1. funkybassmannick
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    funkybassmannick Contributing Member

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    Ideal Criticism Ratio?

    Discussion in 'The Art of Critique' started by funkybassmannick, Feb 18, 2012.

    Hey all,

    What's an ideal positive to negative comment ratio when critiquing someone's writing?

    My sister just gave me a story she's been working on for years. I've been encouraging her to finish it and give it to me, and now it's happened! Very exciting. I don't think she's ever written something outside of class and had it critiqued, so I definitely want to give her a more than ideal amount of positive criticism to encourage her, but I also want to know what the "ideal"is.

    Thank you!

    Edit: Forget I said "positive" and "negative" and think about the ratio between "Praise" and "Constructive Criticism"
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    There should be no negative comments. Negative comments are derogatory remarks that don't suggest a way to improve the writing.

    A positive comment tells you what you can do to make it better. A slightly less positive comment tells you what NOT to change under any circumstances.

    A fluff comment gushes and swoons. It tells you nothing.

    So your question is pretty meaningless. Constructive comments are desireable in any quantity, but it depends on what you do with them. Praise is good for stroking fragile egos, but as a writer, you should get used to no praise in critiques. You probably won't see any big praise in the few personalized response you get from submissions.
     
  3. funkybassmannick
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    funkybassmannick Contributing Member

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    Sorry, I didn't choose the best words. "Praise" and "Constructive Criticism" are what I'm going for, so thank you for that.

    Cogito, you seem to say that praise is only good for stroking egos. I disagree. It's important to know what you are doing well, what is coming across as good writing. Then, when you go back for a re-write, you know better which elements to keep.

    I also disagree that, in reviewing a peer's work, you should refrain from praise in order to prep the other person for submissions. 1) Not everyone who asks for writing critique is ever going to get to the submission stage 2) Praise can offer an emotional buffer so that if they do get harsh criticism, it doesn't affect them so much.

    In my double-bass performance class, we were told to give criticism in "sandwiches." Start by offering praise, then a constructive criticism, then end with another praise. It really helps, especially if you are nervous about performing and getting critiqued. I believe this concept is similar

    My sister is brand new to being critiqued. If I focused only on the things she could improve, my fear is that she would be dissuaded from writing altogether. That is the exact opposite effect I want to have.
     
  4. FourCartridge
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    FourCartridge New Member

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    Well, I've never reviewed something myself, but I say the "proper" ratio would be to start out with a generalized opinion, then go to criticism, and end on a high note with what you liked. Often times I find that the last sentences in a review are what leaves the most impact when I write.

    Also, in my opinion, "potential" is an empty word. It basically means that you can't really find something positive in a work and you're just sugarcoating it.
     
  5. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    there is not and should not be any standard 'ratio' for critique... each piece of work is different and calls for a different amount of critical correction vs praise...

    in fact, much of what i must deal with in my editing and mentoring work has no redeeming virtues whatsoever, so all of the critique necessarily will be pointing out things that need to be corrected and/or otherwise improved...

    the point should be to not merely list what's wrong, but explain why it is and give some clue to how the writer can correct it and avoid making such mistakes in future...
     
  6. Jowettc
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    Jowettc Contributing Member

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    Ditto MM above...clearly a well travelled expert in critiquing.

    Be honest. Be age relevant - if you can.

    Different age groups take criticism of any kind / positive or negative in different ways. Younger age groups tend to be more defensive of their feelings, emotions and justifications. Psychologists would suggest this has something to do with a thin cushion of previous emotions / experiences to fall back on. The, *ahem*, older age groups, like myself *cough 40 ish cough* tend to be less bothered by critcism - we have usually learned by this stage that we can cherry pick the negative from the positive and see it as a means to improve and not a personal justification exercise.

    Flattery is just that - pointless flattery..and I hate to sund cliched but in the writing business, and make no mistake it is a business like any other if you intend to go at it seriously, professional editors are not going to give you any flattery. Even some of the best writers in the world still get ideas canned by their editors and publishers.

    If your sister is young, as I believe you are saying, try phrases like, "I see what you intended for this sentence but I think it would read better if...., "I like the words you used in this description but i think it would read better if you moved this one to here.... and so on, and of course the last best tip to anyone about anything - approach it from the point of view of how you would like others to approach your work.
     
  7. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    When I took online classes from Gotham, they advised us in the first course to try to mention two things you thought your fellow student did well, and then two things you thought they should work on some more. The idea is that if the praise comes first, the "constructive criticism" goes down a little easier and is more likely to be accepted in the spirit in which it's given. The first course is, obviously, intended for inexperienced writers who've never participated in the workshop and critiquing process.

    They didn't emphasize that in the later courses, because it was assumed that all the participants were experienced in both critiquing and being critiqued. There was a bit more free-for-all going on there, but the criticism was still constructive. Besides, in the later courses, you have better students, so you don't have to deal with stories that are completely hopeless.
     
  8. 1000screams
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    1000screams Member

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    There is nothing wrong with pointing out things that worked or that you especially liked, this is what I think you mean by "praise" it's not really praise, unless you are gushing about how wonderful something is, just to say this last paragraph was great, I liked it... isn't praise, it's just stating what worked. Pieces I can't find one good quality about, I won't critique it. If I can find at least 2 redeeming qualities to a piece I'll pass on a critique, but won't refrain from pointing out everything that didn't work for me. When I put something out there, I'm just happy if someone actually takes the time to read it and has suggestions to make it better. Just getting comments of "I liked it" ect are nice, but there isn't much being gotten out of them, because I doubt any piece I put up for crit can really be that well written that there's nothing wrong with it.

    I've been discouraged after getting something critiqued...it happens...not as often anymore, but during the early years I'd cry for hours over all the red marks on my paper. I'd abandon stories, I'd stop writing for a month at a time. But I grew from it. Eventually the easily shattered exterior builds up into a thick callous and getting critiqued actually becomes an enjoyable learning experience.

    Criting for your sister, probably not a good choice. I don't review anything from extremely close friends or relatives. They will take offense to anything that is remotely negative, and will pretty much expect you (even if they haven't stated this) to love it and gush on them. This is why I ask strangers to read my work, at least stuff I have no desire to publish on more than a blog. No one has emotional investment, unlike family, where a harsh criticism could strain the relationship.
     
  9. funkybassmannick
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    funkybassmannick Contributing Member

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    Exactly. I totally agree.

    And to Jowettc, I think it's less of an age-related issue, but more of an issue about experience and confidence. How experienced one is with criticism affects how harsh of criticism they can take, because they are used to it. Also confidence. These days, when I write something, I want people to be brutal, because I am confident in my writing and I want to be challenged. This is what I think minstrel is talking about. In his upper-level courses, people have more experience and confidence.

    To Jowettc, I disagree that I should approach critiquing others the same way I want others to approach me, because people are different. I am confident and experienced, and therefore I want different criticism than my sister, who is less confident and less experienced. You should critique the way that will most benefit the writer.

    I also agree with Mammamaia that merely stating what is wrong is often pointless. You can't just say "This is bad" to the overall story. You have to pinpoint at least a little. "What's bad about it?" "Well, this sentence is bad for starters." When someone tells me "This sentence is bad," I can usually infer what they mean and fix it, even without more explanation. I disagree, however, that there are times when there are no redeeming qualities in a work. It's impossible to write something that has no redeeming qualities in it at all. Surely, they must have at least one correct sentence, to which you can say, "This is a good sentence. Keep doing sentences like that." It could be a good sentence, an intriguing dialogue, a good word choice, anything. Even if it is obvious to us, it doesn't mean it is obvious to them. When we point it out, they will learn a lot form that by trying to replicate what they've already done well.

    To 1000screams, I disagree that saying "This sentence is good" is not praise. While praise can mean something really excessive, it can also mean "The expression of approval for something." Minor compliments, etc. are by definition praise.

    Also to 1000screams, I agree that critiques from close friends and family come off as harsher, and I think that is because one cares so much about their opinion. I disagree that one should thus refrain from either critiquing their writing or having them to critique yours. Instead, because it comes off as harsher, you should go a little easier on them. You should just give them more praise to make the constructive criticism go down easier, as Fourcartridge and Minstrel have suggested.

    I find my close friends and family the best ones to critique my work. They care about me, so they are the ones that will read my work right away and will think hard about how to improve my story. They will give me more of their time than a stranger would. Because I know them, I can talk to them over the phone or face-to-face about my story, asking them questions that go even deeper into the story. For example, my dad gave me some excellent advice on a recent story about how to clear up many of my sentences. After he was done, I asked him how my characters were coming across, etc. A stranger might give you more of their time, but probably not as much as a close friend or family member.
     
  10. Chad J Sanderson
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    Chad J Sanderson Member

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    Praise is good and extremely necessary when critiquing a lesser experienced writer. I typically begin reading a piece as is, without making any grammar or content marks. This is the time to really find out what the author is trying to get across. Then I reread, focusing solely on the strong points. In my final read through I mark up the paper. My critique boils down to the three strongest points and the three weakest points. These could be specific, usually in the case of talented writers, or broad in the case of the not so talented. It's almost like writing an essay. Your overall impressions give a general idea of what to work on, and your comments on the work itself provide specific examples.

    So my personal ratio is 3 to 3, although that fluctuates depending on the ability of the writer.
     
  11. Chad J Sanderson
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    Chad J Sanderson Member

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    I agree that some work has almost no redeeming value, but it's good to have a system. When I grade high school creative writing papers I sometimes forget to look for positive remarks to be made because the content can be so poor. However, the kids who have gotten any sort of praise at all, even if it's "you had some good ideas" or "you can turn this into a great paper" usually try harder and show improvement. Giving no praise can really crush someone. I've seen it happen. You don't need to tell people they're the next Faulkner, but every piece has at least one thing to smile about, if only that it was written.

    Now if we're talking writers who have dedicated themselves to the craft and have sizable experience, don't hold back on the red pen.
     
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  12. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    A system? Critiquing is not a trade. It's a creative art. Approach it creatively.

    Now I'm not saying it's wrong to say something nice in a critique. I'm saying it doesn't give the writer anything useful. It's true that new writers crave something soothing, but there's nothing wrong with just offering constructive recommendations without a bunch of sugar coating.

    I'd much rather get sincere, no-nonsense recommendations than empty, insincere flattery. The fact that someone felt my writing was worth the time to read through and pick apart is praise enough.
     
  13. Chad J Sanderson
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    Chad J Sanderson Member

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    You're also a practiced writer (I'm assuming) that has been in the field for a good number years, possibly published, and validated. Believe it or not, there a lots of people that don't have the same assurance in their writing that you do, and may not respond to sincere criticism the same way, especially young authors that are just beginning to write seriously. Praise does give the writer something useful: confidence. Like I said, you may not need it, but there are many that do.

    Critiquing can be both an art and a system. They aren't mutually exclusive. Grammar (in essence) is a system, but it's implementation is artistic.
     
  14. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I was thinking about this today.
    I have a simplified model for how I categorize someone's work. There's beginner, good writer, and great writer.

    To become a good writer, there's a specific amount of things you need to have in your work. Let's call the total A. To become a great writer, you need to have A plus a whole new set of requirements called B.

    The requirements in A are basic writing skills like grammar, decent vocabulary, decent sentence structure, clarity, voice,originality, etc. I'd like to think these requirements are fairly objective, meaning most people would rate someone's work the same based on this criteria alone.

    The set of requirements in B, however, are more subjective. These are the things that separate really good or great writers from just good writers. Qualities in B might be exceptional voice or structure, masterful vocabulary, beautiful prose, the ability to inspire,etc. I say these things are more subjective because, while no one, generally, is going to deny that a famous writer is a good writer, people will argue about which famous writers are really great or not and which ones are better.

    If someone's working is lacking A, they need criticism. You can criticize someone( constructively) for forming awkward sentences or using poor grammar. Conversely, you can't criticize someone for lacking something in B. The reason for this is that the qualities in A most people can attain through practice. The qualities in B, such as high creativity or beautiful prose, might not be that easily accessible to all people (just like we can't all slam dunk).

    On the flip size, I'm not going to praise someone for having A, unless I've followed their work consistently and have noticed an improvement in such qualities. Having good sentence structure as a writer is something you need to have. The motivation to having it is so that whatever qualities you might have or later have in B can be more easily enjoyed by the writer. Not being critiqued for lacking qualities in A should be reward enough for someone who displays good writing.

    Displaying properties in B in my opinion is when someone should be praised. I think it's hard to objectively look at your own work and perceive when something is really great or not. Something you write might be super meaningful to you but not to others. That's when you need praise.

    This system of mine is in no ways an attempt at snobbery. I genuinely feel it is the best form of communication. It very quickly let's you know where you stand. Criticism means you have to do so and so to make your work good writing. Praise means your work is that close to being great. Praise plus criticism means you your piece could potentially be great. Neither means you got the technical skills down and now you got to let out your inner artist. That's probably the most frustrating level to be at but obviously this is an idealized system and no such person should ever get critique like that :)
     
  15. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i'll leave you all with just this one thought:

    i've been an editor for nearly 6 decades and i can assure you that the vast majority of professional editors do NOT use any 'system' when critiquing material for consideration, or editing material for publication... neither do they have time to spend on handing out praise, most of the time... that's a fact of life in the cold, cruel publishing world, kids...
     
  16. funkybassmannick
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    funkybassmannick Contributing Member

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    No one is saying that professional editors should hand out praise, and no one is saying the publishing world is warm and fuzzy. Thus, no one is arguing against your point, mostly because it has already been established within the discussion.

    I feel like the discussion is leaning more on when it is a good idea to give praise. For example, a high school teacher should give her students praise in order to encourage them to grow. Similarly, a person may be hypersensitive to criticism from a family member, and thus the critic should give praise in order to provide a spoonful of sugar. As a writer gains experience and confidence, praise becomes less necessary. Professional editors would only deal with writers who have moderate confidence and experience. It's a professional relationship, and so the writer would expect a professional response: one without spoonfuls of sugar.

    If this post is in response to what I said about "Redeeming qualities," you said that there are often no redeeming qualities in the work that you get. Well, there are always redeeming qualities, but it is your choice as a professional whether or not to point them out.
     
  17. Chad J Sanderson
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    Chad J Sanderson Member

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    The above poster answered with most of my points, but I will say this: everything has a system. There are rules to critiquing (or there should be, in my opinion) the same way there are rules to writing. With experience those rules can be broken. Yes, of course it's a creative process, no one is denying that. But I feel like it should have some structure. Just my opinion.

    And while I respect your position as an editor, there is a big difference between a new writer asking for a feedback from a brother or sister, and an experienced author submitting work to be published. Completely different expectations.
     

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