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    Writing from Adjoining Seats

    Tuesday, October 29, 2013

    Critiquing another person’s writing can be difficult. Many people are guarded about their work, especially if they’ve not published much. Or they may be self-conscious about their spelling, grammar, or whatever. So they come to the exchange perceiving the critiquer as an adversary, or at best a hurdle to clear, before publication. If the critiquer is a supervisor, tensions may be even higher.

    One trick I’ve learned over the years is to start with the best part of their writing. It’s something I originally discovered while editing poetry, where people’s feelings are really at risk, where a harsh word can shut them up like a clam. But it applies to every sort of writing.

    When editing a poem, I might say, “This line took my breath away. It’s that good. Understand, however, that it sets a high bar. To do it justice, your other lines need to reach that same measure. Let’s look at the weakest ones and discuss how to improve them.”

    My experience has been that with the first statement, authors let me move from across the table to sit beside them, so to speak. The critique is no longer adversarial but instead companionable. They know I’m convinced they’re capable of great things and want only to help. That help is welcomed.

    It’s no great stretch to apply this same trick to critiquing a workplace document. Whether the starting point is as simple as “It’s obvious you’ve done your research; now let’s see about sorting and presenting that information as logically as possible,” or “The ideas here are impressive and generally very clear; but I’m somewhat confused in section three,” most people blossom with this sort of approach.

    And what of those more cynical souls, who have been beaten down enough that “I really like this part” makes them cringe, waiting for the “but”—the proverbial other shoe to drop? Try inverting the order. Let them bask in the compliment. Imagine saying something like, “Johnson, I’d like to take some time later to polish up your report, but for now, I just wanted to say how impressed I am with your research.” Say it in front of other people. Even the most skeptical find a public compliment difficult to dismiss.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by Marc Dalmulder