In Praise of Praise

issue 1

In Praise of Praise--

A Second Look at Critiquing

By Lazette Gifford

©2001, Lazette Gifford


While reading through material for a critique group, you find a story that you think is wonderful.  The prose is perfect, the story delightful, and you can't stop reading until you reach 'The End.'  You look at it in amazement, knowing there's nothing you can offer to help that person improve his story, so you move on to the next one.

Critiquing stories isn't just about finding fault.

Maybe it's unlikely that you'll find the perfect story on-line.  After all, it's hard to find the perfect story anywhere, including in print.  However, there are times when I know that I cannot offer anything helpful -- except to tell the person that he has done a good job.

People forget that the writer wouldn't have posted the manuscript for critiquing if he knew it was ready for submission.  He might just need to be reassured that it's good before he nerves himself for the grueling test of submission.  But if you don't tell him the story is ready, you are failing in your job as a critiquer. 

There will be people to tell that person that there is fault in the story.  They might have even found something that you have overlooked.  But quite often, the fault they find may be more related to the critiquer as a reader than a fault with the story. They may not be comfortable with the genre.  Or they may, unconsciously, see a vision of the story as they would write it, and find themselves unable to disconnect those ideas from what they are reading.  In other words, they may find fault that isn't actually there.  If those are the only critiques the writer receives, is he going to know that he's done well?

Some people feel as though they aren't doing their job unless they find mistakes to correct.  But the truth is, in saying nothing, they've failed at their work at the worst time.  They have stopped just short of telling the person that he is ready to put the piece in the mail, which is the most important point, and one he should be striving to help the writer reach.

Many stories will need some small amount of work, but even here it does not hurt to remind the writer that he has done well.  He worked hard and long to perfect his craft.  Receiving yet another list of unclear passages or missing commas is not encouragement to keep trying a little harder. Be honest in your critique, but include mention of what the writer has done right along with the mistakes.

(But also remember that there is another type of critiquer who will find fault with any piece, whether it is there or not, and the motivations usually have nothing to do with wanting to help a writer improve.)

On the other end of the critiquing scale is the piece you find that needs a lot of work. Going through and marking every problem might make the critiquer feel as though he is finally doing his job -- but once again, he would be failing.

A manuscript riddled with mistakes in punctuation, grammar, etc., is almost always the sign of someone new to the craft.  This might well be the very first piece that he has ever shown to anyone else.  That person, getting his first critique and finding it filled with lists of problems, may never show a piece to anyone again.  He may not write again.

It is up to the critiquer to judge the quality of the manuscript, and critique accordingly.

Not all stories should be evaluated at the same level.  If you find a piece that looks as though someone wrote it who is new to the craft, don't do a line-by-line critique and point out every little mistake.  Find general problems and review them instead.  ("I see that you have some trouble with punctuation, so you might want to look at this book/this web site."  "Try using the word 'said' more often.")

And then find something to praise: story concept, the dialogue (even if it is not properly formatted), or character development. A writer at this level of development isn't likely to make a great leap forward from first level to top level just because he has been shown a long list of mistakes he's made.  The critiquer is there to help this person make one step forward at a time.  Help him grow into his dream.

Remember, it isn't the job of the person critiquing just to find fault with a story. The real job is to help the other writer improve his craft.  You might do that far better by looking beyond a list of mistakes -- or perfections -- and offering encouragement along with suggestions.