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Tips on the Critiquing of Writing and Speaking

Lieutenant Colonel Henry F. Lippincott, Jr.
Dr. John A. Kline
Academic Instructor School


These tips published in the Winter 1977 Education Journal (AFROTC) were developed by the authors who taught electives in the critiquing of writing and speaking at the Academic Instructor School at Maxwell AFB. They conform to Dr. Kline's article, "Communication in the Classroom", that appeared in the Fall 1977 Education Journal (AFROTC), and they supplement discussion of cadet writing in the Journal by Lieutenant Colonel Lippincott and Dr. Martha Shull.

In 2002, Dr. Kline made minor changes to the original essay.


Tips on Critiquing Student Writing

Purpose

Always keep in mind your purpose in critiquing is to improve the student's ability to write. No matter how much you would like to edit or rewrite the whole piece, don't do it. There just isn't time, and it's the student's job to revise from your clear clues.

Objectivity

Strive for maximum objectivity. If you think something is wrong but you can't put your finger on the exact problem, don't bluff. Try always to be honest, fair, and unbiased.

Style

Don't arbitrarily impose your own personal style or preference on the student. The comment, "I like it better this way," is not adequate justification for downgrading a student's work. If you can follow your comment with "because" or a reference to The Tongue and Quill, AF Handbook 33-3337, you are on a much firmer ground. If what has been written communicates but you wouldn't have said it that way, let it be.

Merit

Judge the writing by its merit alone. You can't measure the amount of effort or amount of improvement.

Mechanics

Don't give undue emphasis to mechanical details such as punctuation, capitalization, and grammar. They are important but less significant than the quality of the thought. Most mechanical details are not vital to the communication process; they merely assist in it. When usage is divided about mechanics or spelling, be flexible�but be sure the student has the same form throughout. Encourage consistency.

Constructive Criticism

Remember that good writing is hard work. Writers have a justifiable pride in their efforts. Don't nitpick, wordsmith, or find fault just to be finding fault. Your criticism must be constructive to be acceptable. All writers have personal and social needs. If writing is loaded with errors, try to fasten on the most important ones and deal with others at a later time.

Systematic Approach

Approach the critiquing job systematically.
  • If you can physically separate the parts of the paper, do so. For ready reference, place the table of contents or overview on one side and the notes on another.
  • Read title or subject alone and see if you understand it. What expectation does the title arouse in the reader? Does the title give direction and a clue to content?
  • On your first reading, attempt no corrections.
    • Instead, try to get a feel for the writer's focus and direction, the organization of main points, and the quality of the support. See if the conclusions or recommendations are justified. In other words, see if the writing as a whole adds up before you worry too much about the mechanics. Every time you spot a mechanical error, however, make a check in the margin.
    • Before you read the paper the second time, jot down your impression of the paper's overall quality apart from mechanical deficiencies. Does the writing communicate? If so, why? If not, what are the distracters?
  • On the second reading, analyze why you made check marks and identify the errors in the margin. Rewrite one or two items, if necessary, to show what you mean by the corrections, but don't get in the habit of a complete edit.

Grading

In grading writing, use your pencil as carefully as a surgeon's scalpel.
  • Don't be sarcastic, cute, or cryptic. Don't try to impress the student; try to improve the performance. When marking out words, be careful that you don't cross out something necessary to the writer's meaning.
  • Make your marginal comments meaningful.
    • The comment "wordy" is not enough. Circle the unnecessary words and then add what is needed to complete the meaning.
    • The comment "awkward" is not helpful. Be specific. Tell the student, for example, that the sentence is awkward because of a dangling modifier or a misplaced adjective.
    • A question mark in the margin merely raises a question. If you find the sentence is confusing or ambiguous, point out where the confusion exists by asking a specific question or by suggesting a way to eliminate the confusion.

Don't Ignore Quality

Don't be so concerned with "style" that you ignore the quality of examples or support material. Make sure, for instance, that the writer has transitioned smoothly into each quotation, using phrases like the following:
    As the Secretary of State wrote in Foreign Affairs in the spring of 1999, "______."

    In 1992, a professor at Cornell summarized the problem as "_________."

Standard Notation

Use the standard proofreader's marks to avoid confusion. Some examples are below.
  • Use a caret to show a space is needed between words, or to show an insertion.
  • Use a paragraph symbol to indicate the need to start a new one.
  • Use a slash to downgrade a capital to a lower case. To raise lower case to a capital, write in the letter.

Tips on Critiquing Student Speaking

Make the speech critique as effective as possible by adjusting to the communication transaction. For example, when critiquing a student, consider as wide a range of variables as possible � such things as the type of speech, the maturity of the student, and the setting for the critique. What works in one situation may not work in another. Taking a transactional approach shows that you recognize the complexity of the critiquing process.

Adapt criticism to the student

Human beings are sensitive to comments made about them. The person is always more important than the performance. A word of praise or a word of disapproval will stay with the student for a long time. When critiquing a speech, try to separate the performance from the individual. Instead of "what you did wrong," say "what you might have done to make the speech better." Instead of "what you should have done," say "next time you speak you might . . ."

Criticize both content and delivery

Often a critic attends almost exclusively to delivery (focusing on such things as eye contact, movement, gestures, or voice) or on content alone (focusing on such things a subject, main points, or supporting material). To help the student develop totally as a speaker, be sure to direct attention to both these aspects.

Encourage self criticism

The art of criticism is often thought of as one-way communication where the critic furnishes all of the ideas�a kind of self-action. The best criticism is more an interaction or transaction. Instead of saying to a student, "you did this" or "you didn't seem to pay any attention to that," a better approach might be to ask, "What do you think of your performance?" or "What could you do to improve?" In this way the student becomes involved with the critic. If the student does not respond, the critic might ask if there is any particular problem the student wants comment about. Remember the first goal is to help the student, not merely to give advice.

Follow criticism with suggestions for improvement

It doesn't help the student to say the attention step was ineffective or the organization difficult to follow if a better way is not suggested. Constructive criticism implies building, not tearing down.

Mention as many favorable factors as you honestly can

Candid approval opens the recipient's mind. Speaking is a terrifying experience for many people. Most speakers need affirmation for things they did well. If many negative factors and few positive ones are mentioned, the challenge to improve seems overwhelming.

End comments on a note of praise

Repeat again any outstandingly good item in the performance. If it is difficult to find items to praise, describe the progress the student is making. The giving of underserved praise makes the critic less credible with the class and with the student being critiqued.


Make the speech critique as effective as possible by avoiding these common traps:

Avoid abstract general approval (or disapproval)

A critic who says only "That was a good speech" is not doing his job. Adjectives such as "wonderful" or "interesting" may make the student feel good for the moment, but they provide no motivation for growth or improvement. By the same reasoning, abstract expressions of disapproval such as "terrible" or "bad" also fall short of the objective of useful criticism.

Avoid summarizing the speech

After a well-organized student has finished, the critic may be tempted to enumerate the main points and summarize the support. While such comments may be interesting and show that the critic was listening, the result is simply a short speech about a longer one. Summary is not criticism.

Resist the impulse to extend the speaker's subject

A student's topic may be so arresting or controversial that you may want to take the floor yourself and present additional ideas. The student's train of thought may legitimately stir up associated ideas, but free association is not criticism.

Avoid calling attention to minor faults that will correct themselves automatically

Suggestions to the student for improvement should genuinely make the speech better. Telling the student to speed up, move around more, stand still, or stop being so nervous may have some usefulness. Mention them, but don't make mountains out of molehills. Keep trivialities in proportion.

Don't criticize something that can't be corrected

It does little good to criticize eye contact of a student who has crossed eyes, or the accent of a person from another part of the country. If the problem is not correctable or the correction is not worth the effort and expense required, then don't mention it.

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