Critiquing a Colleague’s Work, Part I

Years after completing our MFA and adrift without the aid of a writer’s group, we may still be just as confused about what’s the most helpful, most constructive sort of criticism to give a colleague who requests our commentary. We might be rusty if we’ve been away from formal structured criticism. A professor one semester might have advised us to focus on dialogue, another semester that idea was contradicted. And the whole matter of what makes good criticism might have never been settled, might never be settled, might just be the same sort of muddling we trudge through when we edit our own work.

When a colleague asks us to lend assistance in critiquing his work how can we be sure to do him justice?

Start with a semblance of a plan.

“Our first duty as readers is to try and understand what the writer is making from the first word with which he builds his first sentence to the last with which he ends his book. We must not impose our design upon him; we must not try to make him conform his will to ours.” Virginia Woolf sagaciously instructs us when we read for a colleague that’s precisely the gist of it. We read for him, not for our own ego, not to bandy about our own intelligence or sharpen the thin blades of superiority. We read for the writer’s sake, or, more precisely, we read for the work itself. The work is a living breathing entity, the spirit in the rock that our writer-colleague is sculpting into shape. We are assisting in the search for veins. We are helping to add perspective, shed new light, and lend guidance to the potential of what is already there.

With that said, we should read to learn from our colleague and hone awareness of our own aesthetics and predilections. We read to learn. It’s okay be to a little selfish. If there are two or three things that we’re struggling with in our own story, and our colleague hasn’t given any specific instructions on what kind of commentary he’s expecting then why should we not take liberty and read for what we’re editing in our own work? Albert Molio in Fence’s Issue “The Talking Cure: Contemporary Fiction and its Critics” (V8 N1 & 2) argues for us, “More crucial, though, is the fact that when writers write about writing they are conducting a form of self-interrogation. That is to say, in the truest sense, reviewers review themselves.” Why should we be ashamed or embarrassed? We write to learn and improve. We read to learn and improve. The process is cyclical, never ending. Read in anticipation. Read actively searching for what we can hopefully apply to our own work.

Anytime we read for critique, we must remind ourselves that we’ll never catch everything, and our colleague certainly wouldn’t want us to try and catch every typo, every single slip of grammar or craft misstep. No one wants to see their work dipped in red, and its more productive to stick to two or three main concerns rather than trying to scrutinize every word and every line. We must be selective and use our time and our colleague’s energy and patience wisely.

Read first with an open mind and, as Woolf charges us, figure out what our colleague is trying to do. Shut out any preconceived notions, any bias we have for certain styles and aesthetics and try to figure out what this story is about on its own. Let the story BE before bringing our thoughts to it. Let the pen alone and save marking for the second read.

Before reading for the second time, summarize what we think the story is about. Be sure to include this in our notes to our colleague. It helps to see what comes across and, more importantly, what doesn’t come across for the writer. Then, with pen at hand, or Track Comments activated on our Word app, read with careful attention to our list of two to three specific concerns.

In our commentary, would it not be wise to apply The Golden Rule as we scribble our comments and jot our reactions? Would we not want someone to call attention to our tics and point out that we have a tendency to misuse commas or paint passive characters? One of the most beneficial, most constructive aspects of having a fresh set of eyes review our work is that this new perspective can track imagery, symbols, and figurative language throughout the story, and see how these techniques accumulate, evolve or even devolve. We can point to where our colleague might need more symmetry and when he may be laying it on too thick. It’s much easier to observe these technique’s in other writer’s works but can become nearly impossible when we’re so up close and personal to our own.

Ultimately, if we’re true to the art, we must be willing to give the brutal truth and nothing less. Flattery gets us nowhere. Keen honesty does. Read with a slavishness to savage truth but couch that truth with hope. Honor the art and inspire the artist. What more can we ask of ourselves as colleagues?

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