No matter what style of critique you choose to include at your conference, it’s crucial to set guidelines for how to critique. One hard and fast rule of mine is that everyone must stick to offering feedback on the piece of writing NOT on the writer himself.
“The pacing seems slow in the first third of the article because so many details are included” might be a reasonable comment to make, especially if the critiquer can then offer a couple of excellent examples; not too many, just enough to get the point across. “I got bored early on because you read too slowly,” though, is unproductive.
What I strongly encourage: that the person offering feedback provides heartfelt positive comments before offering constructive criticism. Perhaps the only positive comment that can honestly be made is something like this: “I can hear the passion for this topic in every word you speak.” And, that isn’t a backhanded compliment, at all – because I suspect that people with lots of talent but little enthusiasm are often left behind when their more eager brothers and sisters keep learning, trying, writing and revising.
Constructive criticism should be specific. For example, “I think the transition between the first section and the second section of your story needs strengthened because I became confused when you [more details]” is more helpful than “I just didn’t get it.” It also helps to end a critique on a positive note.
Sometimes, especially with more creative types of writing, a piece is simply not ready to be critiqued. Instead, the writer needs to spend more time expanding and creating before hearing suggestions on how to prune the text. In these instances, it’s often more helpful to say something like, “I was so intrigued by your description of the white roses and what they symbolized to you. I’d love to hear more about them.” This can often help the writer articulate something still trapped in her brain that would really sparkle once captured on the page.
Ultimately, it’s your conference, so it’s your decision as to how you will incorporate critiques if you choose to do so at all. If you keep the goal of the conference in mind – to provide important information to writers in a supportive, loving, Christian way – then you’ll figure out what’s best.
Two final notes
One: Nobody provides flawless critiques all of the time. But, if you’re the conference organizer, you’ve got a great opportunity to role model what you want to encourage if you’re the one who fell short. For example, if you’ve just said something in your critique that came out more harshly than intended, you could simply say, “My apologies. I didn’t express myself well just now and I’d like to take a second chance to convey my message.” Those kinds of statements can often smooth troubled waters and get your conference right back on track.
Two: consider leading the group in prayer before the critique session begins and ask that God guides your tongues to provide just what your fellow writers need to hear and that hearts be opened to hear what’s being said so that the right decisions are made.