued...and by the act of critiquing others' work ourselves.  And reminding ourselves that every critic is just that -- one person -- is vital!

  • I am enjoying this conversation so much! I have just one more thing to add, and it has to do with those of us who are asked to critique a writer's work. Maybe I should first start with an example from my own experience. The critique group I belong to is facilitated by a wonderful, award-winning, awe-worthy writer. For the first few months, I took everything she said as a precious gem. I considered myself lucky to be a person worthy of her trained writer's eye. After a few months, I realized that some of what she said was good, no great, advice and an equal amount was her opinion. I had forgotten (though she reminded us over and over) that hers was one opinion. She, like most readers, had a bias toward what she enjoyed reading. So for those of us who are granted the privilege of critiquing another writer's work, we should remind them that our critique, even one based on experience and training, is just one person's view. Ultimately the writer will have to hone her craft to the point that she trusts her own gut.

  • Meg E Dobson

    I'm enjoying the Interesting conversations. Perhaps the strength of a good critique is the ability of reader/crit is to judge what an author needs. Surely most of us are writers rather than teachers. In a busy world, my writing time is valuable. Yet, I learn as much by listening to other author's work being critiqued and by critting same. That time is equally valuable.

    My best critique experience was filled with niceties and what worked. My time in front of this top writer was limited and I could get 'what works' at home. I'd paid for this workshop and I needed more.when it wasy turn, I sat on the floor using the coffee table as a desk top. With my crit group physically over me and in control they finally let it rip. It was hard and honest. It was invaluable and I loved everyone of them because they cared enough to help me dissect my manuscript. You can't pay for tough love like that.

    For some writers and teachers with time for the 'what' approach, it may work wonderfully well and for new Dewey eyed writers, but I think you reach a point where you cling on like a leach for every writer's tool and how opportunity to up the skill level.

    Great post. Great comments, Ellen

  • Ellen Cassedy

    You ask, "You mention projects that never came to fruition."   I wonder whether those projects would have benefited from more challenging input (not less).  Especially if that input had been directed at "the what." What would have happened had my writers' group members described what they thought the work was about?  Would I have found my way to the heart of the project, connected with what was best about the work?   

    At the very least, I think we as critiquers might benefit from adding to our toolbox. 

  • Pam, I love your comment. Maybe teaching is different from a critique group. If I were to teach a class at our local writing support facility, and I had, say fourteen students in that class, I guarantee you that some of those students would be on shaky ground psychologically. (Have you ever been among a group of 14 rock-solid sane people outside of possibly an upper level Buddhist retreat?) It is would, however, be my job, as teacher, to teach ALL my students, not just the ones who (to quote one of my fellow critique group members) "have the emotional balance to listen carefully and the confidence to make hard and necessary changes."

    For me, then, I would have to spend a lot of time talking about the wonderful plotting this one is doing, while I taught general sections about writing dialogue in the hope that their dialogue would stop sounding like it was carved slowly out of stone. 

    In my critique group, however, I could praise the plotting, and give note after note after suggestion about the dialogue, until, by God, my group member finally gained expertise in dialogue as well. Even here, though we would all be far more gentle with very first draft material, as someone feels their way into a story. 

    Last week, we had a new group member get her first chapter critiqued. This woman has been working with online groups and alone. She's sane, savvy, and a gifted writer--gifted in dialogue, in setting, choice of scene to illustrate plot, depth of characters, and yet, there were holes in her world building, there was a lack of her main character living in the body, more or less, and her choice of scenes could be enhanced, made more intense. We, as a group, went through and pointed out those places. This meant the critique was focused almost completely on negatives. With a new member. One member checked with her--how are you doing? We can talk about all the wonderful things about this work.

    She said, heck no, I know what's working. She was glowing. She said, "I can't wait to get home and work on my changes." She was more than ready to participate in a critique. 

    This week, I'll be bringing in something that I am wrestling with, a combination of first and polished draft material. I cannot wait to hear what my group suggests--even if it's "throw the whole idea out." Which I would not perceive as negative. And I'm hauling back an unsuccessful project to reattack it. This time, by Gosh, I'm going to make it work. 

    How about you, Ellen? Have you ever felt savaged by a critique group or teacher? Have you ever watched the light go out in a student or critique group member and worry that you had helped snuff it? You mention projects that never came to fruition, and a fear that perhaps it was negativity that slowed you down. Have you ever revisited one of those projects and subsequently seen it more clearly? Were the concerns structural or inherent to the material? I'm not challenging you on these questions, I am honestly wondering, because your post seems to see value in both ways of working, a middle road approach. 

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Pam's comment is very insightful! She asks, "Are you ready to participate in a critique?"  It's so important to think through what you need at each stage of writing.  That said, writing teachers, fellow writers, and friends can do much to hone their critiquing skills and make them as helpful as they can be. 

  • I belong to a critique group and I find that their advice is usually "spot on" even if I disagree in the moment. I take the comments home with me, sleep on them, and then tinker with my piece by incorporating the suggestions I feel comfortable with. I typically end up with a stronger piece after all is said and rewritten. Another question for writers is, "Are you ready to participate in a critique?" If what you want is encouragement without the constructive criticism because this is what you need to keep you writing (I have been there myself!), it might be best to phone a friend.

  • Toi Thomas

    Judy, I like your point here. Most of the time skill and technique are easy to determine, but style is a gray area. Many times what one says is bad another says is good. It's difficult to be completely closed minded to different interpretations, but I think it's important to have some standards to aim for or to guide you. 

  • Judy c Kohnen

    Toi's comment about bad writing reminds me... In one of our workshops we had a writer who wrote a garbled stream of consciousness. I was ready to leave the group because she never took suggestions to stick to a point or create a story. I suffered when she read her work aloud. But you know what? She was one of the writers that is now published,  newspaper column. Our group encouraged her to keep going, her belief in her skill made her persistent. My take away : even bad writers have an audience for their works. You just never know where writing will take you!

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Thank you, Clene, for telling us about a time when a teacher shredded your work.  Yes, you came back to class with a smile and a better essay -- but now you're wondering whether that really the best way to learn.  Good question!

  • Toi Thomas

    Thanks Ellen.

  • Ellen Cassedy

    "Focus on the information that will help me grow as a writer."  Great advice from Toi about how to receive feedback.

  • Toi Thomas

    I like the idea of being positive in critiques, but not to the point where the author is left with the delusion that bad writing isn’t that bad. Sometimes, I think, being honest is the best thing. However, I agree that there are too many out there who don’t know how to be honest without also being cruel. I’ve experienced both, but since my mindset is to improve as a writer, I try not to let the cruelty get to me and simply focus on the information that will help me grow as a writer. Even cruelty comes with some truth concerning the quality of skill. I may not like it, but I can benefit from it.

    In an idea world, everyone with a passion for writing would be able to take the classes they need at any time or period on their lives and then produce a masterpiece that would please the masses, but that’s not the reality most of us live in. If this positive approach to criticism really works, I’m all for it, but I don’t see how it helps to truly correct the areas that are simply wrong or need major improvements.

    For someone like me, who writes because it is a passion within me and who can create wonderful story ideas, I need the full spectrum of criticism because I know where my skills are lacking.

  • Krystol Diggs

    I've been writing since I was 15 years old and I love it. I managed to publish 8 novels and wrote 4 screenplays. I enjoyed it so much that I got a Master's Degree in Creative Writing. But, I think that all writers may need to take a writing class just to keep their skills up. Luckily, I took all of my writing classes while I was getting my degree. I also would love to see if they have writing seminars online. ( I have to research that). It's good that you had a good time Ellen Cassedy. 

  • Ellen Cassedy

    I like Judy's idea of bringing work to a workshop and asking fellow writers to "help me lift out the best elements of the story."  Asking for what is most helpful to you is a great idea to keep in mind.

  • Judy c Kohnen

    Beginning writers need nice words, encouragement and discussions about inner critics. My technique is to share connections, images generated from the writing. Some people need specific guidelines, mine is to find three good positive notes of style or connections for every one suggestion for improvement. This makes everyone feel safe, they come back, and they are open to learning. 

    Once I got used to the process, and had gone to workshops I appreciated more direct feedback about point of view shifts, lack of emotional development in my characters, need for more dialogue, the show don't tell issues. I used to only bring in polished work that I was proud of, but after five years of weekly critique workshops and learning more about the craft of writing I have a more accepting ear for suggestions. Now I often bring a rambling draft of something I really like (historical fiction) and ask people to help me lift out the best elements of the story and shift through the  historical information. The lack of balance creates a stuck feeling, writer block and their detailed workshop comments (and arguments amongst themselves) re-kindle my writing passion.  However my rambling drafts take quite a beating and this approach would never have worked for me in the beginning because the writer needs a brave heart to expose their worse writings! Always, connections to writing is the best approach because it uncovers the universal truth that most writers don't anticipate or recognize in their own story!

    Every meeting I remind everyone that they are the writers and they pick and chose ideas that work, or not. 

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Good points, Stacy and Pamela.  At different stages writers need different things. And of course every writer is different. But I think the "Poetics of Generosity" approach is worth a good, long look by all of us.  Neelima makes a good point when she advises us to direct some of that generosity at ourselves as we write. 

  • Stacy Clark

    Hi Ellen. Love this post and whole-heartedly support the contagion of empowering critiques! I recently completed an MFA and got to work with some brilliant and talented writers who critiqued my work weekly for about two years. I noticed the comments that made me see what I couldn't see and think what I hadn't thought before were the most useful. Usually these were given in the context of empowering the work and the writer. And, that worked for me. One advisor was very critical and it was often debilitating. While it was useful to see what wasn't working, when this advisor did mention a line (usually just a line :)) that worked, it elevated my writing, as I could see why and move forward in that direction. That said, my critical advisor knocked me out of any safety zone and I learned to delve deeply and stand for my own thinking and writing in a new way. I was grateful for both, but which did I like? Well... In general, I think critiquing and giving opinions are two very different things and should not be collapsed.  Good critiquing requires a certain level of expertise, and in this case, being straight always works. If it's done in an empowering way, it works even better for this writer. 

  • Pamela Olson

    When I was first writing -- just blog posts from my travels -- I got a tremendous amount of positive feedback from the few hundred people following my writings. This empowered me to believe I could write a book. (Well, that along with a compulsion to write a book about as powerful as I imagine a heroin addiction to be -- so in that sense I felt I didn't really have much choice.) Once I started writing the book, both my agent and my first early readers gave me a lot of very tough love. And I'm so glad they did.

    But I'm not sure I would ever have gotten to that point if not for all the kind words that came before.

  • Neelima Vinod

    Loved this post Ellen. It takes a lot of courage to put your work out there, especially when it is a WIP. Sometimes I think that the writer herself is her worst critique and if you show it to anyone besides yourself, you are bound to meet with more compassion...."“Let go of yourself as a gatekeeper of good writing." is something for a writer to live by. Gives a lot of room for improvement.

  • Barbara Shoff

    Maybe I'm just thick headed. Of course, I love to hear praise and what people like about my work. I also want someone who will tell me when something isn't working. I also want them to tell me why and suggest different options to make it work. But, unless I hear the same problem from more than one source I probably won't make changes. I hate having to go back and poll people who have read my work and say, "Did the way I approached such and such bother you?" I don't think of anything as negative, as long as it's honest. I work under the belief my friends want my work to be better than good. 

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Thea writes: "I've found that what doesn't work so often falls away when you focus on what does work."  Words worth pondering!