One thing writers often end up doing is giving critiques to other writer friends. Test reading and sending back their criticisms and advice, to be considered and used or discarded as per the author’s decision.
It sounds so simple and easy.
Anybody who’s ever tried to critique a written work knows that one of the hardest parts can be figuring out how to strike the balance between encouragement and constructive criticism.
I was thinking about this the other day in my Bible reading, while going through some of the epistles of Paul. I realized that Paul’s letters do contain a lot of criticisms, or rebukes, towards the churches to whom he is writing.
Then this set me to looking for things to learn from Paul about critiquing others, and I thought I’d share a few of the attributes I found here.
1. He opens and closes with encouragement.
This is a trademark of Paul’s letters that we would do well to emulate in correcting others with regards to their writing, as in everything else. “Grace and peace to you from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” from the opening of Philippians is a typical greeting, while the end of the same epistle, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit,” reflects the spirit of blessing.
Not only is it good to have a mindset of encouraging those whose work we critique, but the warm and loving greeting and farewell show Paul’s genuine care for those he is seeking to help and admonish, a love we can also show to those we help.
2. He usually praises before and after criticizing.
This is similar to the first point, but instead of general encouragement, he points out specific things in his audience that he is grateful for before he digs into the rebukes, then after he’s finished, praises their good qualities once again. Looking again in Philippians, we see that in chapter one he uses such phrases as “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for you all I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel.” And near the end of the letter, he reiterates before closing, “I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me…it was good of you to share in my troubles…”
We can easily follow the same example in critiquing others. Rarely will there be a work so bad that there is absolutely nothing to praise. If the book’s plot stinks, and the characters make you gag with their overly melodramatic and on-the-nose dialogue and emotions, maybe there are some really beautiful metaphors in the prose, or maybe the descriptions are vividly drawn, and really put you there. A little gentle praise can help cushion the harsher criticisms that may be needed.
3. When he instructs or corrects, he does so positively and humbly.
Rather than pointing fingers harshly (“You shouldn’t have done that! Try to shape up a little bit!”), he speaks kindly and with a positive edge. “Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love…” and “…continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” “Your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus.” He also doesn’t erect himself on a lofty, commanding pedestal above them, but is gentle and meek. “…even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you.” He doesn’t show frustration with needing to repeat himself–”it is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.”
When correcting the work of another, we should seek to spur them on with positive and cheerful encouragement to do better, rather than tearing them down by constantly having a negative bent to our words. And it will be most effective and encouraging if we do not raise ourselves haughtily above them as an instructor, but wield any superior knowledge we may well have gently and humbly.
4. He shows confidence in their ability to improve.
Throughout Paul’s letters, his instructions to his friends ring with the joy of confidence. He never seems to consider that they won’t excel, rather, he has faith both in their earnestness and in God’s ability to work in them. “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life — in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing.”
Confidence breeds confidence, and those who seek our guidance are much more likely to feel encouragement in their ability to do better if we show that we fully believe in them.
5. He teaches from experience.
Paul frequently refers to things that have happened to him to teach others, giving him a clear authority in the matter that is hard for his readers to question. He says that “what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel” of his imprisonment, giving weight to his admonishment that they should be humble and submit to God’s plan for their lives. He practices what he preaches. He tells of his old life, how he should have cause to boast in the flesh above all others, and yet “whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” He doesn’t coldly teach principles of which he has no personal knowledge. He has learned from experience all he seeks to teach his listeners.
We can do the same. If we try to critique something of which we know nothing, our words are not going to have much weight. Rather, we can powerfully use our own mistakes and triumphs to help others attain the triumphs without some of the mistakes. We can show them that we know what we are talking about by citing actual cases where we tried the same thing, or where we’ve seen it elsewhere and how it affected us.
6. He has a foundation for what he says.
Paul isn’t teaching love, likemindedness, faith, joy, and perseverance because they’re “nice things to do.” He takes everything back to the root of authority: Christ. “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” “Welcome him in the LORD with great joy, and honor men like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ.” He has a reason for everything he says, no argument is left unfounded.
The Bible may not address grammar, spelling, style, plot, or any of these elements directly, but there are reasons for all these rules, there are reasons that we punctuate the way we do, and there are reasons that certain things in our stories seem “fast” or “slow” or “boring” or “interesting.” Make sure you understand these things, so that you can explain why you are saying what you’re saying.
And you thought the Bible didn’t say anything about critiquing stories! I hope that this study of Paul’s methods of criticism blessed you as much as it did me. Can you think of any more principles of correction we can draw from the letters of Paul? Let me know in the comments!
For ease of reading, I didn’t use references in this post, but all quoted verses can be found in the book of Philippians, NIV version.