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.

6 thoughts on “Elements of Critique: Keep”

  1. Dave, even though I’m writing non-fiction, and even though I’m not in a critique group, I want you to know that these posts have been extremely helpful. They have moved me up a few rungs on the ladder of my craft. They have allowed me to hone the mechanics of writing and seek ways to reach my audience at a deeper level.

    In short, for me they’ve all been “keepers.”

    1. Thank you, Susan. I’m so glad these have been useful. It’s been beneficial for me to figure out how to say some of these things I’ve picked up in the last few years. I love the idea of mutual benefit; I’m getting as much out of this as you.

  2. Thank you. I do try and remember the sandwich method – two goods, around the bad, but when editing (not critiquing) it is easy to forget part of the job is letting the writer know what WORKED so they don’t change it. – Thanks, Erin Penn (a to z participant; erinpenn.blogspot.com)

    1. Yep, good advice with the sandwich method. I’ve heard it takes about 7 positive comments to offset 1 negative experience… Not sure if the math works out the same for critique, but it would sure highlight the need for positive affirmation, eh?

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