How many times have you walked away from a writer's critique group feeling dismayed and demotivated? The kindest among us will be less heavy-handed with a new writer, but even the best writers are not so confident they can handle hearing their "baby" is ugly. No matter how positive our intentions, if people leave a critique feeling deflated, it's not working. And this happens far too often.
Remember your first spelling test? Did the teacher circle all the correct answers in red? No. We've been taught from an early age to focus on what's wrong. The best teachers and parents try to correct behavior in a loving way because they know it's hurtful to a child to be constantly criticized. But the operant word is still correct. When dealing with adults, our drive to address problems, set targets, and work to accomplish them has created a culture of problem-centered improvement, where feedback is focused on what's not working well.
By pointing out what needs to be corrected in others' work, we may unintentionally create the "Golem Effect," borrowed from Jewish folklore about a creature meant to protect Prague that instead destroyed the city. When a group engages the Golem Effect, efforts to improve writing will demolish motivation.
We can invite the "Pygmalion Effect" instead, where positive expectations influence performance positively. This approach was named after an ancient sculptor who fell in love with a female figure he'd created from ivory. When he kissed the statue, she came to life. Our goal in critique groups is to help each other become better writers, and our positive approach to critique is the "kiss" that brings each other's work to life.
This applies to all critiques, anywhere, all the time.
Read the work carefully before writing comments.
- get to know the author's voice and style
- develop a general feel before noting specifics
- approach the work on its own terms, not the way you would write it
Call attention to punctuation/spelling only if certain errors predominate. Instead of offering a re-write or copy-edit, trust the author to learn from the comments and decide what to change, or not change.
Let the author know what's strong in the work. Though hearing what you "love" or think is "terrific" may feel good, those general comments don't improve someone's writing. Point out specific strengths, with examples, in several of these areas:
- theme, form, structure
- plot, setting, scene, suspense, conflict
- point of view, character depth
- diction, dialogue, exposition, narration, tense consistency
- alliteration, assonance, consonance, cohesion
- figures of speech, word choices, metaphors, similes, imagery
- style, voice, rhyme, rhythm, pacing
- line breaks, stanzas
- Instead of "You've used this phrase too often," try "I see this phrase several times in this piece; it could have more impact if used only on page 4."
- Instead of "This is too general," try "More concrete details here would increase the work's somber mood."
- Instead of "This is a cliche," try "A fresher word would grab attention here, such as (example from author's work).
- Instead of "This paragraph is confusing," try "This paragraph could show more clearly who is speaking."