How to Critique Writers Without Criticizing Them

The middle of the third semester of my MFA program was quickly approaching and I had just received my mentor’s feedback on the latest pages of my work-in-progress. The sight of the envelope, like every envelope I’d received from her before, brought with it a mixture of excitement, expectation, and anxiety.

What if what I had written was complete garbage? What if I would need to scrap the whole thing and start over? What if my writing sucked?

Since then, I’ve learned that first drafts often are complete garbage, I have scrapped the whole thing and started over (more times than I can count), and, even then, my writing doesn’t suck. What’s more, the criticism I received from my mentor was just what I needed to move my novel forward, even if initially what she wrote in her letters drove me to fits of panic.

As an editor now myself, I’m thankful for the experiences I gained during my MFA program. In addition to honing my craft, I learned how to offer (and receive) constructive criticism. And just as I realized after my fits of panic that my mentor was leading me true, I now know the value of providing feedback that benefits the writer.

Not all editors know to take this approach, however. In an excerpt from her book How to Work With a Writer, Allegra Huston discusses a common mistake new editors make: they think they have to fix everything. While noting tonal shifts, redundancies, issues with pacing, inconsistent characters, and plot holes are all a part of critiquing a story (or any form of writing, really), the role of an editor is not to come up with a solution for every problem. What’s more, editors should avoid honing in on only one specific solution. “Landing on a solution and sticking to it distracts both you and the writer from identifying what the problem [typically a craft element] is,” Huston states.

What works better is guiding the writer towards his or her own solutions. During my MFA program, my peers and I read each other’s works and wrote detailed responses. We learned, first and foremost, how to craft our responses so that our feedback would be helpful. Because what we received was never a finished work, the goal of our peer responses was not to offer an opinion about how much we liked (or disliked) a given work. And the goal most certainly was not to tear a piece of writing to bits.

Instead, our responses focused on describing the pages before us and guiding the writer to possible solutions.

Huston’s own methods take a similar approach. She advises editors to provide praise first. Telling a writer what is working well in his or her work will not only establish common ground but will also give the writer something to use as a comparison. “When you tell a writer what you really loved,” she explains, “they will often see ways to deepen those responses, or play with them, or find other places in the book that chime with the section you mentioned. The writer will see ways to improve the book that you hadn’t noticed, and that they themselves might not have noticed without your enthusiasm.”

As I learned myself, praise is not sugar coating. If something in a story isn’t working, you won’t help a writer by overlooking it completely. But focusing only on the negative will do nothing to help the writer. Huston agrees. “Too often people think being a critic means being critical,” she notes. “That’s only part of it, and not even a necessary part. A good critic assesses what’s strong ahead of what’s weak.”

How then does an editor help the writer with the areas that aren’t working? For our responses, my peers and I learned to speculate on the “what ifs.” Just as my mentor knew that my work-in-progress was just that, a work-in-progress, my peers and I knew that what we were reading would change drastically over the next few weeks and months. That allowed us to imagine what could change and ask questions that would lead the writer to imagine what could change as well.

This also is Huston’s second step in proper editing. The right questions inspire and guide. They don’t solve, and they aren’t necessarily meant to be answered. “Questions give the writer ideas,” she states. They don’t give the writer solutions. “If you have a specific solution,” Huston emphasizes, “remember that it might not be the best one.”

As I think back on how my mentors and peers guided me to think about my novel differently, I remember times when I cringed at what they criticized, even months later. But I know that my novel (still a work-in-progress) wouldn’t be at the stage it is today without that feedback. Constructive criticism is an essential part of writing any work, whether that be a novel, a dissertation, a journal article, or a business proposal. As I work with customers who come to me for writing assistance, I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of criticism. And that’s why I critique the way I learned and benefited from myself.

Katie Signature001

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