"I liked it."
Or, if you're lucky, "It's funny."
Such well-meaning but unspecific and ultimately unhelpful comments can leave writers feel like no one really read their work after all; perhaps their friends and critique partners were just trying to be nice? And writing teachers can feel equally frustrated when "critique sessions" are really just sharing sessions. Surely there are ways to point out the strengths in students' writing, and encourage them to do more of what's working.
In my first creative writing class in college, we began each critique session by having each person in our 15-or-so-person workshop identify something positive in the piece of writing. This worked well on a number of levels:
1) It helped us to become closer readers. If you were one of the final people to comment, all of the obvious strengths had already been identified. It forced us to read line by line, word by word, to find gems that the writer might not have recognized. (Depending on the age of the students, the length of the work, and the size of the critique groups, teachers might try having each critiquer identify two strengths--no repeats!--before moving on to suggestions.)
2) It helped us to become kinder human beings. Some people in the class wrote in genres I didn't usually read. Not every piece in freshman creative writing (certainly nothing I submitted) was worthy of major awards. But knowing that I would be called upon to identify something positive in this piece of writing shaped my development as a critique partner and writing instructor--not to mention commenter on other people's Facebook statuses and blog posts.
3) Of course, it encouraged us to keep writing. Each writer heard 14 specific, positive things about his or her work before hearing even one suggestion for improvement. That helped to foster an "I can do it!" attitude that made us (me) eager to work on the next piece.
4) And it helped us to become better writers. Some of this was the "keep writing" effect described above. Some was a greater willingness to address the critiquers' concerns and suggestions, fostered by the environment of trust. And some was that the ubiquitous, specific positive feedback helped us tune in to our individual strengths--"They seem to like my dialogue!" "Those sensory details really worked!"--and build upon our successes.
How do you help students to encourage and support one another? What successes and challenges have you encountered? Let us know in the comments below!