Criticism That Builds Up

Thursday, January 03, 2008
As writers, we’ve all dreamt of the day when our work will be held up as a standard of the highest quality in literature, and publishers and academics will flock to us, seeking our influential opinions on every upstart new writer whose work begs to be shelved alongside our own. But I’m sure few can attest to lying awake at night thinking of the glow you’ll see in your pastor’s, coworker’s, or father-in-law’s eyes, when he tells you he’s heard you’ve done “a little writing” and would love it if you could instruct him how to make his memoir a bestseller. That is, unless the vision is accompanied by a cold sweat.

Inevitably, the Christmas dinner conversation that flirts momentarily with your plans for your next novel turns, without warning, to said friend’s or relative’s work in progress, and his hopes for your help in getting his work out there. You tell him modestly that you will offer whatever knowledge you have about the publishing biz, and that you’d be happy to look over his manuscript and give some suggestions. In return, he gives up his laptop joyfully, and you spend the next hour or so confronted with a draft that, quite honestly, looks as though it earned a B-plus in some eleventh-grader’s Term Paper Composition course.

Beloved Friend/Daughter-in-law: take heart. Sure, you could stay on your high horse, feet in the stirrups, waiting for the trumpets to hail your grand march into the halls of academia. But that day may never come, and here, right here, is an opportunity to make an impact on one person’s career. One person, who is very close to you, who is starting out much the same way you did not so long ago.

Start by reading the draft with an open but realistic mind. Okay, so this isn’t going to make the New York Times’ list next month. Sooner or later your friend or loved one will have to square himself to that fact—as will you, yourself, no doubt. There is no need to say anything right now that would make him want to give up altogether. Keep the faith that, if you once started out in second grade writing new endings to “Roses are Red, Violets are Blue,” surely given the right amount of patience and hard work your friend could achieve the same literary success you have.

When you come across problems, note them quietly to yourself without interrupting your reading to find him and ask him questions. Also, read closely so that you don’t miss anything you shouldn’t. The last thing you want to do is mention you didn’t get that his protagonist was female, when he can show you each instance of the word “she” in the fifth paragraph. Your credibility lies with his assumption that you care enough about this to give him the most thoughtful, constructive criticism you can muster. You would not want to be let down this way, so keep your comments to him limited to things you can clearly point out and suggest alternatives for.

Don’t hold his work up to some unrealistic standard. When you read it and think to yourself, “It isn’t Faulkner,” that only begs the question: “What similar follies have you been poisoning your own writing with?” Recognize that it is hardly ever fair to compare one person’s writing style with another’s.

But this does not mean that you have to shoulder this task with no measuring stick to refer to. Read the draft again, and this time, select one section that speaks the strongest to you. Identify what you responded to: Did it yield an interesting character quirk? A clever scrap of dialogue? An effective plot hook? Be very generous in hunting out all the things about this passage that you really liked. Then read it to him aloud, sharing with him these elements you noticed he used well. You must admit, it feels great to hear someone read your words with interest and sincerity! And it makes you want to trust the reader who treats your work with the attention it deserves. So don’t be stingy with that gift! Read it aloud with vigor—and then, if you felt his overall draft was lacking some of these things, this is your chance to reinforce your ideas of what could work to make it better.

If done right, your criticism will not dampen his healthy optimism but will energize him to look for the necessary elements of good writing and use them more frequently. Constructive criticism isn’t a wrecking ball, and it isn’t about laying the stones yourself (or throwing them). It’s simply about pointing out which are the best building blocks to use, and helping a fellow builder see how they fit.

written by: AK


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