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On criticism: can we be kind, careful and constructive?

January 31, 2019

LORNA HOEY

Having your work read aloud in a writers’ group can be very scary. You’ve slaved over the piece, re-drafted many times, changed the title and the main character’s name. What if they don’t like it? What if they think it’s lightweight – you’re lightweight – and shouldn’t be part of the group?

Who hasn’t felt their heart beat faster as the reader picks up those sheets of A4 and begins?

Now – picture the scene at the end of the evening. You’re heading home on the Tube, tears sparking behind eyes, mentally crumpling those A4 sheets into a ball and flinging them from you as far away as possible. You quickly go from ‘They’re all idiots – too stupid to understand what I was trying to say’ to ‘I knew I was useless – why did I even bother. I’ll never write another word.’

It’s never happened to you? Lucky. It has certainly happened to me, in my encounters with various Writing Groups over the years. I can clearly recall some particular vicious comments from – oh, maybe 30 years ago. Goodness knows what kept me writing.

But, to be fair, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to think of something pertinent and useful, moments after you’ve heard a piece for the first time. It’s so easy to fall back on ‘I liked the ending’ (you slept through most of it) ‘the pace felt about right’ (the reader didn’t stop once) or the inevitable ‘it’s all been said’ and ‘I agree with everyone’ which isn’t particularly helpful.

The Writing Group I lead in Sudbury, Suffolk, identified this as a real problem. Where some members, perhaps with years of practice, could comment specifically and constructively, others, when placed ‘on the spot’, found it very difficult to think of anything to say. To try to help, I put together a ‘Checklist for Constructive Criticism’. Each member has a copy and keeps it beside them, so that when it’s their turn to contribute they’ve got an aide-memoir to consult, however briefly. I believe that we’ve all found the list useful. Every member is now contributing a comment rather than ‘opting out’ because they can’t think of anything.

I also remind members at the start of every meeting, of The Three Cs (except they’re one K and two Cs, actually): Be Kind (find 2 ‘good’ things about the piece) Careful (if something isn’t working, or you ‘just don’t get it’, by all means say so, but remember that the writer really wants their piece to work), and Constructive (no more than 2 suggestions in which you think the work could be improved.)

Another thing we do is to ensure that each group member has a copy of each story read at the meeting, so authors need to bring along a copy for everyone. Instead of writing notes in a notebook while the story is being read, the members write their notes on their copy of the story, which they hand to the author at the end. This has proved not just useful to the author, but also when making comments.

While these systems seem to be working well at the moment, we are always open to new ideas and different ways of working. I’d be delighted to know what you think at Islington Writers for Children – where, I must say, I never had a vicious or unkind comment in my years as a member.

Checklist for Kind, Careful and Constructive Criticism


The beginning:

  • The title – am I intrigued? Or does it give away too much?
  • Does it begin well? Am I hooked?
  • Is the beginning – gripping; clear; difficult to understand; baffling; boring; tedious?
  • Do I want to know what happens at the end?

The structure:

  • Is the viewpoint clear?
  • Any clichés or clumsy sentences?
  • Any really effective description? Any sounds, smells, weather?
  • Is the dialogue realistic and/or convincing?

The plot:

  • Does it work or is it contrived and/or predictable?
  • Is the pace right or does it feel rushed or drawn-out?
  • Is there a dilemma or a high point – does it work?
  • The middle – does it flag?

Overall:

  • Was I gripped by the story?
  • Did the ending link to the beginning in any way?
  • Was the ending satisfactory?
  • Length – was it too long, or too short?
  • Did the story have that WOW factor?

 

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Alison Allen-Gray permalink
    February 4, 2019 4:30 pm

    I think this is a wonderful idea, Lorna, and reading the checklist has helped my thinking about the book I’m working on. And I’m so thrilled that you’ve started a group in Sudbury! x

  2. Megg Nicol permalink
    February 5, 2019 5:05 pm

    Hi Lorna Thank-you for sharing this with us. I totally agree with your comments and as soon as I get to my printer I shall be making a copy of the list! Getting your ideas down on paper and then sharing them with others is so important … but it’s scary and yet amazing at the same time. It seems that as soon as you hear your words read back to you, somehow you understand so much about what you’ve written than when you read it over to yourself…..

    Your writing group in Sudbury sounds great….Good luck with it!

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