Here’s What I “Tinkle”: Thoughts on Critiquing Stories

IMG_0227Last 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

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

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!

17 thoughts on “Here’s What I “Tinkle”: Thoughts on Critiquing Stories”

  1. Glad you fixed that error before it went to your agent! I think I am a blend of both types of critiquing. I do make suggestions if I have any that might help the writer. I’m still trying to grow in this area.

  2. Excellent post on the different critiques. I hope I am the diagnostic type, looking at the over all story and then providing notes to help smooth out what I see as bumps. Depending on the stage of the ms I will also point out things that could be smoother in terms of sentence structure-but this only after reading the ms aloud to get a sense of how it’s flowing with the rest of the story.

  3. Of course, both types of critiques are necessary, but yes diagnostic would be the most helpful to receive AND the easiest to provide. I love saying what works and what doesn’t and then chit-chatting about ways to fix it without being ultimately responsible. When I AM ultimately responsible in my own work, the chit-chatting fills my head with possibilities that make sitting down the next day so much more relaxing.

  4. LOL! That’s a good one. Ugh. Auto-correct drives me crazy. Keeps changing “crit” to “crate”. And how do I like my crates? I mean, crits. 🙂 I really appreciate honesty. I don’t like too much sugar-coating, but I do find positive comments to be helpful, and not just because they’re generally encouraging. I just think it’s equally helpful to know what I’m doing right or what phrases are particularly funny, etc. I find specific suggestions to be very helpful as well. I think offering a rough alternative is sometimes the best (or at least easiest) way to explain what isn’t working. I also like it when crits are subjective. I already know what my own opinion is and I want to hear somebody else’s. I like it when somebody tells me what they think, from their own subjective point of view, and then I can decide whether or not I agree.

    1. Yes, Diana, I’m with you on the concept of “rough alternatives” – something that gives the writer a sense of a possible direction they could go to improve a specific spot, but without spelling it out for them word for word.

  5. Tinkle, ey? 😉
    About critiquing- I think some of the first type (“prescriptive”^) is really proof reading, and speaking for myself, I always need that. Don’t let me tinkle!
    But I do believe in offering what I think are “non-fussy” critiques. I‘m also a pathological contrarian when it comes to writing “rules”- the sort taught in writing courses and how-to books. Because in the end, all you have to offer is your original voice, and no voice can be alive if it is laden with rules.

  6. Laura, your typo is a reminder to us that we should read over any email before we hit send.
    I like the way you expressed the different types of critiquing. I try to critique that way and I hope I’m not imposing my words on anyone. When I make suggestions, they are simply to get the writer thinking

  7. I love your post title! I am definitely a more “prescriptive” critiquer, and your post has really made me think. Thanks so much for highlighting the differences between the two!

  8. You’ve got me tinkling about how my critique group could be more diagnostic rather than prescriptive.
    It makes a big difference to me when someone can explain why an aspect of my manuscript isn’t working, not just point out which part isn’t working.
    It’s encouraging when someone says which parts are working well, but it’s more important than that, it lets us know which bits to keep in the story.

  9. These are good points, Laura. I admit, I do find specific suggestions helpful, not because I often use someone else’s wording (although I sometimes do, if it’s the perfect solution) but because it usually sparks a new way of thinking about something. I find that I use critiques in aggregate and so it’s helpful to have 5 or 6 people look at a piece and make suggestions.

  10. I hope I’m a bit of both. But early on when I first got in my critique group, I was definintely more of a Prescriptive critiquer. But now that I’ve been doing this awhile and taken classes, I think I’m more of a Diagnostic critiquer. To me, the later helps me more when my story is being critiqued. I need to know from others what works and what doesnt and some suggestions for things that DONT work!

  11. Pingback: Laura Sassi Tales

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