Last week I typed my agent a quick email explaining that I was sending along a new manuscript that I thought would be perfect for a particular editor. The note was written in present tense, but in my haste to type “I think”, I omitted the “h”. In that instant, auto-correct changed my “tink” to “tinkle”. My note now read, “I tinkle this story would be perfect to send to….” Luckily, I noticed the error before pressing send. Still, that “tinkle” got me thinking about the critique process and what our roles as critiquers should (and shouldn’t) be.
To my way of “tinkling” there are two types of critiquing: prescriptive and diagnostic.
Prescriptive critiquing is all about finding errors and fixing them. This mode works well for catching and correcting grammatical errors and misspellings. It’s also useful for pointing out and correcting factual errors or accidental word omissions. All of the above are fairly cut-and-dry issues. I appreciate these types of prescriptive notations within a text.
The problem is that sometimes, like auto-correct, there is a temptation to impose our voice on the pieces we are critiquing. This is a great disservice. Each person has a distinct way of expressing themselves and the goal of critiquing should be to help them make their voices shine, not ours. The solution: be diagnostic, not prescriptive.
Diagnostic critiquing is all about helping writers strengthen their pieces by making observations and asking questions without prescribing specific solutions. Diagnostic critiquers look at over-arching issues such as character development, arc, tone, voice. Because their role isn’t to “fix it” they are free to point out areas where the text isn’t working, perhaps brainstorming general ways in which the writer might resolve the issue. In rhyming texts, for example, a diagnostic critiquer might point out where the rhyme seems forced. She might even suggest possible alternatives, but never with the goal of prescribing word-for-word solutions. Rather, her goal in critiquing is to get the other person’s creative juices flowing, so that the writer can take that piece to the next level.
I strive, I hope successfully, to be a blend of the above, prescriptive when appropriate, but mostly diagnostic. I also make a point in every critique to point what is working, so that my suggestions/ observations are tempered with encouragement as well.
What about you? What kind of critiquer are you? And what kind of critiques do you find most helpful?
UPDATE: My “tinkling” got the talented picture book author, Iza Trapani, “tinkling” about critiques too! So, pop on over to her blog post: “Critiquing a Picture Book”. Thanks for continuing the conversation, Iza!