1. yagr
    Offline

    yagr Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Jan 10, 2012
    Messages:
    320
    Likes Received:
    166
    Location:
    West Coast

    Critiquing abysmal works.

    Discussion in 'The Art of Critique' started by yagr, Jan 27, 2012.

    I was asked to sit in on a college writing class last night. The students were to submit a narrative which then was sent around the room and the other students critiqued the piece, making and adding your notations/corrections/suggestions on the papers as each made its way around the room. Despite my newness to creative writing and my many faults, I had no idea where to begin; which brings me to my question. How does one critique an abysmal piece constructively?

    To put this into perspective, fifty percent or better had mispellings on every single line. I believe two papers used paragraphs. No one had apparently ever heard of a semicolon and probably a quarter had a single piece of punctuation consisting of the period at the end of the paper. Random capital letters, run on sentences, sentence fragments, etc. were rampant. I don't know how to begin discussing content.

    I know we are all at different stages of our writing abilities and I would like to be helpful in such a situation (which, to a degree applies here as well, though nothing is nearly as poorly written here). What I did last night was to focus on one area that needed improvement, such as grammer or spelling, and ignored everything else. Do you recommend this strategy? Would you recommend a different technique? I have been invited back and plan on going. If nothing else, as the adage goes: "If you want to learn something; teach it." I need some direction.

    Thank you.
     
  2. shadowwalker
    Offline

    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 27, 2011
    Messages:
    3,299
    Likes Received:
    851
    If many/most of the works had grammar, spelling, and basic skills problems, then I would probably comment on that separately from an actual critique. I would be interested to know what the teacher's opinions were on that problem, frankly. On the other hand, if these were the formidable "first drafts", then I'd drop it and hope these students actually did know some basic skills.

    JMO, but a good constructive critique will mention an overall opinion of the piece, then include some areas that were particularly well done and the problem areas that stood out. Pay attention to what the other crits are, so you can merely agree (if they mention the same things), or disagree (if it seems important). Some writers want more nit-picky (editing) advice, but I would assume in this arena the more generalized version would be more appropriate.
     
  3. Cogito
    Offline

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 19, 2007
    Messages:
    35,935
    Likes Received:
    2,043
    Location:
    Massachusetts, USA
    There is no need to be comprehensive. Instead of picking out every flaw, summarize the top three to five and give some examples from the writing to illustrate. Distinguish between spelling errors that should have been found by a spell checker (like "teh" or "sudenly") from usage or other careless mistakes ("new" when they meant "knew", or "web sight" instead of "web site").

    That way, they can learn a few principals instead of trying to wade through a sea of red ink.
     
  4. JackElliott
    Offline

    JackElliott Senior Member

    Joined:
    Jul 17, 2011
    Messages:
    155
    Likes Received:
    12
    You basically just wrote your critique here.

    "It had so many grammatical errors I found it difficult to focus on the content of the story."

    I don't agree with this notion that "good" and "constructive" criticism ought to have something positive along with the negative. Sometimes there is no positive worth mentioning. More people should realize that the time invested in writing up a critique is a positive itself, because someone has actually bothered to consider your work for a length of time and bothered, also, to put those considerations into thoughtful sentences.
     
  5. Mallory
    Offline

    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 27, 2010
    Messages:
    4,274
    Likes Received:
    191
    Location:
    Tampa Bay
    Definitely don't go through their entire manuscript to correct all of the mistakes. You aren't their 4th-grade language arts teacher and that's not your job. Just pick out maybe three concepts -- like a one-sentence explanation of "your" vs. "you're" and etc. Spend one small paragraph giving general grammar advice, but don't focus on it too much.

    I agree with Cog here. Pick a handful of issues and address them in a big-picture way.

    And be civil about it. You can be brutally honest, and nice, at the same time. It's not hard to phrase something as "You have an interesting idea, but there are a lot of areas I'd suggest you work on" rather than "Your story has so many problems I can't even count them and is a steaming pile of crap." Keep in mind that some people are very sensitive about having work critiqued. Don't sugercoat excessively or beat around the bush, but don't be a bitch either.
     
    1 person likes this.
  6. TDFuhringer
    Offline

    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 28, 2012
    Messages:
    589
    Likes Received:
    262
    Location:
    Somewhere South of Midnight
    I had to do this in the creative writing course I took a few years ago. I've boiled critiquing down to a very simple formula that works no matter how bad the writing is.

    Pick one thing only that worked. Explain why it worked and how to improve it. Then pick one thing only that didn't work at all. Explain why it didn't work and how to improve it.

    If you try to handle too many points your critique will end up being valueless. If you focus only on either the negative or the positive, they won't learn much. I find this balanced approach works and rarely upsets anyone.
     
    1 person likes this.
  7. Cosmic Latte
    Offline

    Cosmic Latte Member

    Joined:
    Jan 16, 2012
    Messages:
    69
    Likes Received:
    3
    Location:
    Under the starry, starry sky...
    There are a lot of good comments here already. I haven't given or received many critiques, but do I know someone who might fit into your "abysmal" category for the problems he has with spelling and grammar. He is very much aware of his shortcomings and is working at learning this on his own. And yet, although he works with English Major graduates who could give him an educated critique, he chooses to bring his work to me (which is really flattering). He assures me the reason he brings his work to me for critique is because I enjoy writing.

    I do a fast read through, note where the spelling and grammar problems interfere with the story, then I re-read it for content. The only spelling and grammar I critique are where the problems seriously interfere with the meaning behind what he's written. He has to catch the rest on his own. The bulk of the critique I give focuses on theme, narrative presentation, repetition or development of concepts that add/subtract from what it sounds like he's trying to say. I try to provide enough commentary to be helpful but not overwhelming, and I always try to give a synopsis of both what worked well and what didn't work well.

    He's not yet ready to be published, but I wouldn't be surprised if one day he does decide to go that route. It's one thing to ask for a critique from someone who knows how you are working out your shortcomings, and another to submit your work to a class, an internet group, or an editor. The purpose for writing may be different, and I think the review should fit the purpose.
     
  8. mammamaia
    Offline

    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

    Joined:
    Nov 21, 2006
    Messages:
    19,316
    Likes Received:
    1,014
    Location:
    Coquille, Oregon
    ditto that, in spades!

    [btw, does anyone here know what the bleep 'in spades' actually refers to, other than being another way of saying 'for sure!'?]
     
  9. shadowwalker
    Offline

    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 27, 2011
    Messages:
    3,299
    Likes Received:
    851
    We always said "in spades" meaning "a great many". From what I found doing a quick check, it supposedly came from the card game Bridge (spades being the highest suit), and evolved from there.
     
  10. Cogito
    Offline

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 19, 2007
    Messages:
    35,935
    Likes Received:
    2,043
    Location:
    Massachusetts, USA
    Or it may simply mean by the shovelful. "Pile it on, boys!"
     
  11. art
    Offline

    art Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 5, 2010
    Messages:
    1,159
    Likes Received:
    113
    It's always nice to try and say something positive. If the writing is absolutely without merit it is always possible to reach outside the writing for that positive:

    You strike me as a very sensitive, perceptive soul, so I'm surprised your characters are so wooden.
    You're so bright and witty, I'm a little shocked your dialogue lacks sparkle.
    Your forum posts are often brilliant, I wonder why this is so bad.

    and so on

    Note that these positives are qualities of the intellect and of the understanding etc etc
    It would not do to say:

    Your hair is so delightfully glossy, I can't believe you wrote this gibberish.
     
    1 person likes this.
  12. krtr
    Offline

    krtr Member

    Joined:
    Feb 2, 2012
    Messages:
    25
    Likes Received:
    2
    Location:
    Hessen, Germany
    If you want to learn how to critique bad writers, practice on the souls of fictionpress.

    I like to find the good things in the story and talk about those first. Is there something solid in the plot? Does a particular character show a glimmer of greatness? Have they managed to use a good, strong vocabulary? Praise those things first. When you first offer praise it makes any harsher critique to follow easier to take. It also makes you easier to listen to because you're no longer an 'enemy.'
     
  13. Mckk
    Offline

    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Dec 30, 2010
    Messages:
    4,749
    Likes Received:
    2,534
    Your examples of trying to be "nice" is really, really harsh! How on earth does "I wonder why this is so bad" sound remotely positive or useful even if you did embed it with a piece of praise before? It rather sounds like you're trying to be sarcastic and therefore, actually more mean than if you'd just said in simple language, "It's bad."

    As for the OP - probably pick only one major flaw and focus on it and explain why it didn't work, and suggest other ways of doing it etc. I think the key isn't so much that you have to give at least one piece of praise as it is that you simply have to say what you have to say in a sensitive way. Sometimes there just isn't anything to praise, but if you handle it sensitively, it could still be encouraging. Of course the writer himself/herself must also have thick skin - some people can't take criticism no matter how sensitively you put it across.

    I wouldn't focus on grammar unless it significantly impacts on the meaning - eg. it is confusing or incomprehensible. Sometimes people don't proof-read their own stuff before handing it in, and these are the "easy" mistakes that a spell-checker would pick up. They don't need an editor or writer to do that for them. I'd personally only make a passing comment like "focus on your grammar more" then give one example, or comment on one or two errors if they're recurring and quite important, like "its" and "it's". Unless of course it's someone's absolute final draft for a book they're about to push out to an agent and it needs to be absolutely perfect and you're in the "polishing the final details" stage - but that doesn't sound like what you're doing :)
     
  14. madhoca
    Offline

    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Dec 1, 2008
    Messages:
    2,527
    Likes Received:
    88
    Location:
    the shadow of the velvet fortress
    Sometimes you can say it's hard to be objective because it's a genre you are not interested in--what others may love, you were unable to engage with--and that way you've wriggled out of it!
     
  15. HanibalII
    Offline

    HanibalII New Member

    Joined:
    Feb 4, 2012
    Messages:
    6
    Likes Received:
    0
    Location:
    Australia, NSW
    I agree with this, If you've taken the time to actually read somebodies piece of work, then thats already positively reinforcing the idea that it isnt complete garbage. I say any feedback is good feeback, even if somebody says its terrible and still needs alot of work.
     
  16. fb.
    Offline

    fb. New Member

    Joined:
    Feb 4, 2012
    Messages:
    11
    Likes Received:
    1
    Personally, if I can think of something nice to say, then I will. Demoralised people are more likely to give up then improve. Antagonised people will instinctively challenge criticism without taking it onboard.

    I think sugaring your feedback ever-so-slightly makes it more likely to work. One positive comment will make the writer receptive to negatives and give incentive to fix them.
     
  17. shadowwalker
    Offline

    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 27, 2011
    Messages:
    3,299
    Likes Received:
    851
    Really, this is a universal truth for any kind of critique or evaluation. Companies [that know what they're doing] teach their managers to give employee evaluations this way - start with the positive, move to the 'needs improvement'. You don't want to browbeat them - you want to help them improve. You don't want them to quit - you want them to succeed.
     
  18. Mallory
    Offline

    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

    Joined:
    Jun 27, 2010
    Messages:
    4,274
    Likes Received:
    191
    Location:
    Tampa Bay
    Even if a person's work has no redeeming qualities, you can still find SOMEthing nice to say. If everything outside their writing style is crappy, look at what they were TRYING to achieve. If they had a cool premise, a powerful theme they were trying to convey, a strong-minded or independent character (even if the characterization is awful) you can still compliment those things.

    Saying something is "really bad" is ineffective for the same reasons as saying it's "really good." Instead of saying that, say WHY it's really bad without that wording.

    I'm a very direct person, all for straightforward honesty, and hate wishy-washy avoidance of the truth just as much as you guys. But there are a couple of things to understand here:

    - Some people are far more emotionally attached to their work than others. Some people are logic-based, objective, and able to distance themselves personally from their work (T types/thinkers), while others are emotion-based and feel very personally connected to their work (F types/Feelers). I'm a T type and don't mind harsh criticism, but my best friend is an F type and gets hurt very deeply when someone is rude in regards to her writing. She's a good writer, but feels so emotionally invested in her work that you need to be thoughtful in the way you point out constructive criticism. Some people are far more sensitive about this stuff than others. You'd probably feel attacked if someone made rude criticisms about your family, religion or lack thereof, values, life decisions, etc., and some people feel this level of protectiveness about their writing. I'm NOT saying that you can't constructively critique emotional-based people, but do need to be kind about it.

    - Saying something is "bad," "poorly written" etc instead of more objective and specific phrases ("too many infodumps," "inconsistent characters," "many grammatical issues" etc) will just make you sound like those holier-than-thou elites who act like they are better than everybody else because they're above it all. There was a girl in one of my workshop classes (a few years ago) who was like this. She had nothing nice to say about anybody's stories the entire semester. People just thought she was self-righteous and arrogant.
     
  19. minstrel
    Offline

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Jul 11, 2010
    Messages:
    8,724
    Likes Received:
    4,821
    Location:
    Near Los Angeles
    I've found a lot of professional critics and author interviewers use the word "problematic" when they don't like something. I guess they think it cushions the blow of negative criticism. I read interviews in which the interviewer says something like this, for example: "I wanted to ask you about your latest novel. I found it problematic because it seemed to me the theme got muddled in the final third, when your main character converted to Catholicism ..." Or something like that. It seems to be a way of saying "I think your latest novel is crap" without saying it's crap. It's saying "I respect your artistic intentions, but you screwed up." But the word "problematic" goes down easier than "crap" or "screwed up."
     
  20. Cogito
    Offline

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    May 19, 2007
    Messages:
    35,935
    Likes Received:
    2,043
    Location:
    Massachusetts, USA
    Believe it or not, this is not always true. Soon after I was a site Reviewer (a role that is no longer in use), I was asked to critique a short play by a young Asian member. If it had not been a direct request, I would have passed on it. It was intended to be a light drama, but but it was a truly horrible piece, with nearly indecipherable misspellings, atrocious grammar, and such offensively bigoted stereotypes, including a Japanese father figure who talked like a bad caricature of Charlie Chan, that I really could find nothing positive to say. I don't how this young Japanese American could have written it without wincing.

    I really felt bad for the kid, but I had to be honest. I was as gentle as possible, but his only real option was to learn from his mistakes and try again from scratch.

    Don't bother looking for it. It was an offline critique, which we were more permissive about back then.
     
  21. fb.
    Offline

    fb. New Member

    Joined:
    Feb 4, 2012
    Messages:
    11
    Likes Received:
    1

    When I was 15, during an informal chat, my GCSE* Art teacher admitted that he often used "interesting" as a tactful euphemism for cr*p.

    Sadly, he forget that he'd said this, and spent the rest of the course telling me that everything I did was "interesting".

    *UK exams taken by school leavers at 16.
     
  22. TDFuhringer
    Offline

    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Jan 28, 2012
    Messages:
    589
    Likes Received:
    262
    Location:
    Somewhere South of Midnight
    Ha ha! One of my female cousins once told me that during a date, if a woman says, "interesting..." to me, I'm doomed because it means exactly the opposite. :)
     
  23. Batgoat
    Offline

    Batgoat Senior Member

    Joined:
    Jul 9, 2011
    Messages:
    110
    Likes Received:
    2
    Location:
    New Zealand
    Interesting...

    I found myself using that when I used to teach High School English...

    That and combining "Good!" with several expressive gestures designed to mean, "But we can improve on it!"
     
  24. Chad J Sanderson
    Offline

    Chad J Sanderson Member

    Joined:
    Sep 27, 2011
    Messages:
    56
    Likes Received:
    1
    Location:
    Statesboro, Georgia, United States
    This is actually a pretty heavily debated subject. Donald Daiker wrote a short essay on critiquing badly written work called "Learning to Praise." Daiker says that often times people improve the most when there is at least some positive reinforcement about their writing. On top of that it's been shown that putting too much emphasis on the criticism, however positive (and I mean in volume) can overload a writer to the point that they don't fix anything and actually get worse! My usual style of critique is to read a piece through and force myself to find at least one thing positive before I mark ANYTHING related to spelling or grammar. This helps me, as a reviewer, to look at the piece in ways I hadn't before. I might find the order of a particular sentence to be interesting, or the unorthodox transitions might be a refreshing relief from the norm. It doesn't have to be much, maybe just a sentence or two about something specific. Obviously, grammar is still very important, but it's very easy to crush someone's spirit if that's all you focus on. As long as they have hope for improvement, Daiker says they will be much more susceptible to actually to better themselves. This is particularly true in grade-school.
     
  25. munkyphile
    Offline

    munkyphile Member

    Joined:
    Feb 24, 2012
    Messages:
    24
    Likes Received:
    1
    In various card games, traditionally the value of cards is this: Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, Spades. Spades being the most valuable, and clubs being the least. "In spades" simply refers to getting the highest return or most valuable return from your investment.

    Also, I recall a friend of mine having to do the same exercise as part of her class, and she ran into the same problem. She started writing "Waste of my time" at the top of each one, and that was it. Not something I would necessarily recommend, but sometimes people need to hear something cruel to wake up about the fact that they ought to put more effort into their work.
     

Share This Page