Blogstitute Week 3: How to critique writing

July 25th, 2011

“Offering feedback to another writer is a learned skill,” writes children’s author and teacher Kate Messner (Real Revision) in this week’s Blogstitute entry. Kate shares a real letter she received from her editor as she was working on her book The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., and walks through specific steps of what feedback should look like.

Next week’s Blogstitute post will come from Julie D. Ramsay, author of “Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?” Remember to leave comments and questions to be entered to win a package of five writing books!

How to critique writing

As a middle school English teacher and a published author, I find myself on all sides of the critique fence—giving critiques myself, teaching kids how to critique one another’s work, and receiving constructive critiques from my writing group members and my editors.

Offering feedback to another writer is a learned skill. You want to be supportive, but not so supportive that there’s no real constructive criticism. You want to be critical, but not so critical that the writer is plunged into fits of despair. You want to offer feedback while still leaving ownership of the piece and the responsibility for improving it squarely in the hands of the writer.

I’m an extremely fortunate writer; the editors with whom I’ve worked have turned constructive criticism into an art, and I think writers of all ages can learn a lot from studying an editor’s strategies for nudging an author to revise. Here are some quotes from the editorial letter that Bloomsbury/Walker editor Mary Kate Castellani sent me when we were beginning to work together on my middle-grades novel The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., along with some lessons on critiquing I’ve pulled from her model.

Dear Kate,

Four pencil nubbins and half a Pink Pearl eraser later, I’m finally returning your revision. I so enjoyed re-immersing myself in this story. In fact I got so into the story that any time someone approached my desk I jumped out of my chair because I forgot there was an outside world (or in this case . . . office). The changes you’ve made are just right and I am loving the funny parts of Gee’s voice. It’s been so much fun to reread and work on.

Lesson #1: Say something positive first.

Simple advice, but this paragraph puts me in the right frame of mind to appreciate Mary Kate’s suggestions and to believe in myself as a writer so that I’m ready to tackle the revision.

First, I want to make sure that the project’s obstacles evolve clearly and don’t feel episodic. I’ve sort of outlined them as I see them:

1.    At first Gianna is her own worst enemy by being a slightly disorganized procrastinator, better at the creative side of things and not very good at minding deadlines.
2.    Then Bianca proves to be an even worse enemy as she tries to ruin Gianna’s chances of completing her project.
3.    Then things out of her control, such as Nonna’s doctor’s visit and disappearance, take up her precious free time, really and truly making it impossible for her to finish her project.

Lesson #2: Tell the reader what you’re taking away from your reading of the manuscript.

If what Mary Kate read here isn’t what I intended, then I know I have some work to do in terms of getting my ideas across.

Gianna is foiled at almost every turn, but I wonder if her reactions at times seem a bit too mild. Her brand of stoicism and her ability to roll with things are part of her personality, but I wished she had stronger reactions when she suffers the most serious of setbacks: a) when all her leaves get thrown away (page 90) and b) when Bianca ruins all her identification cards in a super mean act of sabotage (page 105). I wonder, if Gee’s reactions are stronger, whether it will be easier to understand why she isn’t making any progress, and then later when it’s all put in perspective by Nonna’s illness it will all be even more complete. Does that make sense?

Lesson #3: Be specific in your feedback.

Here, Mary Kate doesn’t simply say that Gianna’s character needs to be developed. (If she had, I may have struggled with where to start on that momentous and vague task.)  Instead, she points out very specific instances where there are opportunities for me to make Gianna’s reactions to her situation feel more authentic.

I’m wondering if it is possible to inject more Vermont/New England. It’s sort of funny when you think of how most people romantically associate New England in the fall with mountains and the turning of the leaves and the gorgeous colors—when they are actually the bane of our main character’s existence. The scenes are there, but I found myself wishing for more of the region’s flavor.

Lesson #4: Note places where the writer may want to add sensory details.

This request from Mary Kate led to some of my favorite descriptions in the book, and students often write to me about the setting of this novel, telling me they really felt like they were experiencing autumn in Vermont. Sensory details—including those that go beyond sight—make a huge difference.

And lastly, I feel like Zig and Gianna’s “relationship” still needs just a bit of finessing. Nonna’s “prediction” emerges at an odd time when they are crouched in the classroom during a drill. I’d rather have it come right from Nonna with Zig and Gee present so that they can be thoroughly embarrassed and have that make them both realize that something might be changing between them. Then all the awkward little moments alluding to this will make sense to the reader (and to Gee as she narrates). As this situation goes from being confusing and weird for Zig and Gee to clear feelings of affection, I think it would be a more satisfying evolution. Does that make sense?

Lesson #5: Don’t be afraid to point out where things don’t make sense.

This explanation of one of the situations that didn’t feel natural to Mary Kate helped me to look at that particular relationship in the book through a wider lens and see how it could be better developed throughout. Before all was said and done during the revision of The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., the book lost its first three chapters; got a new first chapter, two new middle chapters, and a new last chapter; and underwent many smaller changes.

I think just a bit more finessing will make an already strong story even better. I’ve been having the best time working on this book, and poor Stacy has had to listen to me stop and read parts out loud so that I can share my favorite moments with someone else. She’s been very patient with me.

Lesson #6:  Wrap up on a positive note.

Again, this puts the writer in the right frame of mind to get back to work. And finally . . .

After you’ve had a chance to look this over, let me know if you think these suggestions make sense, and we can go from there.

Lesson #7: Follow up written comments with a conversation when possible.

After I receive an editorial letter, Mary Kate and I often chat on the phone so that I can ask questions and she can clarify her suggestions. Sometimes, that conversation leads to a brainstorming session that produces more out-of-the-box ideas than I might have come up with on my own. This works with students, too. Whenever possible, try to follow up a critique-writing session with a personal conference, leaving ample time for questions and brainstorming.

Remember, real revision takes time, and it can be messy, but the results are well worth the long trail of marked-up manuscripts and sticky notes they leave behind!

Entry Filed under: Writing

18 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Linda Baie  |  July 25th, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    I have read parts of your book, Real Revision and enjoyed each word/detail/idea that you’ve written, as I have here in this post. Comments to the writer are so important to aid in the struggle to keep going and to learn how to improve, thus your words “Offering feedback to another writer is a learned skill” ring true for teachers and for teachers to teach students that skill also. Thank you for a succinct article that outlines some different lessons for all of us to consider.

  • 2. heather  |  July 25th, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    What a great model for showing how to nudge writers in the direction we want them to move in. It certainly is a learned skill – I remember a parent saying to me – you have great constructive comments for my son on his work, but he also needs to hear the positive ones as well. (I’ve come a long way since then!) Thanks for sharing your seven lessons! I can see tailoring them as I work with students and their work with peer conferences.

  • 3. Michelle  |  July 25th, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    Thanks Kate for taking your real life example of real revision and breaking down the components in user friendly terms to utilize with kids. I think most teachers naturally start with a positive. (I hope!) Your second lesson you mention is powerful: Tell what you are taking away as a reader. I love this because if it’s not what the writer was going for . . . then revisions are necessary. Critiquing is an art and I do not want to frustrate or confuse or stop any of my writers from continuing their craft. Thanks for sharing your words of wisdom. A great model to follow when conferring with students about their writing.

  • 4. Mrs. V  |  July 25th, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    I loved reading the letter interspersed with Kate’s commentary. A group of my students read The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z for book clubs this spring, and more will do so next year. It seems like there is a lot of potential for discussing the letter and Kate’s comments with students who have read the book. It would give them a chance to see that published authors need to revise and glimpses into the journey to publication. That might help students to realize the importance of revision as well as helping them to be receptive to constructive criticism. Then there are all the benefits to help scaffold being able to give helpful feedback to their peers based on Kate’s recommendations. What a great post all around with potential for teachers and students.

  • 5. Kelly Mogk  |  July 26th, 2011 at 12:02 am

    I love that you shared this real look at revision. I think showing this to my class will help them to see that all writers get help with their work – we are all working to improve our craft. What a great way to highlight the importance of the relationship formed when writers work together. Thanks!

  • 6. Tracy  |  July 28th, 2011 at 10:29 am

    I, too, enjoyed reading the letter from your editor and can envision how I may use pieces of it in my own teaching. The lessons that you’ve shared remind me of writing students narratives. I’m also thinking of how your blog connects to the first week’s topic of conferences and process groups. My mind is already turning with how to link these two ideas.

  • 7. Kate Messner  |  July 28th, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts on this, commenters! (And accept my apologies for being so late to respond…I’ve been holed up in a Vermont coffee shop all week trying to finish a draft of my 2013 novel).

    Linda, when you pointed out the “learned skill” aspect of critiquing, I realized that it’s a skill I learn over and over again, because responding can be so different, depending on the writer.

    Heather, I think your memory about the parent & positive comments is a great one to share – there’s such a fine balance – and too much of either side of the critique coin, I think, can throw things off.

    Michelle, thanks for the kind words. It’s funny – I wrote this post thinking it would relate to students learning to critique one another, but I see now that it’s just as useful for teacher conferences (I hope!)

    Mrs. V. – I’m so glad this was helpful – and if your book group reads GIANNA Z. again and would like me to Skype in to answer some questions, just drop me an email from my website & we’ll find a time.

    Kelly, I love that you say “WE are all working to improve our craft” – I agree with you, that writing alongside my students is one of the biggest motivators for them.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment, Tracy! (Now I’m going to have to go back to the earlier essays to make those connections, too!)

  • 8. Just Keep Swimming…&hellip  |  July 28th, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    […] Along those lines, I have a guest post on the Stenhouse Publishers blog this week, part of their Summer Blogstitute series for educators.  My essay, “How to Critique Writing,” uses quotes from the editorial letter my editor Mary Kate sent to help me revise THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. She is smart and kind and really provides kids and teachers and writers of all ages with a great model of how to help an author make his or her writing stronger.  Here’s a link to that post. […]

  • 9. KimberlyGutierrez  |  July 29th, 2011 at 6:45 am

    I think the starting and ending positive is a huge piece! I had a child this past year who would cry just as I approached her desk during her writing time. It was very disconcerting and frustrating to me and made me not want to conference with her and risk making her dislike writing time. I always start with a positive, so I was very taken aback that she would cry each time we spoke about her writing (she was not really this way in any other subject). I had to really put on some kid gloves with her (her writing needed a lot of work and a ton of support every time we met). I started by just asking her questions and letting her share (she was very shy, so this was minimal) and then I would move on. I didn’t do any critiquing or changing of her work for weeks, I would just ask her what she planned to do next and try to guide that part of the work instead of fix what was already in print. It was a slow process, but eventually we were able to talk a bit more and she was able to let me work with her to change things. Her writing did improve, but not as much as I would have liked.

  • 10. Elizabeth G  |  July 29th, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    I have always struggled with helping my primary students with revising and editing. The balance of critiquing and not deterring seems so difficult at times. I love how you suggest being specific in the feedback. When you have a specific skill or section to focus on, it’s always less overwhelming. I need to remember to not be so vague in my suggestions.Thank you for sharing your writing and revision process. I get so much out of everything I read from you.

  • 11. How To Critique Writing |&hellip  |  August 10th, 2011 at 5:53 pm

    […] school English teacher  and published children’s author Kate Messner gives out some great tips on how to offer feedback when someone asks you to critique their […]

  • 12. Teachers Write: About Cri&hellip  |  June 14th, 2012 at 7:45 am

    […] feel sad or frustrated or so angry they want to shove their crummy manuscript up your nose.  You should read that here. Go ahead…and then come back. I’m going to get a cup of coffee while you do […]

  • 13. Teachers Write: Setting U&hellip  |  June 18th, 2012 at 1:02 am

    […] If you’re intrigued by all this, but you’re not the kind of person who likes to start things, then you can just hang out and see if anyone posts a request for critique partners in your city, or if anyone who shares your passion for memoir is looking to form a group. If you see a comment from someone you’d like to chat with about forming a group, then reply to it and figure out how you’d like to continue the conversation (email, Facebook, etc.) to work out details.  Then I’d suggest you arrange to swap just a few pages of something for a sample critique, so that you can see how it works out and figure out if you’re compatible in this way. (You can read this piece I wrote for Stenhouse to get ideas on how to offer good feedback.) […]

  • 14. Sarah  |  September 7th, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    This was a really helpful post. I’m actually a middle school student and teen author hopeful, and this is definitely going to be helpful for critiquing others. It’s really interesting to see the actual letter from your editor. Thank you!

  • 15. Elizabeth Dejean  |  June 28th, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    This is a really useful post. I can tell I will go back to it many times. Thinking about the importance of following up written comments with a conversation also makes me think that written comments and time for processing them also provide a valuable underpinning to a conference. Sometimes I think in school we try to make things happen very fast. After all – the bulletin board is due…

  • 16. Elizabeth Dejean  |  June 28th, 2013 at 5:52 pm

    I should have added the Url to my blog in the post that I just sent.

  • 17. All About Critique Groups&hellip  |  July 18th, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    […] feel sad or frustrated or so angry they want to shove their crummy manuscript up your nose.  You should read that here. Go ahead…and then come back. I’m going to get a cup of coffee while you do […]

  • 18. Laura Moore  |  July 19th, 2014 at 7:34 am

    This is excellent on so many levels. I have given my high school writers several models and clear direction for giving feedback. While these efforts have improved the quality of their peer edit sessions, I’m always looking for new ways to reach them. Your post will help a lot. It’s always more meaningful when you can share an example of real world critiquing. Thank you so much for sharing such a personal part of the writing process and allowing the rest of us to learn.

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