Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Critiquing Christianly

I’m going to boldly go where no prudent person has gone before. I’m going to attempt to draw a parallel between God’s attitude to sin and a writer’s attitude to misplaced apostrophes.

And not just misplaced apostrophes, but any aspect of writing that we think is wrong or could be improved. Such as using sentence fragments. Or starting sentences with conjunctions.

The context for this is a question that has come up in this group and also in the Australian Writers’ Forum ( and probably most other writers’ groups. When critiquing someone else’s writing, should we be exclusively supportive, or should we point out perceived problems?

In 1 Co 5, Paul addresses a church that was turning a blind eye to sins committed by one of its members—and they were apparently proud of their ability to bite their tongues and accept the situation. Paul won’t stand for it, and tells them to confront the guilty party.

Mt 18:15 also directs believers to point out a fellow believer’s fault to him.

Jesus demonstrated his willingness to take strong action against behaviour he thought was wrong; for example, driving vendors out of the temple using a whip (Jn 2:14–16). And the Old Testament brims with examples of God or his prophets directing his people to confront wrongdoers.

So it seems to me that we are not obliged to bite our tongues when faced with wrongdoing; rather, we are to speak up. The general principle I’d like to conclude is that we are not called to be agreeable the whole time.

If we courageously (and perhaps foolishly) apply this principle to critiquing, it would lead us to comment negatively on aspects of writing with which we disagree. Obviously this should be done nicely and with the intention of helping the writer to improve their craft. Following Mt 18:15, it should preferably be done in private and so may not be appropriate when reviewing titles on Amazon, etc—although in that case the principle of not misleading those who read our reviews should be considered.

Obviously subjectivity is a problem when critiquing writing. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between personal preferences and absolute right-and-wrong. Even I don’t have the courage to explore any possible parallel between this problem and the extent to which Christians are expected to know exactly what’s right and wrong regarding sin (although I know of no passages in the Bible in which any such uncertainty was accepted as a reason to stay quiet). ‘This may be just my opinion, but…’ seems appropriate.

No matter how tactfully expressed, critical comments can be hard to make. They can jeopardise friendships. But ‘tough love’ can also make friendships stronger by showing how keen we are help our friends to succeed.

I know I’m stretching any analogy between God’s attitude to sin and our attitude to writing flaws perhaps beyond breaking point. Splitting an infinitive probably doesn’t justify flagellation as a response.

Now, feel free to critique my writing—and my theology!

Peter McLennan


  1. I think you are right, Peter. If we are never challenged, we never grow. As humans we need challenge and correction to improve. I have found that 'honesty with kindness' is the very best way to approach such situations. It is a delicate balance, but well worth pursuing.

  2. Peter, I agree tough love is an essential component of a critiquing relationship.

    Your analogy fits nicely with Christian non-fiction, where we are critiquing facts and interpretations of scripture as well as writing craft. As Paul has said, we need to speak up and address heresy and false teachings that are contrary to what is written in the Bible.

    I believe fiction writers become better writers through the critiquing process. Good storytelling requires the author to know their craft and to put it into practice. As a reader, I get very frustrated when I read a book that has an intriguing plot and fascinating characters and I'm pulled out of the story by major writing craft issues. I think it's better for a critique partner to gently point out flaws in your story that you can fix before your work is in front of an editor or agent.

    Fiction writing is very subjective. The good reviewers provide an explanation for why they don't like the book they are reviewing. It may relate to writing craft issues, or they can't connect with the characters, or the plot doesn't appeal to them. One of the big challenges for Christian book reviewers is how to speak the truth with love in their reviews. They owe it to their readers to provide an honest appraisal, yet their honesty may hurt the author's feelings. Should they stay quiet or speak up? Do bad reviews generate good publicity and potentially more book sales for the author? Or do readers download Chapter One and make up their own minds?

    1. I agree that the best reviewers can provide explanations. Not surprisingly, I've found that writers can make the best reviewers because they are more likely to be able to put their finger on WHY something didn't work for them.

      I tend to avoid 'reviews' in which an aim is to generate book sales for the writer because of the risk that any negative thoughts have been suppressed, making it more of an advertisement. Nasty, aren't I?

    2. I love your honesty, Peter! You aren't nasty, you are honest, and I so appreciate people like you. Why say something is good to generate sales when it isn't. I have always struggled with reviews and have to admit have copped some flack because of my honesty and have decided not to 'review' any more, but make sure my writing is the best it can be and accept the constructive criticism to improve my work. I agree wholeheartedly with what Narelle is saying, too. Bless you.

    3. Thanks Laura. I admire your strength to say 'no' to doing those sorts of reviews.

  3. Peter, I love this blog! I will forever be grateful to Mary Hawkins, who, as my mentor, told me the facts. I couldn't write! Then she taught me, and taught me,and taught me again.
    My constant question was 'why?' I had to understand to learn.Then it was the readers that pointed out weaknesses and faults that helped sharpen my book.
    In our coaching business we are taught an acronym for NICE - Nothing Inside me Cares Enough.
    Lets find the courage to be NICE!

    1. Hi Peter,
      I agree with you and the comments made so far. We shouldn't hold our tongues when a great positive difference is at stake. However, the only thing I'd like to add about critiquing and Christians is not to err too far the other way and struggle to say things just for the sake of having things to say. I've been caught in that position before. When I honestly put forward my opinion that I love somebody's work the way it is, I'm urged to come up with some 'constructive criticism' simply because 'that's what we're all about here.'
      Let's be honest in the suggestions we put forward and also honest when we feel we have nothing to suggest.

    2. Oh yes, been there done that, Paula. I also fear that a motive I might have in searching for negative comments to make is that, if I can criticise something about your writing, then I must be better than you. Tsk.

  4. Hi Peter, That was an excellent post. Thanks for opening our minds to the importance of both confronting sin and critiquing writing. I do agree fully that God wants us to be far more than agreeable and nice. We need to gently point out sins of others when needed. However, I have to also add that I think often people err in that regard by overstepping becoming judgemental. There is a fine line. Motives for why we correct another is important isn't it?

    I remember once when I'd done something wrong, I desperately needed not condemnation or judgement but someone who understood; someone who loved me in spite of. God's Holy Spirit was at work in me - so there was no need for correction at that stage. Instead I received judgement and I was broken. So I think we need to be careful about our motives - are we pointing out error and sin because it is something God wants us to do - or because of a different motive.

    As for writing - I think the same thing applies. Motive. Are we trying to build up and edify a fellow writer?

    I enjoyed your post so thanks very much :)

    1. Re judgement: I utterly agree, Anusha. In fact, I was going to point out those passages that say 'do not judge' and suggest that an equally compelling case for biting our tongues could perhaps be made. In the end, I decided to keep it simple. Reconciling those principles isn't trivial.

      Pointing out errors of which the perpetrator is already aware does seem hard to justify. Thanks for that clarification!

  5. I think too, that correction comes better out of relationship. If you are close to the person who is correcting - or critiquing - it is easier to trust what they say and apply change. Without relationship it can just sound like condemnation - or critiscism - to some.

  6. Correction is hard, isn't it? When it comes to writing, however, we all struggle. There is also a tendency to be divided into camps, only listening to advice if we agree with it, being unwilling to learn and grow and to become haughty when published...after all we've now made it as a writer haven't we?

    I did read somewhere that when you've reached fifteen published books, by a respected publishing house, you can now take off the 'L' plates and dust off those 'P's. Not sure if I agree with that or not.

    The hardest thing is belonging to a writing community and being unable to comment on books we disagree with, whether on Amazon or a blog post, for fear of reprisal. If I say I didn't like their book, will they condemn mine? Will people think I'm being constructive, or just plain mean? It does happen.

    I was always taught, by my wonderful crit group, to sandwich my thoughts. One bad between two positives, or for those who really like it tough, the opposite way.

    It's only when we stop being open to suggestions,or think we've made it, that we don't grow.

    1. With critique, I think it's also important to pray and listen to what God wants to do with the work. Listen to all the critiques, but also listen for God in the process. Our goal, after all, is to glorify him. The first bit of advice I got as a beginning writer was to develop a thick skin, and the second was to listen to the wee small voice inside of me. If we want to grow as writers we have to separate ourselves from our work and look at it objectively and ask why we're writing. There is always room for improvement. I see the flaws in African Hearts now that I'm distanced from it, and I sure don't want to make those mistakes again, so I listen to the critiques and thank those who take the time to do that honestly. Discussing privately is always a good thing, too, and trusting the other person whether they be friend or stranger. Thank you Peter for this great post. Blessings.

  7. Thanks for being so open, Peter. I differ with your following comment
    When you want to get into your character's point of view, using sentence fragments is quite genuine as this is what we do. Our character would usually think..."Time to go" instead of "It's time for me to go". I agree we need to know the rules, and yet feel free to write in our own style.
    As far as critiquing goes, it's very subjective. However, I always enjoy a critique by another author as they understand the great variety of styles and voices. And thankfully none of us sound alike.

    1. Actually Rita, I agree with you. My comment about not using sentence fragments was a lame attempt at humour, since my previous sentence (and next two) were fragments.

      These days, fiction writers can even get away with using sentence fragments in narrative, description, etc—as long as it's consistent with our style/voice. This may depend on genre.

  8. Thanks Peter. An interesting and thought provoking post.