Tag Archives: constructive criticism

Elements of Critique: Keep

When my daughter was about 3, she came up with a phrase she’d say whenever she hugged me tight and refused to let go:

“You are my keep!”

It’s a special memory. Sure, I might not remember the day of the week, or what I was wearing, or when the last time was that she said it. (Our wily teenage daughter refuses to let me know that I am still her ‘keep,’ at least not overtly.)

But I cherish those moments forever.

Where critiquing another writer’s work is concerned, proposing cuts or changes is fairly easy. “That sounds weak.” “Fix the spelling.” “Why would the villain do that?”

But in order to improve, writers also need to know what hits home. We have to remember to point out what to keep.

When an analogy paints the perfect picture, or a scene tugs at my heart just so… when I learn something unexpected and interesting, or when a character’s reaction shocks me… when the chapter ends and I absolutely must know whether the hero survives…

That’s when I need to highlight, insert comment, and find a way to tell the writer, “This is my keep!”

I have to remember: To be as useful as possible, critique must be constructive.

The end result may look like a failed exam in grade school, red ink or yellow word-processor highlight all over the place. That can be overwhelming, especially if someone’s new to receiving real critique on their pet projects.

A “keep” here or there with an encouraging comment about why that part works well can be a positive form of teaching or guiding a fellow writer. “Man, that phrase was inspired.” “That’s an awesome word picture; I can see that like a movie in my head.” “Ouch, her words were harsh! Great job with that argument.”

In other words, Keep on doing that. You’re doing well. That’s a memory that will stay with me as a reader.

Even more than the positive reinforcement of good writing habits, there’s another reason to include “keeps” in a critique.

Just like my teenage daughter is not very obvious or communicative about her affection, a writer may not be very obvious about the powerful internal struggle battering their wavering confidence. A well-timed “You are my keep” might make a big difference between them giving it up and them giving it another shot.

Speaking of which…

To my readers, thank you so much for coming back for more. To those who commented or shared these A to Z posts, you spur me on to keep going. I’ve received more positive feedback on this series than I ever expected possible.

And most of all, my deepest thanks to the members of my critique group, who have taught me so much by word and example. Though obligation forces me to move away soon, you all are truly my keeps, and I’ll cherish those moments always.

Elements of Critique: Constructive

It’s every creator’s not-so-hidden fear. Someone is going to see, hear, or read their work and walk away saying, “It sucked. I hated it.”

Many of us struggle to put our precious babies out there to an audience, because we fear the reception they’ll receive.

That’s part of why critiques are so important. They’re not just a corrective measure to help identify flaws and strengths in a work. They’re also about building confidence…

So long as everyone agrees to provide constructive criticism.

It’s great to hear good things about one’s efforts. For me, there’s nothing quite so delightful as seeing how others receive something creative of mine, whether a song or drawing or piece of writing. Critique groups can help point out the good stuff in our writing. “Sad scene, but well written.” “I thought that was a nice touch that communicated that character’s voice well.” “That’s a strong, descriptive verb. Good choice!”

Now I have to be clear: Constructive criticism is not warm fuzzy accolades and blowing smoke to make someone feel good. “Oh it’s so delightful, I love the way you came up with sentence structures no one has ever used before! I really felt like I knew your cardboard cutout supporting characters by the way they had no redeemable virtues! You don’t even need to build a believable conflict into your story. It’ll be published for sure!”

Even though a critique group often includes friends, we don’t gather to puff each other up and gloss over weaknesses.

Constructive means we’re building something, and many building projects start by tearing down what presently stands in a given place. So it might feel painful to see all one’s flaws exposed and highlighted, but a good critique does just that…

In order to build on the strengths that remain once the flaws are removed.

In the military, we have an unwritten rule that certainly applies elsewhere. “Don’t just tell me the problem. Come with a solution.” Constructive critiques are like that.

“I didn’t like this part” gives the writer an indication of where to look for a problem, but it doesn’t capture what the problem actually is. “The grammar here is wrong. ‘The display of colors capture my attention.’ should read ‘the display of colors captures’ because it’s the display we’re talking about.”

“I didn’t like the way this solution presented itself in the story because it felt too much like a deus ex machina – in swoops the hero who happens to have just the device needed to stop the villain and save the damsel in distress with 3 seconds left on the timer of the bomb.” The next part is the most important. “Could you try… (potential fix) instead?”

A constructive critique doesn’t just point out flaws and present fixes for each error. The goal is to make the writer stronger, more skillful. So why not present an explanation that helps them identify similar problems elsewhere in their work?

I mentioned I joined¬†Scribophile¬†recently. It’s an online critique community where you earn points to post your own works by giving constructive critique to others. I’ve got a chapter up for critique, and I got thoughtful feedback from one of my followers on the site.

Warning: Work in Progress
Warning: Work in Progress

Take a look at some of these examples:
“I think this disrupts the flow here, I’d try to integrate it with the above” – along with a suggested cut of a clunky phrase and a reworded sentence to include the important elements.
“I would keep with the slow soothing dialogue, rather than the command. It seems a bit out of character.”
“How does this growing power make Lyllithe feel internally? Is her head buzzing? Or does she start to feel exceptionally warm? Perhaps more and more confidence is welling up as the doubts recede?”
“Hmmm, I find this draws me away from Lyllithe too much, and right now I am fully invested in her.”
“Since you used ‘focused’ in the sentence, there’s no need to say ‘attention.'”

Problem, explanation, solution.

This gives me feedback I can build on.

If you’re stopping by for the A to Z Blog Challenge, thanks! Tomorrow I’ll be looking at Dialogue. Maybe I’ll have something constructive to say.