With every student I’ve taught, the writing process varies––some students can write beautiful first drafts and some require dozens of drafts to get there. Critiquing a story, like writing one, is an art, and the writing teacher’s and editor’s job is to sense the needs of each writer and help him or her build a writing process that works. No matter the writer’s skill, I’ve found that the start of effective revision happens when there’s a classroom culture where writers allow their first drafts to be ugly, awkward, and imperfect things, where they recognize that the first draft is about exploration and possibilities.
Make the First Critique a Conversation
Too often, new editors think that critiquing stories means adding as many comments as they can or showing writers the vast magnitude of mistakes they’re making. Handing a writer a list of three or four or 20 things to fix reduces the writer from someone with a vision to someone merely enacting the wishes of an editor. First critiques often work best not when an editor annotates a writer’s story but rather when writer and editor sit side-by-side having a conversation as they look at the story together. Conversation is less abrasive to the writer, and it allows for the editor to put advice and comments in context and perspective.
Remove Grading from the Drafting Process
Many of my current students are obsessive about grades, and unfortunately, this obsession gets in the way of their development as writers. They expect themselves to get it right the first time, and they’ve been trained over their years to see corrections and critiques as marks of inadequacy. In order to get students to draft their stories effectively, they must be given opportunities to share their writing without fear of judgment or formal evaluation.
Too often, we teachers use grades to motivate, and a writer who is only motivated by a grade will not create a piece of writing that is engaging or meaningful. Even without resorting to the threat of grades, I’ve found that the vast majority of the time, students still get their drafts done. The pressure of having a one-on-one face-to-face conversation makes students want to write better first drafts, and that pressure often ensures they get their drafts done on time. Once students see how genuinely useful a writing process can be, they’re more likely to give a good effort on that first draft, even when it’s not graded.
Recognize Which Level of Critique Is Needed
New editors will often focus on small grammatical mistakes rather than asking the larger critical questions that need to be asked about a piece of writing. To combat this, I’ve found it effective to teach my editors that their are four levels of critiques. On an early draft, we first assess a story’s content and information, secondly we look at its structure and organization, third its style and voice, and finally, we look at its grammar and usage. If a story needs more content, a different angle, or additional sources, there is no point in critiquing its organization, style, or grammar––those can wait until further rounds of revision when the content has been solidified.
Use First Drafts as a Springboard
In student writing, the best ideas and most inspired writing often emerge toward the end of the first draft. The editor’s goal during first-draft conversations should be to find where the writer’s voice and passion emerge, where they’ve touched on fascinating ideas but left them largely unexplored because they weren’t in the scope of the original assignment, and then help the writer see a new and larger potential for the story.
Find a Real Audience for the Early Draft
I’ve had mixed luck using small groups on early drafts to give students a sense of audience, and I’ve found that this group work often takes more class time than it’s worth. But having a test audience other than the editor and writer can be vitally important in providing needed perspective. Sometimes, when I’m working with a writer, we’ll throw out a question to the full class to get a quick response –– about an angle, a concept in a story, a source, or even a phrasing –– and then the writer and I continue with our conversation.
Put the Responsibility on the Writer
As I’ve learned from so many other writing teachers, it’s important to let writers have a sense of ownership in their critiques by sharing with the editors what they need help on, what their concerns are, and what their plans are for future revisions. Writers are usually quite capable of identifying weaknesses in their own drafts when given the opportunity to do so, and it’s so much more valuable to their development if they point out the flaws or needs to the editor rather than the other way around. One of the hidden goals of every critique should be to move the writer a step closer to self-sufficiency and self-editing. The more effective the critique, the more likely the writer will be to internalize the process and become their own natural editor.