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Critiques still work; changes could make them better.

CRITIQUE SESSIONS REMAIN the soul of the NCEW convention. Reports that these sessions are ailing are greatly exaggerated.

In Denver I stopped by 11 of the 18 groups organized by Linda Seebach, and found lively and incisive discussions in every case.

The general critiques, in which everything on the pages is open to scrutiny, continue to attract a large number of members, particularly first-time convention goers. The opportunity to receive constructive criticism from fellow professionals is a priceless opportunity. But it comes at a price: You must share your own insights and prejudices.

The sessions that work -- general or writing -- work because the participants have done their homework. They have read and studied each of the other participants' pages, taken good notes, and prepared well-crafted written critiques. (Though participants are required to do full critiques only on two other papers, I noticed several participants who provided each member of the group with a complete written report. It made for much better sessions.)

General critiques can easily descend into mindless meanderings about minutiae. The trained eye will catch the misspelled word and the absent comma, but the professional editor/writer will appreciate the difference between good editing and good proofreading.

There are concerns about the general critiques. Before the Denver convention began, some committee chairs and board members wondered whether the traditional critique needed some overhaul. There were suggestions that NCEW offer more critique alternatives than those focused on writing alone. Frank Partsch of Omaha put the issue on the NCEW e-mail list and received a mighty wide response.

Ten years ago, when I edited The Masthead, I asked John Gates from Winston-Salem to wander the critique sessions in St. Paul. In his article he noted the limitations of the general critique groups and wondered whether they might be organized a bit differently. He suggested that general critiques function by topic rather than paper-by-paper. For example, participants would discuss graphics, then editorials, then letters, then op-ed selections, and so on. The suggestion had merit then and might be a key to reinvigorating the general critique.

From first-time critique session participants like John Lundy to veterans like Van Cavett, there was an almost universal conviction that the general critique remain the centerpiece. No argument here. But attendees gathered many useful suggestions for expanding the range of critiques by focusing on short, punchy editorials, or letters and other reader outlets, or on page design and graphics.

Would such sessions fill a whole day? I don't know, but I believe a couple of experiments might provide answers.

The writing critiques began as experiments, and now there are usually two or three such focused critiques at each convention. In Denver, the writing critiques I saw were engaging. They not only analyzed style and approach, but the appropriateness of the subject matter.

We are not an easily managed bunch of people, and each of our critique sessions takes on a life of its own. At one writing critique, a senior member of the organization was being roundly pummeled for what he wrote. The discussion had gone on for more than an hour. The group didn't finish until 5 p.m. One participant termed the session a "delicious byway."

Another general critique session completed its work at about 3 p.m., the usual quitting time. But instead of rushing off to LoDo, the members sat chewing on one issue after another, from problems with endorsement editorials to the way local submissions were handled.

Size of groups and the combination of large and small papers is always under discussion. It was in Denver. I watched one group of large papers comfortably challenge each other's approaches without concern about small staffs and few resources. At another group in which large and small papers were combined, the veteran from the large paper gracefully showed the new, small-paper participant how she might improve things without a lot of time, energy, or money. The respectful tone of the criticism u an NOEW standard made the new member feel welcome and valued.

In Denver, most of the groups had four members. Some found this to be just the right size. Others thought five or six would have allowed more far-ranging discussions. I liked the small groups. I have been in sessions in which the last paper to be considered gets short shrift. Hardly fair.

At my first convention 15 years ago in Washington, D.C., I was in a critique with broadcast editorialists. Have we tried that crossover approach recently? It was a valuable experience.

The critiques aren't dead. They remain central to NCEW's efforts to improve opinion writing and editing. It is no rejection of the general critique to suggest that for some members a different approach might be appealing.

We are an organization that builds on tradition. It may be time to do so again.

NCEW secretary-elect John Taylor is editorial page editor of The News Journal of Wilmington, Del. His e-mail address is
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Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 1999
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