Tuesday, June 3, 2014

How to Give Positive Criticism - Clues for other writers

One of my earliest experiences with writing criticism was of an editor flinging my pages at me and shouting "This is an insult!" Some contest crits are just as harsh. I'm coordinating for two contests at the moment and the spirit of that editor is alive and well.

Here's my radical statement: Every writer is good at something.

It is the job of the contest judge, mentor, crit partner, and writing buddy to find that good thing and articulate it. Not only will this make what needs to be fixed easier to hear and absorb, but it will provide real knowledge.

Many critics assume writers know what they are doing right, but that's not necessarily the case. Those editors in their heads may focus on what's totally messed up, awful, inept -- an insult. They don't have time to worry about the "good" stuff. And maybe that's true for the critics (who usually are writers, too). It makes me wonder what they tell themselves about their own writing.

When I teach a face-to-face class, the simple solution is to ask people to lead with "what worked." In fact, I usually write it in big letters on a whiteboard. When someone gets his or her turn and begins with a screed I hold my hand up, wait for silence, smile, and point to the board. People may stumble a bit with the positive words, but they find them.

Since I can't stand in front of contest judges or online students or most of you who are criticizing manuscripts, here are some things you might consider saying first:
  • The beginning really hooked me.
  • I love the main character.
  • The voice is fresh.
  • I wanted to read parts of it out loud.
  • I never got confused.
  • I didn't see the twist coming.
  • I could see the images.
  • I felt like I was in the setting.
  • Great premise.
This list can keep going, complimenting the author on having the courage to test the hero, pointing toward new perspectives, and clever lines of dialogue, etc. One sentence, of course, is rarely enough. Explanations -- I like the hero because he saved the cat -- can make it a real learning experience.

The follow-on words come much easier once the one positive sentence is spoken or written. I think we all want to tell people what they did right and a help them to keep doing it. Having a starting point releases the good words and pushes the harsh editor into the background.

Now, I am not averse to telling people what needs fixing. We all need that (in consumable doses, not laundry lists). But "catching them doing something right" (advice I heard in the context of parenting) reenforces the talents and capabilities of writers. It is just as important to their growth as eliminating problems.

As an added bonus, when you learn to provide positive criticism for others, you can provide it for yourself. And that will help with your own growth as a writer.


  1. A wonderfully positive post, Peter. I was always taught to give feedback as a 'crap sandwich' - lead with something you liked, follow up with an area that needs work/improvement, and end with another positive point. As you say, this gives the writer something rewarding to focus on while they digest the harder part! (Of course, it's usually easier to tell others than hear the news oneself!)

  2. Thanks, Teagan. I've heard the sandwich rule, too. It can keep things civilized, especially in face-to-face settings. Several people have told me it can be difficult to be honest or productive when they offer positive criticism. A starter kit seems to help. I also model the behavior. Though I try speak or write a comment last, I find people pick up on that after a few cycles.