Rules for Reviewers, Part 1: Critique the Writing

I belong to a couple writer’s groups, informal gatherings of novice authors who share their work and critique the work of others. These groups have been where I’ve learned what I do well (dialog, and creating narrative tension) and where I need to sharpen my game (exposition, and resolving narrative tension). As a reader, I’ve developed a reputation as a tough but fair critic, someone who provides thoughtful analyses that are constructive, rather than destructive. It’s not easy being critical in a supportive way, and to help me succeed more often in reaching these goals I’ve developed some rules for working in a writer’s group. Over the course of several posts, I’ll discuss each of the articles in my code of conduct.

Critique the writing, not the writer

Some of the material I’ve read in these groups has been quite good. On more than one occasion, I’ve concluded my comments with these words: Get. This. Published.

But there’s also been a lot of sub-par, fair-to-middlin, not so great, and at times downright awful work as well, even from writers who had previously submitted very good stories to the group. And as I’ll explain further in a subsequent post, empty praise does little to service the writer. Yet as a reader, it’s important to remember that novice writers fail not because of some personal character flaw, but rather because their enthusiasm is a little ahead of their expertise. Readers need to focus on the words: here is the passage where the writing falls short, this is why it doesn’t work, and (where appropriate — more on this in a later post) here is how it could be improved.

I’ll illustrate this approach with an anecdote from the only session I will ever attend of one particular writer’s group. Authors in this group came with copies of their material, which were handed out to readers before the author gave an oral reading. One of the pieces delivered the evening I attended had a number of flaws, one of which was the second paragraph — five sentences long, each beginning with the words He then. When it came time for reader responses, I pointed out this repetition to the author, and suggested a few variant sentence beginnings would speed up the pace of the narrative. Critique the writing, not the reader. A few readers after me, however, took a far different approach. Slapping the manuscript onto the table, this reader leaned forward in his seat, glared at the author, and declared: “You’re a lazy writer!” A statement which revealed a lot about the character of the speaker than of his intended target.

Since writing is an intensely personal expression, this approach won’t work for some writers, who will take any critique of their writing as a personal attack. Readers can’t control how their analyses will be taken, but they can pay attention to how they deliver their messages. And if those messages focus on the writing, the people who compose those works will be far more likely to use these messages to their benefit.

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