Tolkien's 7 Tips for Being an Excellent Writer's Group Critic

If you read the blog you know I'm fascinated with J.R.R. Tolkien's letters.  I feel like they are the best path to figuring out what the author thought about everything.  Not only that, they are indexed for easy reference.  

Upon reading through the letters, I stumbled over a letter Tolkien wrote to C.S. Lewis in September of 1948, a letter of apology.  It is common knowledge that the two authors would meet in a writing group they dubbed "The Inklings", but this letter gives us insight into the inner workings of that select group and what apparently transpired to prompt this letter was that C.S. Lewis had been deeply hurt by some things Tolkien had said to him regarding (possibly) Lewis's reading of a passage from his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Tolkien 125).

The following tips are gleaned from that very lengthy letter:

1.  Make Sure There Are No Hard Feelings - Tolkien writes "I regret causing pain, even if and in so far as I had the right; and I am very sorry indeed still for having caused it quite excessively and unnecessarily" (Tolkien 126).  It is important that in a writing group everyone understand that criticism is not meant to harm the person and that people should not take things personally.  Criticism is meant to help the writer be a better writer.  Everyone in the writing group should lay all of their emotional cards on the table.  It's not personal.  It's meant to help.  That being said, keep your comments to a criticism of the text and not of the author.  That leads us to tip #2.

2.  Be Sensitive to the Feelings of the Person Being Criticized - In the letter Tolkien admits to going too far and that he may have become too personal.  Tolkien writes: "There may have been one or two of my comments that were just or valid, but I should have limited myself to them, and expressed them differently.  He is a savage physician who coats a not wholly unpalatable pill with a covering of gall" (Tolkien 126).  He goes on to write that when being a critic of an author's work one should temper their criticism with kindness and helpful diction, always displaying a more heartfelt and warm tone.  Bitter pills will go down better with sugar coating.

3.  Leave Your Personal Tastes Out of It - Tolkien writes: "Still, it would be fairer to say of me not that I tend to be imprisoned in my own taste, so much as to be burdened with my own small but peculiar 'message'" (Tolkien 127).  Often critics will bring their own personal bias or "tastes" to the critical lens.  It is important that we leave these aside and simply look at the text being criticized as a native thing, something in the wild.  Just because you don't like fantasy or science-fiction does not mean that you should hammer away at its so-called invalidity.  Try to think about how a fan of a genre you do not like would take a piece written in that genre.  Think outside the box.  This goes for certain writing styles as well.  Don't judge a writing style based on your own personal favorites.  We all know that English teacher who made everyone read The Turn of the Screw because it is their favorite Victorian novel yet the entire class was bored.

4.  Point Out the Author's Gifts - In the letter, Tolkien points out that "the only just literary critic is Christ, who admires more than does any man the gifts he Himself has bestowed.  Then let us 'bekenne either other to Crist'.  God keep you" (Tolkien 128).  One of the techniques that the College Board has taught me about scoring student essays on the AP exam is to recognize a student's strengths.  I've done this for years.  If you recognize the strengths of a piece rather than focusing on all of the things wrong with it, you will go farther to helping the author become a better writer.  They are more apt to listen to your criticism as well.  Positive comments about the places where the writer shines (even if they are sometimes hard to find) go a long way to helping the writer drill down on the things in the piece that do not work.

5.  Read Carefully, Respond Thoughtfully - Tolkien writes: "Indeed, I do not really think that for any man valuable 'criticism' is usually to be attained hot on the spot; it is then too mixed with mere reaction.  Let us listen again more patiently" (Tolkien 128).  The person writing the piece has hopefully sweated blood and shed many tears over the text they present to a writing group.  It is therefore only natural that we should spend the same amount of effort in critiquing the piece.  Pour over the piece like it is your own.  Spend time with it.  Be patient and word your critique of the piece carefully.  Make sure you are understood.  Converse with the author.  Ask questions.  It is your duty to the members of your writing group to do a good job and reciprocate with good criticism.  That will make all of you better writers.

6.  Encourage the Writer to "Wow" You - Tolkien simply states: "But I warn you, if you bore me, I shall take my revenge" (Tolkien 128).  He offered all the wonderful advice about listening to the writer, about being kind to them, and about encouraging their strengths, but he also admonished C.S. Lewis (You know, author of all that Narnia stuff) that if Tolkien found himself bored that he would "take [his] revenge".  Encourage the writers in your writing group to offer their best material.  Everyone should bring their "A" game.  This should be encouraged in the group via discussion about what makes great writing, what the group would like to see, and people should not be afraid to spin out ideas they have for new projects.  Let your writing group be a dream factory!

7.  Be Honest and Personable - Tolkien writes of the times he was absent from the Inklings: "I have missed three: one because I was desperately tired, the others for domestic reasons - the last because my daughter (bless her! always mindful of Thursdays) was obliged to go out that evening" (Tolkien 129).  Here Tolkien becomes very personal with C.S. Lewis, and that was something that they shared due to their close friendship.  A writing group needs that kind of interconnected, personable atmosphere to work well.  If people are afraid to share their hopes and fears and a little bit of their personal life, the trust bond necessary for true critique will be lost.  Everyone needs to feel comfortable sharing their work with others as well as their lives a little bit.

All quotations for this post taken from:

Tolkien, J. R. R., et al. Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Allen & Unwin, 1981.

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