Critique Technique, Part 55 — Good Job!

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One of the real pleasures of being a critiquer, especially if you’re part of a writers’ group, is seeing new writers develop, watching their work get better and better with each revision or new chapter or story. When that happens, it’s important to not only acknowledge those improvements, but reinforce them by telling the writer what they did well and how it’s better than their previous work. This final series of articles is going to address that requirement, starting with specific details and growing to larger-scale successes.

What to Praise

There are many, many things a writer can succeed at that deserve attention and praise, especially when they’re things the writer struggled with before. Here’s just a partial list:

  • A character description, whether a specific trait or the broader drawing of him.
  • Dialogue that is crisp and clear—or intentionally vague as one character tries to deceive another, hides her true intentions, or doesn’t know what she wants.
  • The description of a place, setting, or scene. This can range from a moment or a very localized place—a room—to an entire city, swath of country side, or even a historical period.
  • The description of an action, from a single, telling gesture, placed at just the right moment, all the way up to an entire scene, be it an act of caring—a love scene, say—or an act of violence—a fight scene, for example.
  • The description of an emotion, particularly when it’s done in such a way that the reader’s own emotions are engaged in an empathetic way: they feel what the character is feeling. This often happens through subtle descriptions of the character’s behaviors as they experience those emotions, rather than through simplistic “telling.” For example, in my book The Eternity Plague I show one of my character’s uncertainty by having her run her fingertips back and forth along the edge of her desk. Between the dialogue surrounding this action and the action itself, it’s clear that Janet is uncertain about what she’s supposed to do next.
  • A particular word choice, turn of phrase, or passage that shines. A poet friend of mine once used the phrase “tincture of time” to describe the healing properties of allowing time to pass after a sad event.  She captured the droplet-by-droplet pace of healing in the uncommon word tincture and tied it into a nice bit of alliteration with the repeated t’s and the hard-hard-soft-hard rhythm of the phrase.
  • When work has improved overall. If you’re a part of a critique group, you may well see the same chapter or piece several times as the writer works to make it better. When it does get better, say so, but be sure to explain what has improved.

Of course, there are many other things that might catch your attention and cause you to say “wow!” or “very nice!” or “that’s so much better.” Whatever the positive reaction, it’s important to not just feel it yourself, but to share that feeling with the author. Mark the phrase or passage in the manuscript and add a comment.

While a simple “Well done!” is good, a more detailed comment is better, even if you’re going to deliver the critique verbally as well. Using the example from my book above, a reviewer might have said, “I like the way you showed us Janet’s uncertainty here. We could tell she wasn’t sure what she should do. You didn’t have to come out and say so.” Telling the writer why and how they succeeded helps them solidify their understanding so they’ll be able to repeat that success.

Avoid Empty Praise

A few final words about praise. A vague, generic, “Well, I liked it…” doesn’t do the job. It doesn’t help the author because it doesn’t tell them anything they can build from. That’s why I keep mentioning being specific. That phrase is too often a form of “social lubrication,” an artificial way to try to make the author feel good about themselves. Or it can be a sign that either the reviewer doesn’t really know what to say, or fears hurting the writer’s feelings.

Praise should be given only when it’s deserved. While most writers, especially new ones, can use a boost to their self-esteem every now and then, that’s not the purpose of critique. There’s no place in good critique for empty fawning. No one should get a trophy and a parade down Main Street simply for submitting their work. Praise needs to be legitimately earned.

What are your thoughts about when, why, and how to praise a writer’s work? Other readers will genuinely appreciate it if you share your ideas in the comments box below.

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