The Art of Constructive Criticism

I stand before a sea of pre-teen eyes; they are slightly narrowed, as if suspicious as to whether or not I have anything genuinely useful to say. “I will let you in on a little secret,” I say with a mischievous twinkle in my eye: “Ninety percent of what you write is awful—not worth reading.”

Their eyes become wide and their mouths open slightly as if questioning whether or not they had heard me correctly. “That’s right,” I repeat. “Ninety percent of what you write is a complete train wreck.”

I am surrounded by looks that say, “Who hired you to teach here, you horrible, horrible man?”

“Now,” I continue, “before you go getting all offended, you should know that ninety percent of what I write is also worthless. In fact, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and Gary Paulsen—all of them—ninety percent worthless.”

The looks of anger are now replaced by the knitted brows of confusion. “Good news, though,” I smile. “Ten percent of what you write is marvelous. The work of writing is to find the gold, remove the chaff, and refine, refine, refine until your writing glitters with every word. This is what we learn to do here. And this is where we learn to help one another to achieve this.”

This discussion comes early in every writing class I teach. And only now, after years spent trying to help students understand this concept, have I come to realize the vital importance of learning to write effective criticism.

In this discussion, I will summarize what I have learned as both a teacher and a writer about giving feedback to other writers that provides genuinely useful details for supporting both immediate revision and long-term writing growth.

Main Concepts:

  • Leggo My Ego (Being honest and keeping it professional)
  • Take Me Trippin’ in Your Head (Revealing the writing as you experience it)
  • Do You Feel Me? (Using precise language)

“This piece rocks! You are the best writer that ever set pen to paper.”

Now who wouldn’t love to hear this about his or her writing? Every writer craves praise from his or her readers and fears criticism. After all, writing is very personal; sharing it is a universally courageous act. Thankfully, most readers respect this and keep it in mind as they provide feedback. Unfortunately, it often causes them to become timid and afraid of offending the writer—as if to suggest that a piece is not perfect somehow translates into a personal insult.

Writers know their work is imperfect. Good writers know they can’t see all the problems, so they need good readers to help them find the gaps. A good reader must be prepared to point out these gaps without fear of offending the writer.

How do you achieve this? Try this:

  • Don’t talk about what you “like” or “don’t like”: As soon as you use these words, my ego will jump in no matter how much I might try to fight it. I begin thinking about how great a writer I am, or how horrible a writer I am, or how you don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. None of this helps me to focus on the writing itself and what I can do to improve it.
  • Do talk about what “works” and what “doesn’t work”: These words immediately focus my attention on the writing itself, which is where the attention belongs. Use of this language creates an emotional distance that allows us to talk objectively about what’s going on in the writing and whether or not it is effective or ineffective for the given purpose.

Please help me let go of my ego; be honest and keep it professional.

I once told a friend of mine in high school—a girl I happened to be interested in—that I thought it very limiting that I would have to be stuck being me my whole life. I would never get the chance to experience what it was like to be her—to see the world through her eyes. Needless to say, that was not the best approach for getting a first date.

Nonetheless, this is a central problem for all writers. A writer can only experience his or her writing through his or her own eyes. Even though the writer wrote it for you, the writer can’t experience it as you do because the writer is not inside your head. There is no greater gift you can give an author than this: to open that door. Let the author experience his or her writing through your eyes. You will find many strengths and weaknesses that are invisible to the writer. Only through your feedback does that writer have a chance to consider them and decide for him or herself what to do with the writing.

Taking the writer on a trip through your experience, however, requires the use of very specific details. Generalized comments lead toward a sense of whether or not you liked the piece, but rarely identify specific strengths or weaknesses in the writing. The writer needs to know precisely what you were thinking and feeling as you were going through the writing.

These details can be separated into two basic categories:

  1. Does The Writing Make Sense?
  • If you get lost or confused, the writer needs to know. Sure, sometimes confusion in a story or poem can be good; it adds mystery and intrigue. Readers know the difference, however, between curiosity and frustration. If the confusion is annoying, the author needs to know exactly what details of the writing are causing it so they can be fixed.
  • If something is fascinating, the writer needs to know. When you learn something interesting or a particular event makes you curious, let the author know. When the writer can get a sense of the specific details that created this reaction, he or she can capitalize on them.
  1. Is the Writing Vivid?
  • Let the author live inside the world his or her writing creates for you. Rich sensory detail is critical in crafting immersive writing, and authors spend a tremendous amount of time working their language to create vivid detail. Authors are often deceived, however, as they have access to the complete imaginative experience they are trying to create where the reader has only the words. The writer needs access to the reader’s experience to see how well the words match the original ideas.
  • Specifically discuss what the words allow you to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. Helping the writer to understand the sensory details you experienced as you read specific sections of his or her writing is extremely valuable. Pointing out both strengths and weaknesses will help the writer to focus on re-crafting the writing for greater immersive depth.

Whenever I speak this phrase at school, the students are guaranteed to laugh at me. Apparently middle-aged English teachers just can’t pull it off with the same pizazz as a thirteen-year-old. Nevertheless, the sentiment still applies here.

Do you feel me?–do you understand what I am saying? When it comes to giving feedback on writing, sadly, an author’s response to this question would often be no. Comments are too generalized and lack the specific language needed to clearly articulate ideas.

You see, really understanding and intelligently discussing any area of human knowledge requires the use of the right words. To discuss music without knowing what “harmony” and “melody” mean is pointless, football will be lost on you if you don’t know what a “running back” is, and good luck balancing your checkbook without understanding “withdrawals” and “deposits.” This is also true for writing. Only by using precise words can you specifically articulate what you mean.

In writing, these words fall into three categories: Grammar, Genre-Specific Terminology, and Topic-Specific Terminology.

Grammar: All writers use grammar. References to punctuation, sentence construction, and word usage are easy to make specific and provide important feedback for a writer. Keep in mind that grammar, which for most people is only remembered as a giant stick that your English teacher used to beat you with in school (ah, the joys of teaching), actually lies at the core of all beautiful writing. Grammar is not just about rules; it is also about making artistic choices in how one presents his or her vision. Helping a writer see where they are making mistakes and, even better, helping a writer see where he or she is making effective aesthetic decisions about the way he or she phrases ideas, is extremely useful.

Genre-Specific Terminology: These words allow you to articulate specific ideas about common aspects of the given genre in which the writer is writing. Poets speak of lines, stanzas, rhyming, and figurative language. Fiction writers speak of characters, setting, plot, and conflict. Academic writers speak of theories, reasoning, and evidence. Using the right terminology in your critiques allows you to address how well these genre-specific elements of the writing are working, making the feedback valuable for the writer.

Topic-Specific Terminology: This is language that is relevant to the subject about which the author is writing. Once again, if I’m writing about football, then you need to use the specific language of football when discussing what’s working or not working in my writing. Doing so allows you to speak to specific opinions or lines reasoning that a given author is using in his or her writing.

Short shots like, “Great writing,” and, “This was fun to read,” give a writer a boost, but they don’t help the writer to grow. Keep the following things in mind, and start using the wonderful gift of your own unique perspective to help others improve their writing:

  • Be Honest: Provide both positive and constructive criticisms
  • Be Specific: Provide specific examples from the author’s writing to support your criticisms
  • Use Literary Terminology: Use the language of writing for the clear articulation of ideas

Thanks for taking the time to read. I’d love to hear what you think!