Accentuate the Positive — Writing Tips

This article appeared in the Story Circle Journal, September 2018.

Accentuate the Positive: How to Give (and Take) Criticism

When I was in my twenties and decided to pursue the literary side of writing, I took a short-story course with a famous author and teacher (whose name will remain “Joe”). At the time, I was nursing a broken heart. I wrote a fictionalized version of the relationship, fashioning it into a dramatic (or perhaps melodramatic) storyline. A week after submitting our stories, Joe opened his briefcase and flipped through a stack of papers as if he were shuffling cards. From my first-row seat, I could see black-inked comments, arrows, exclamation marks, and enough colored Post-its for a roomful of confetti.

Without revealing the author’s name, Joe read a two-page dialogue between a man and woman in a heated argument. I could feel my cheeks redden. With each character, Joe’s voice took on a prolonged screechy tone, deeper for the male and weepy for the female. He wrote the names of the characters on the blackboard and elicited negative comments from the students. At the end of class, holding back tears, I collected my story and asked Joe, “Why did you pick mine to dissect if it was so terrible?”

“Oh, but it was the best one in the class.” Then Joe said, “And you can imagine the quality of the others.”

Although I made a career as a writer, I didn’t produce another fictional piece for almost twenty years. By that time, I learned to choose positive mentors and joined a writing group of all females. Later in life, as an MFA student, I was bewildered by my teachers’ poor preparation in the art of workshopping, often allowing dismissive, hurtful remarks. When I began to teach writing, I vowed to nurture this art, so that my students were not only vested in improving their work but in helping others. My students responded with enthusiastic and creative revisions.

Ten Tips for Critiquing

1. Look at the piece from the writer’s perspective. What is she trying to accomplish? Do NOT put your value judgments on the work. It is NOT helpful to say, “This is not my taste.”  Instead of “what I like,” think of “what this piece is like.”

2. Closed-door and open-door criticism. Some words inspire you to revise and others lock you into a self-critical mode. Avoid words like “boring” and “not interesting.”  Turn them around and say instead, “Perhaps this scene can use more detail.” Avoid the word “should.”

3. Be respectful and supportive. Look for cues that the writer is taking in the comments and not upset by them.

4. Focus on the strengths of the piece. Is the writing lively? Are there good details? 

5. What is the piece lacking? Do you want to know more? Is there something that you don’t understand? Does the scene need more description? Does it need a backstory? Is there too much dialogue or not enough? Are the characters thinly drawn? Is the pacing choppy? Make suggestions as “suggestions,” not as absolutes.

6. Listen for Voice. This is the character of the writer, the personality (sad, happy, ironic, humorous, thoughtful). Is it too formal or informal? Is it active or passive?

7. Point of View (POV). Make sure the POV is consistent and is the best use for this piece.

8. Scenes and Dialogue. Does the scene work with or without dialogue? Can I picture the setting? Do the voices sound distinctive and believable?

9. Tension/Resolution. Are there tension points? Can they be further developed? Is there growth or change?

10. Focus. What is the most important theme? Is the writing about too many things?

      Read the piece twice: once for content, second for comments. Pay attention to character development, language, and integrity of story. Note inconsistencies, repetitions, gross grammatical mistakes/typos/format issues.  But don’t overwhelm with critical remarks. Notice phrases you like. Remember that you are helping the writer make the best story that she intends. Follow these guidelines when revising your own work – and don’t take the “Joes” of the world too seriously.