BACCA Writers

Also Look for the Good

In critique, recognizing (and acknowledging) the strengths of a piece of writing might be as necessary as pointing out what needs work. I firmly believe that a truly useful critique has to offer a balance of both encouraging words and helpful suggestions. Tempting as it may be to jump straight into problem-solving mode when approaching another person’s work, openly appreciating what’s working well can have benefits for everyone involved.

In recent weeks, I’ve found myself in a critique situation (outside of BACCA), where, beyond a vague comment or two about beautiful writing, very little mention was made about the good aspects of what I had written. Since the meeting was with freelance clients, this situation left me in a bind. Had nothing I wrote really resonated? I had thoroughly researched my subject. I had spent an extensive amount of time and energy honing voice, tone, themes, and dramatic arcs. I had done the work and delivered it all on time. My clients even seemed positive about my work—in the abstract. When it came to specifics, though, they only spoke of renovation, not preservation.

It wasn’t that anyone present was harsh or mean—not at all. In fact, many of the suggestions they made were fair and all were delivered kindly. Still, the experience felt lopsided. So, I left that meeting feeling disappointed, exhausted, and more than a little confused about my next steps forward. If I had a clearer idea about what parts they appreciated maybe the changes they wanted wouldn’t have seemed like such a daunting task.

While there’s little I can do now about that experience, it did inspire me to compile a list of arguments in favor of looking for the good in a writer’s work. Who knows? Maybe it can help a reader or a writer in the future…

So. Why should we tell a writer what’s working well?

  1. FYI! Positive feedback lets the writer know that something good actually came across. Duh, Noelle. (I know.) But, seriously sometimes the writer doesn’t know for sure if something worked. We have ideas. We have a vision for what we’d like to convey. And, our big plans sometimes fail in the execution. Sometimes, a writer is too close to know for sure.
  2. For the future! Identifying good elements in a manuscript helps a writer hone in on the successful formal strategies they used and maybe increases the chances that they’ll use them again to create more good moments next time.
  3. For selfish reasons! Learning to recognize and articulate the particulars of fine writing helps the person doing the critiquing. At the very least, that person is perfecting important critical skills. If that person is creative, they may also identify something that could make their own work better.
  1. For preservation purposes! Telling a writer which parts of her work you liked means that she will probably keep them in subsequent drafts.
  1. For credibility! Warning: this one may polarize. In my view, if readers can’t come up with at least one positive, concrete comment about my work, I start to distrust their ability to analyze my work altogether. Either they didn’t put in the necessary time, or they don’t have the expertise to really offer a worthy critique, or (worst of all) they have an alternate agenda…usually one that’s based on boosting their own egos. I always think of that kid (we all knew one), who lurked around the classroom, waiting for someone to build a tower out of blocks so she could immediately knock it all to the ground. It’s important for readers to remember that it can take a very long time to build something—and mere seconds to tear it apart. Whatever the root reason might be, I grow suspicious when readers can’t see anything good. And, I usually decide that their opinions aren’t worth worrying about.

Likely, there are a hundred more reasons to let a writer know when she got it right…what do you think? Besides keeping writers off the ledge, are there other good arguments for offering words of encouragement in addition to our thoughtful suggestions in critique?

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, supports local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary groupPhoto by author.

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