How to give a Real Critique

You have been asked to critique someone else’s writing. What do you do? This approach assumes that you genuinely want to offer valuable advice on how someone else can improve their writing.

If possible read it multiple times.

The first time you want to just get a feel for what is going on. If you notice major grammatical problems or other issues that you think might need to be pointed out, mark them but don’t worry too much right then.

On the second read, look for grammar issues and anything that confuses you. Where is the language unclear? Where do you not understand what they are saying or their actual meaning? Does anything in the writing not make sense? (Wow, that character mysteriously vanished… what happened to him?)

If possible write your comments on the text itself when there is a grammar or clarity issue and try to be as clear as possible regarding what is confusing you.

On your third read you should have a pretty good feel for what is going on and if there are any major structural issues that need to be improved. This is where you should look for stylistic and consistency issues. Does that sophisticated gentleman use the word “um” frequently (that’s not very sophisticated is it)? Is the author starting too many sentences with the same word or phrase? Does anything bother you or seem clunky.

This is what I call an editor style critique, and you should really only approach the writing this way if you have been specifically asked for this type of feedback. In other words if your friend just said “what do you think of this” they may not want you to pick apart all their grammar errors, so make sure you know what they are asking for.

It is invaluable feedback though, especially if you can learn how to do it well for your own work. Remember, the goal in this case is to give the writer good advice on how they can improve their work. Also, keep in mind that they are always free to not take your advice and you should not take that decision personally.

Finally, think about what you personally liked or disliked in the writing. Did you have some philosophic problem, or ethical problem with some idea or character?

When you have done this you will have a good idea of what you want to write in your critique.

This is when you write. If possible write grammar critiques directly on the work itself and return that to them, so that your written feedback can focus on explaining points of confusion, style, and what you personally feel about the writing itself. Begin and end your critique by saying something positive. This is where you talk about what you think the strongest elements are, or what impressed you the most. If you really only have one positive thing  to talk about, focus on it in the beginning and reference it again in your conclusion.

The middle should be the meat and potatoes of your critique. This is where you write all about all the things you noticed in your read-throughs, and EXPLAIN what you mean. If possible give an example of how the problem you perceive can be cleared up or improved.

Share any ideas you have, and try to point out any time your issue with the writing is due to your own personal taste and is not necessarily a problem with the writing itself. Always, always, always be diplomatic and as friendly as possible with your critiques, even if you hated the writing itself. Remember you’re advice is to help this writer improve not to demonstrate your skills as a critic.

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The Lame Cheetah

Imagine if a cheetah sat down next to you and said, “Yeah, I do this running thing, but I try not to be too good at it. I mean if it takes any extra effort I’m not going to do it.” This is why I want to pull my hair out anytime I hear the phrase “I don’t like to think.” There is a subtext because you are in fact, thinking, and doing so better than most organisms on this planet. You just don’t want to do any thinking that might feel like it required actual effort.

The Textbook-Racket

I just received the “text book” for my creative writing class. The book is about the size of a 5 X 7 photograph, and about a third of an inch thick. The cover is paperback, printed in exactly two colors, and the inside pages have the thickness and print quality of regular office copy paper.

I say this for one reason and one reason only. If I had come across this book at a Barnes in Noble, it was written by one of my favorite authors, and the price tag said $20, I would have laughed and put it back.

This thing has the quality and is not much thicker than the $1.00 copy of Heart of Darkness I purchased new in high school. It screams “budget print.”

How much did I pay for it?

$45 (just shy of $50 with taxes).

I usually buy used but I didn’t have time to wait for the slow pace of regular mail. So I am staring at this book in disbelief: a tiny budget-printed paperback about creative writing for $45. I guess it is just like getting the $5 used copy and paying $40 for shipping (wow).

Dear American public universities everywhere,

You are intentionally creating micro-monopolies in every classroom, handing those monopolies over to book publishers, and then allowing them to exploit your students.

Why?

It Really isn’t About Guns

A little over a month ago 20 children were gunned down in an elementary school. Because I have a son, everyone I knew thought I should have an opinion. Most of my mom friends on facebook couldn’t imagine what those parents were going through, couldn’t help thinking about how they would respond if it were their children… how horrible it would be. I didn’t think about it. That is, until I saw an interview on CBS of a couple of the office staff from Newtown. Since then, I can’t seem to stop thinking about it.

I know it is not fair to judge people who are victims, and I am in no way intending to blame people who have been victims of a horrific crime. I also know that no one knows how they will react to a traumatic situation until they are in it, and I do not know if I would respond better than the adults in this situation did. I do not want to know if I would.

That being said, these women described how the gunman stopped outside their door before moving on to shoot more people. He didn’t come in, and they ended up hiding in a closet for four hours. If there had been a single child with them, then I could understand this. There was not. I have a problem with this. I know it is not fair. I am sure I have no right to any opinion on the subject at all, but not making it home from first grade is more unfair.

We have this culture that believes that if someone shows up with a gun and threatens you, you are supposed to just ride it out. That makes sense if they are after your money. It doesn’t make sense to fight a gunman to the floor and get killed over a few hundred dollars. But what do you do when a crazy guy shows up and just wants to kill people? What if those people are children who cannot defend themselves? If the only adults who aren’t protecting a room full of children are dead or hiding, what chance do the kids have?

Let me put it this way: if I put my child in a school, and you are an adult that works at that school, and a lunatic shows up who wants to hurt my child, I don’t care if your job is janitor, you have an obligation to protect my child. If you are not personally helping children hide or get to safety, then your job is doing everything in your power to neutralize the threat. Find the taser, the pepper spray, the baseball bat, remember that tackle you learned back in high school… figure something out.

We do not need armed guards in our school. We need adults with enough sense to not hide when the lives of children are on the line, and we need to hear about the success stories. We need to hear about the professor that saved his students at Virginia Tech. We need to hear about the teachers and administrators that have on hundreds of occasions talked students down from violence, prevented suicides, or helped their students to survive terrible situations. Those stories are not as interesting to the media as a body count, as bloody details, and weeping women who hid in a closet. We can’t know about the many teens that were not shot last year, that might have died if not for the person who stood up to the gun-wielding lunatic.

Any one of the Newtown parents would have gone to great lengths to protect their children. Aren’t we assuming that the staff of their school will go just as far in such a circumstance? We assume that our kids are just as safe at school as they are at home.

It really isn’t about the guns, and more legislation will not stop a crazy kid who steals the gun from his law-abiding parent.

It is about ethics. If you are in a crisis, there may come a time when you are the person who could alter the outcome for the better. There may come a time when you are obligated to act, and inaction will be just as much of a choice and carry just as much weight.

You heard the gunshots, you know there is a gunman outside your door, you know he is moving on down the hall, toward the children. You don’t know if there are more gunman, you do not know how dangerous it is out there. If you walk out that door and try to approach that gunman, it could be the last moment of your life, and you might die completely in vain. But there is the possibility that you surprise him, knock him out of his delusion for long enough to get him to reconsider his actions, or are able to wrestle him to the ground and stop him from going any further. If you do nothing, other people are going to die, and some of those people are children.

It is not about being heroic, or brave, it is simply about the inescapable logic that you might be the only person who can do something. If you are that person and choose inaction, you will be the one person who asks everyday for the rest of your life “could I have made a difference?”