Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Critiquing or Consulting? Interesting thoughts on what I’m learning about inserting your own opinions

Well, today I had Writing Consultant training and we were learning about how to approach foreign exchange students who bring in papers but may not know the English Language very well.

Ok, for starters, I can totally sympathize with such students.  I had to take German the last two semesters and it near drove me insane!  I love the language… I would LOVE to be immersed in it so that I can learn to speak if fluently… but the written grammar is so tricky to my English-wired brain.  I just can’t seem to wrap my mind around it.

Anyway, getting back to my point (which actually doesn’t have much to do with the fact that we have foreign exchange students at my school… O.O)

As part of our training, we received some hand-outs that talked us through the approach we should take, and that also explained a few terms to us.  One of the terms commonly used in our writing lab is “Facilitative questioning”.  It was as I was reading through the hand-out that I got the idea for this blog post concerning personal opinions when trying to help another person improve their writing.

Now, I’m a writer who has rather tough skin.  I really LIKE it when people critique my work with a close eye and a hard pen.  Mark my stuff up, for goodness sake!  Let me know exactly what you are thinking!  Don’t “flame” me, but give me an honest and solid critique.  I am very, very open to it.  I encourage it.  I want to know exactly how the readers will respond to my writing, and if I feel that the response is not quite what I want, then I will keep tweaking until it becomes what I’m looking for.  I know what I’m going for, and I take suggestions accordingly.  I ask for the hard stuff: I can take the punches so GIVE ‘EM TO ME. J

As a creative writer, I often go to critique forums and beta readers to get feedback on my work, and before I post an excerpt of any kind, I try to make sure it is “reader worthy”, meaning that the writing is as far as I can take it by myself.  I get the work as tight as I can manage on my own, and then I ask for help, preparing myself for the knocks I’m bound to receive in the end.  This is what I expect in a critique, and often times, this is what I dish out. 

However, the first thing I learned when I started taking this class is that critiquing is rather different than consulting.  Consulting helps a writer improve their general, over all writing abilities and grow as a writer who understand the process, while critiquing helps the writer identify problems that may or may not need to be fixed within the physical body of the text. 

When I’m working with one of my personal writing buddies, beta readers, or people who I beta for - online or in person - I often give them a critique that might have a little bit of consulting mixed in there somewhere.

However, at school, I am 100% a writing Consultant.  I don’t actually critique anything outright, but I do try to help the writer identify for themselves the problems that I can detect within their writings.  As a consultant, I must first identify these problems for myself, and then subtly tell the writer what I feel might be wrong, and then help the writer discover for his or herself how to fix the problems without actually doing any fixing myself. 

Many times, I’m told, the people who come into the writing lab are very sensitive about their works and about accepting advice.  They don’t want to feel like any of the content came from someone else, even if it was only a suggestion.  However, they DO want the consultant to teach them how to do their papers right.  Rather counterproductive, don’t you think?

This is where it gets really tough for me.  You see, as a creative writer who is on many critique forums, I’m used to going in and just showing other writers what I think might be wrong. All along I know that my suggestions are just glorified educated opinions, but the other writers on the forums – usually experienced writers who have been doing such things for many years – also know this and they accept my suggestions for what they are… simply suggestion that can be taken with a grain of salt.  However, as a consultant at my school, I’m not allowed to teach or make outright suggestions or give solid opinions… Instead, I must let the writer come to their own opinions and conclusions about the problems I have identified.  I can suggest certain actions, but never actually say outright what I think the writer should do to fix the problem.  Basically, I’m supposed to let the writer learn for themselves while very, very gently nudging them in the right direction.

And that brings me right back to Facilitative Questioning. 

As a consultant, I am only allowed to ask Facilitative questions which are questions that avoid telling the writer what to do, and instead leads the writer through the process of identifying and revising their paper according to the Higher Order Concerns (or HOCs) such as plot, thesis, organization, detail, research, and characterization that need to be addressed in their writing. (Though some people come in asking for help with “grammar”, the consultants at the writing lab have learned that “grammar” can have multiple meanings to multiple people, so we never actually address any real grammar, such as punctuation, spelling, and sentence structure, until the HOC’s are taken care of.  We are not allowed to proofread in the writing lab, as I sometimes do for my online writing friends that I beta for.)

An example of a Facilitative Question might look something like this:

“I noticed that this is a complex assignment… can you show and explain to me where in this paper you have completed an assignment guideline?”


“Why did you choose to organize this paper this way?”


“How have you supported your claim?”

These questions prompt the writer to tell you what they have planned for the paper, and they also give the writer a chance to see and identify some of the HOCs in their paper for themselves.  However, these questions can also be frustrating.  Because, in all honesty the writer sometimes feels like the consultant isn’t really trying to help them at all, but rather is asking them a bunch of silly questions.  Some writers don’t want to be asked these questions… some writers want to be told how to fix the problem, and I’m not allowed to do that. :P

If I were asking Directive Questions, I would be doing exactly that.  Directive questions look sort of like this:

“Don’t you think that sentence is vague?”


“Did you mean (insert assumption) by that statement?”

Directive questions insert my own opinion into the question so that the reader picks up on what I’m thinking about certain elements of the text.  As a creative writing critique partner, such questions can be a good thing and they help the other writer see their writings from a different perspective, but as a consultant I am not allowed to insert my opinion and so I must avoid questions like the ones above.

I am allowed to give Opinions, but only subtly and always referring to myself as a reader and not as anther writer.  For instance, “As a reader I felt that perhaps you could be a little more specific when you mention (so and so).  What was your purpose of referring to that person?”

Notice how my so called “opinion” is phrased similar to a facilitative question. ;)

Well, that’s all I have for now.  I’ll probably come back to the subject at a later date, but I just thought some of you might find this method of giving out writing advice a bit interesting.  I, personally, find it both extremely intriguing and extremely frustrating, but perhaps that’s only because I must apply it. J

What are your thoughts on the matter?


Galadriel said...

I take whatever help I can get--and try to give inside.

Star-Dreamer said...

Yep. :) That's how I am. I try not to be overly harsh with my critiques, but I don't beat around the bush. I feel like as a consultant rather than a critique partner, I'm beating around the bush a lot. O.O

Lisa Rose said...

That sounds so frustrating! When I critique I try to be mindful that not everyone is as ready for a thorough slashing as I am, but facilitative questions? I don't know if I could handle that lol. Best of luck with consulting!


Jaleh D said...

Those questions would be too vague for me, but I don't know if I'd feel the same way if I was working in another language. Hmm. No, I think I'd probably still find them too vague. Even the things I want comments on in my rough drafts are more directive than facilitative.

Good luck with the coaching. I think it's wonderful that you are trying to help other writers, especially ones who are working in their non-native language.