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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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  • Thea Constantine

    I loved this piece!

    I work with PDX Writers and we use the AWA ( Amherst Writers and artists) method. It's all positive feedback and it works astonishingly well. I've found that what doesn't work so often falls away when you focus on what does work. People often assume we generally work with new writers but actually we seem to draw quite a lot of published authors who are tired of the same old, same old. Initially, I wondered the same sort of thing thing Ms Cassedy did about this kind of workshop. Wasn't it kind of airy fairy to only focus on the good. Unrealistic?

    I think we all need good editors when we're putting together work to be published, but for new work--I'm sold on working with the positive. I think so many projects fail because our inner editor alone can be so cruel. Either that or all we lend up doing is finding out what the instructor or the group eats and feed it to them regardless of what we may really resonate with. Thanks again

  • Years ago, one of the more experienced writers in my local SCBWI chapter suggested this as Rules for Critique Groups: Use the Sandwich Method. Translation: when it's your turn, say something nice about someone's writing, insert something constructive, then close with another positive comment. This leaves the writer thinking, hey, I guess it wasn't all a load of nonsense, I now see where I can improve the story.

    But now, as I move into a more serious position as a writer seeking an agent, I hired a free-lance editor to "give it to me straight". With the objective that this editor was hired to do just that, her comments were 90% valid criticism/very little praise. I hadn't hired her to gloss over any aspects of the story. She loved it, but...I wanted to know what was working, what needed more work, what needed tossing entirely and in fact, she killed one character! I cut 6,000 words! In the end, she edited that manuscript twice and I was grateful for her expertise. Critiquing for the sake of offering your opinion is completely different than critiquing as an editor.

    Bottom line, I think it depends upon where the writer is in her career, whether she has any published work and has been down the meandering publishing path a bit, or if she is just cutting her teeth. Still, it pays to be gentle and kind. None of likes to hear how bad our work is. A real honest viewpoint laced with a heap of compassion goes a long way.

  • You may have a real point there. Shielding the flame as it sparks requires a whole different approach. And yet. . .

    I think sometimes what matters most is two-fold: how stable and knowledgable the listener is, and how stable knowledgable and helpful the critiquer. If listener is vulnerable, isolated from fellow writers and thus unable to call a buddy ("I just got this note and it seems so wrong, but," "No, you're right, it's totally wrong. Relax.") Or if they are off-balance mentally or emotionally, or very, very new, even the best of critiques can be destructive. Ditto if the critiquer is damaged and acting out on that damage, or just wrong, or stupid.. . Damaged: I have on my wall two lovely paintings by a girl I met selling them for $30 bucks each at the beach. They were her senior thesis paintings and her faculty critiquer said of them only, "When are you going to make a real painting." Despite my best efforts to explain damaged teachers, she still insisted on selling them. 

    For instance, Dumb: I am also thinking of a very successful novelist who taught a class in which she critiqued one student, "You can't have a first person narrator who is not the protagonist in your novel." (They call me Ishmael? Nick Carroway?) 

    The critiquer must have insight in order to be effective, which means knowledge of humanity and of craft. 

    Hey, let's start a workshop on how to withstand, understand and decide what to include of criticism. 

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Sara -- You make excellent points.  Thanks on behalf of all of us in the writing community for reaching out to the woman in the baseball cap!  Much depends, I think, on where we are in the process.  Helping to kindle a new idea may require a critical approach different from evaluating a completed manuscript.  And what Rumer Godden could hear from her novelist sister may be different from what a  student could take around the table in a writing class.  All very interesting!

  • Hi, Ellen,

    This idea sounds lovely and has some real validity, but I think it will depend highly on the amount and kind of people's experiences with being critiqued. I know when I was a baby writer, if you said my work was "disturbing," I might withdraw from class, even if I had meant that section to be disturbing.

     I have also watched--I remember one woman who was wearing a baseball hat in class. Everyone jumped on one aspect of her work, as her face grew redder and her eyes got that tell-tale glitter and the brim of her cap lowered centimeter by centimeter so it would cover more of her face. I jumped in and defied teacher to stop that particular pile-on, and eventually, the student recovered, but not before she dropped that class. 

    On the other hand, in my critique group, we push one another hard, and the work really shows it. We plow right in with genuine critique--never nasty, cutting, or cruel, but deep and honest and sometimes we do have to rip things apart and start all over. 

    I don't know how you can give that kind of feedback if you're only focusing on strengths and how to build on them--"here are the holes, this part was not believable, the baby doesn't seem real, do you know many babies? Here's where your plot would trip me up as a reader and how can you find a way to give this important info without this little dump of exposition--maybe you could layer it in here if this part was a scene, not narrative summary--and why don't you explore and make use of or at least imitate real poetry from this specific part of the world if you're basing your fantasy on that? I don't like these parts where you tell the story all at the same time. Oh, you adore them? Okay, then, I think you have to at least introduce them well before page 70. As a reader, I felt jarred to find them there. (This last being a note I just got from a group member. Took me two weeks of chewing before I figured out that a) he was right, b) I knew right where to move them and c) when i put some of those experimental sections on page 5 and page 10 respectively, it not only sets my reader up better, but better lays out the themes of the book. 

    I have read in one of Rumer Godden's autobiographies that she read her whole first manuscript to her sister, (novelist Jon Godden) out in a rowboat on a lake in Kashmir, only to have her sister say, "It won't do, Rumer. It won't do at all. It's sentimental." And back Rumer went to the drawing board. I happen to love the novel that came out of it. Also experimental. . .

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Carol -- I've been in the "harsh is good" camp, too, but I'm intrigued by the idea that describing to the writer what the work seems to be about could be more valuable than picking apart what's wrong with it.  Worth a try, anyway.  And remember, all of these instructors made clear that the idea is not simply to be "nice." 

  • Carol Hedges

    I think it depends upon the writer in question. If they are the sort who can ''take'' hard and constructive criticism, acknowledging the good but coming down on the bad, then I think it is valid. Actually, I think it is valid full stop. If you want to be a writer, you have to develop a hard carapace because OMG you are going to get some hard hard words said as soon as you put your work out there. Maybe by being too praisey, one might be giving the student an elevated idea of their own prowess ... I get a tad fed up of seeing writers on social media whinging on because someone has DARED to criticize their writing. But hey, maybe this is just me!

  • Cynthia Close

    The Burlington Writers Workshop, an exciting and growing group of dedicated writers here, where I live in Burlington Vermont, puts the philosophy of serious minded encouragement to use at every meeting. I joined last spring and have attended many enlightening critiques. It manages to be welcoming, inclusive yet rigorous. My writing as well as my reading has improved immensely as a result.

  • Catherine Ann Jones

    Good point. All to often, teachers of writing forget to nurture what is positive in the student's writing.

    As a writing teacher for over 30 years now, first in graduate school, now workshops all over the world, it is good to be reminded of this. Thank you, Ellen.

    Catherine Ann Jones www.wayofstory.com

  • Ellen, this is wonderful. I am sharing your post with my critique group. If we can reach a consensus on fostering a more positive approach to critiquing, I'll stay. If not, it may be time to form a new group. This idea of “Identifying what resonates for us and encouraging the writer to do more of it gives the writer the maximum information to improve.” sets off all sorts of happy bells in me. Thank you for this post!

  • Julie Maloney

    I agree completely with the "What's working?" approach. As founder/director of WOMEN READING ALOUD, I use the Amherst Writers and Artists Method in all my workshops. It works! Listeners respond so well to these comments because they are used to hearing the opposite - "What's not working!" Writers take more chances, explore, discover what they might never have dared touch before…an entirely new language, a voice, a willingness to go deep. Last night, I led an ongoing writing workshop at a major cancer center in NJ. I've been leading these writing workshops for years. I use the same method as I always do - Amherst. What moved to the page was so exciting - remember these are cancer patients! - that everyone left glowing! Freedom to explore and to hear what was WORKING on the page gave each of the writers/patients a feeling of great achievement. It works for all genres/all levels. I've found that good writing happens in a safe environment; not when we're being bashed. I have writers who write in my workshops for years. Their growth astounds me. Wonderful discussion, Ellen. Thank you! (www.womenreadinglaoud.org)

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Lori -- I agree.  Understanding and love produce better writers than does pointing out what's wrong with a piece of work.

  • Lori Finnila

    I think we promote better understanding and love, therefore better writers.

  • Ellen Cassedy

    RYCJ -- Thanks for your thoughts about "constructive praise."  For me, it's a whole new way of thinking about critiquing.

  • RYCJ Revising

    A Post to Laud. My favorite quotes that sums up critiquing constructively;

    --- "You want the writer to go home thinking, ‘How can I do more of that?’”  

    --- “The comments connect the writer to the beating heart of the book.”

    --- “Is it our job to stamp out bad writing...” ---“Let go of yourself as a gatekeeper of good writing. Instead, empower good writing.”

    True, "constructive praise" isn't about being “nice.”  I, too, think it is unkind to only be kind. Again, it's about empowering good writing so that we get to read more of it.

    Wonderful post. Thanks for sharing it.

  • "Help the writer recognize where the power lies."  I really like that.  I like to help a poet find the heart of the poem and, to borrow a phrase, Lean in.  Then build outwards from that center.