Friday, February 7, 2014

Time out: Weighing Positive Criticism

This week we are taking a quick break from our previous topic and digressing a bit about a very important issue:  not sloughing off positive comments.

In many critique groups, most comments focus on areas for improvement, and that focus is, indeed, important.  But far more important than recognizing one's weaknesses is recognizing one's strengths.

A writer's strengths contribute to his voice, his style.  For instance, Alexander McCall Smith and Sue Grafton are both writers of bestselling mysteries, and yet their styles diverge greatly.  The sentences of McCall Smith's novels move in lazy, lyrical rhythms composed of simple words.  Grafton's sentences tend to stretch longer and bristle with precise detail.  One could hardly find two styles more different, and yet the styles work in each case.  Readers of one of these authors do not long for the storytelling style of the other because the method of the storytelling fits the stories being told.  That fit does not mean the authors never revised their works (they did), nor does it mean that their work leaves no room for improvement (every work has room for improvement).  But it does mean that what works is worth developing. 

Now, let's look at that development.  Often when we offer positive critiques of a piece of writing, we are nonspecific.  We say things like, "It was beautiful," and "I loved it," which is fine, but only if we follow those generalities with specifics.  "Your use of long sentences to describe bedtime reminded me of lullabies," or "Your repeated reference to your mother's walk emphasized not only her personality but also her choices in life" both say so much more.  They are the types of comments that can help you identify the techniques that you use well and can employ in other areas, which, of course, brings me to the next point.

When we point out what works, many times we are dealing with a piece in which other areas aren't working.  As you point out what works, you may be able to suggest ways in which these strengths could be applied to those other areas.  For instance, given the comments above, when we say, "Your use of long sentences to describe bedtime reminded me of lullabies," we know that the bedtime scene is working.  But perhaps the morning scene is not.  Because rhythm worked at night, we might be able to suggest changes in rhythm or sound that might work in the morning.  When our criticism is derived from a writer's strengths, we offer the writer far more in terms of usable advice.

Therefore, I seriously exhort you not to hurry past positive comments and not to leave negative comments sit with no parallels to strengths.  The question is not whether we are strong enough to bear criticism (which is another topic for another day because, to some extent, we over value such strength) but whether we are getting the most benefit that we can from a critique group.

Finally, I propose using the following quick guidelines to help you in identifying strengths in a piece of writing:
  1. On the first reading:
    1. Note areas of interest with check marks or other notations.
    2. Note areas of empathy with emoticon-like notations.
    3. Note areas of rapt attention with brackets.
    4. Note areas that don't work with non-judgmental notations like question marks or comments like, "Hmmm...".
  2. After you have finished, glance over those sections that worked and try to identify what made them special.
    1. Consider the diction (use of specific words).
    2. Consider the syntax (use of specific sentence structure).
    3. Consider the senses appealed to (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste).
    4. Consider the intelligences activated (musical allusions that propel the piece, visual or spatial cues to action, movement that betrays meaning, logic that enlightens the reader, inter- or intra-personal innuendos that either heighten or resolve conflict, turns of phrase that are particularly apt).
  3. After analyzing what worked, look over areas that don't work.
    1. Consider why they aren't working.
    2. Contemplate which of the author's strengths might improve them.
  4. Finally, make your comments to the group.  Even those who didn't write the piece can learn from this kind of criticism.