Enough about writing; let’s talk about reading.

For this month’s nonfiction knowhow, I want you to take a little break from your own writing. I’m always harping on how being a better reader will make you a better writer. But how do you become a better reader, and what do you do with that reading skill once you have it?

Well, it’s for those two little words that strike fear and joy into a writer’s heart: constructive criticism.

What’s the difference between constructive criticism and just-plain criticism?

“Constructive” means “having a tendency to build up and improve.” While criticism can tear you down, constructive criticism helps you tear down your faults as a writer, and helps you build better writing on the foundations that are left.

Why now?

With yeah write’s sixth birthday coming up (that’s 312 consecutive weeks of writing challenges, for those of you who like math, and no, we’ve never missed a single one) we’ve got some big changes in the works. One of those changes was shaped by a conversation with one of our community members, who put into words something the editorial staff has been playing with as an idea for quite some time but never been able to quite crystallize.

“I wish I had a way to tell people I want more than just kudos,” she said. “It feels good, but I don’t improve.”

I’m paraphrasing, of course; I’m pretty sure both of us used more swear words.

In a couple of weeks we’ll be rolling out an important new badge for your posts as one of our birthday presents. That’s right: when it’s our birthday, you get presents. The new badge will invite visitors to leave constructive criticism on your post, and it’ll incorporate a button that takes them to a how-to guide for not being a jerk when you leave criticism. I’ll give you a few of the same tips and tricks in this post…

How do you give constructive criticism?

First of all, you have to know what’s right and wrong with the post. That’s harder than it sounds: we know what we like, but not always why, and liking or disliking a piece isn’t necessarily relevant to whether the piece was successful at doing the thing it set out to do.

When I sit down to evaluate a piece of writing, I have a little mental checklist of structural and substantive elements. It’s fairly similar to the editing checklists Cindy and I discussed on last month’s nonfiction grids and roundups, and for a good reason: if I find issues, it means you didn’t catch them in the editing process. A good editing process is, in its way, constructive critique.

Structural Issues

  1. Are there spelling, homonym, typo, etc. errors?
  2. Are there punctuation errors?
  3. Are most of the sentences or paragraphs constructed in the same way (heavy dependence on introductory elements, similar length, etc.)?
  4. Does the writer frequently use the same word in the same sentence or paragraph (Obviously, not “the” or “and” but “glanced” or “grinned” or “shrugged”)?
  5. Is the formatting easy to read, or do a mix of fonts and styles bog the reader down?
  6. Are fragments, runons, etc. used to add voice and emphasis, or are they just there because the writer seems to be having trouble with sentence construction?
  7. Do adjectives modify the correct nouns?

Substantive issues

  1. Is the story or essay paced appropriately, or is a lot of information jammed in at the beginning or end?
  2. Are the style and voice appropriate to the characters, subject matter, and target audience?
  3. Did the writer include all the information you needed, or did you have to guess?
  4. Are there factual errors?
  5. Are there continuity errors?
  6. Is blocking (the arrangement of people within a scene) consistent and plausible? Are positions and gestures possible? Can you unbuckle the passenger side seatbelt of a left-drive car with your left hand while keeping your eyes on the road?
  7. Does the writer depend heavily on clichés like “a single tear fell from my eye” to convey imagery?
  8. Is the “so what” of an essay or poem, or the plot hook of a story, identifiable?
  9. What was the writer trying to do, and were they successful (tell a story, persuade you, convey an emotion, etc.)?
  10. Is the piece primarily “telling” or “showing”?

This isn’t an exhaustive list. I know it looks long, but with a little practice identifying these issues and spotting ones I haven’t mentioned yet will become second nature. One of my very favorites is “did anything actually happen in this story, or did the character take two steps forward, sit down, and have a feeling?”

Now that I know what’s wrong, how do I explain it?

Hold up there. Before you tell anyone what’s wrong with their work, tell them what’s right. Tell them what they’ve done well so that they know they need to do more of it. This is a great place to practice your vocabulary: don’t just say “I liked it” because that’s not useful information. Take this chance to pick out that great line in a poem, or the careful work they must have put into its scansion. Talk about how much imagination is in the world they’ve built, or about how they’ve applied a unique perspective to the issue that really made it new again.

Done? OK. Now we’re ready to talk about where they need some help.

I feel like a jerk telling someone they’re not very good

There are two major things wrong with the heading of this section. First, you’re not telling them they aren’t perfect. You’re telling them their writing isn’t perfect. Second, it’s constructive criticism. You’re not going to tell them how it’s bad, you’re going to tell them how to make it better.

Quick reminder: Remember to save constructive criticism for people you know want it and plan to benefit from it. That means no rolling up on strangers like “your poem needs some work.”

Now that we’ve got those two misconceptions out of the way, let’s get down to the nitty gritty of delivery: how do you tell someone their work needs some… work?

Keep it about the work

Don’t let your critique turn into a confrontation: make sure to focus your delivery on the essay, story or poem at hand instead of the person who wrote it. (With the single exception of work that shows off the writer’s unconscious racial, class, etc. bias, in which case the phrase you’re looking for is “I’m sure this isn’t how you want to represent yourself, so I wanted to make you aware that [describe coded language and what it means].”)

Generally, you do this by saying “this poem” or “this essay” instead of “you.” Want an example? Instead of “you didn’t spellcheck this essay before you posted it” try “this essay could have used a little more polishing and maybe a round of spellcheck.” Y’all, this is your BIG CHANCE. Break out that passive voice and go for it!

Don’t just explain what’s wrong, explain how to fix it

Constructive criticism, remember? Construct.

NOT: All the sentences are the same length and it makes the piece feel bland;

BUT: Try varying the length of your sentences for pacing and impact;

NOT: This poem seems to be a paragraph where the author just hit enter a bunch of times;

BUT: This poem could have benefited from a little more attention to how the line breaks affect the way the piece is read by making the reader start and stop.

Is that it?

Just kidding, folks. I know it’s a lot. But with a little practice you’ll be able to spot stories that have great images but no action, essays that have a lot of heart but very little brain or courage, and poetry that’snot quite ripe for the picking.

We’ll have a lot more tips and tricks, including examples, in the constructive criticism guidelines that button will take your readers to, so stay tuned. In the meantime…

Happy reading!