It will come as a profound shock to many beginning novelists to learn that what they’ve written, perhaps even slaved over, is pretty much crap. Dross. Bison snot. Burnt toast bad. I’m not saying that to be mean, rather it’s meant to supply a realistic jolt. You’re going to make mistakes, because you don’t know any better. That’s not a smear or a put-down. It’s merely how things are. You don’t get a participation ribbon simply for putting words on pages. They have to be worth reading, too.
And how do you determine that? After all, your stuff looked pretty damned good when you first wrote it, right? Mine certainly looked that way to me, and it hurt like hell when someone pointed out–with a great deal of red ink, deletions and aggrieved comments–that I’d missed the mark by the width of several zip codes, at least.
Once I quit moaning and groaning about how cruel and insensitive my reader was, I realized there might, just possibly, be something to what he said. But, rather than take my lumps, especially when I had anticipated taking a bow, I sent the same document, sans corrections, to another supposedly enlightened reader.
To my utter shock, it came back marked up in much the same fashion as the original. That is to say, with mark-outs, red lines, endless comments and one or two attaboys. I felt like mighty Casey as he schlumped back to the bench. I, too, had struck out.
It took a while to get over it. And during that time I maintained a very low profile among the gaggle of writers in my on-line critique group. I shut up long enough to start listening to what many were saying, and I discovered they’d all gone through pretty much the same tough innings. Those who stuck it out and kept working at the craft, learning from what the others observed about their work, and making appropriate changes, became better writers. Much better.
From time to time a few very well-known and oft-published authors would drop in for a virtual visit. They offered their own comments and shared much of what they had learned over the years. And, they acknowledged, they too had suffered some tough, tough feedback. To a man (and a couple women), they agreed that no-nonsense critiques made a profound difference in their work. Wishy-washy, oh-so-lovely ego-stroking did nothing for their work. If anything, it would have prevented real improvement.
This rigorous process taught me as much about writing critiques as it did about writing in general. And that is why it’s one of the tools I use in most of my writing classes. It’s not enough to know that something isn’t working. If you’re writing a critique, you also need to supply a reason. You’re entitled to be wrong from time to time. Everyone is. But you’ve got to make the effort.
Why should you invest so much time in the work of others, many of whom write at a level above or below your own? Because of what you’ll learn in the process. All too often we’re blind to our own mistakes. Our excesses level themselves out in our minds. Everything flows smoothly; our words are pearls on a field of velvet. It’s only when someone notices that our words are more like BBs on corduroy, or bowling balls on railroad tracks, that we see something amiss.
If you’re currently in a writer’s group, take a serious look at the feedback given. If it’s more concerned with a person’s feelings than their ability to express themselves, you’re in the wrong group. You want people who will tell you the truth about your work and what they think of it. Anything less is useless.
Honest doesn’t mean unkind. Critiques ought to be civil and constructive. There are ways to point out the flaws in someone’s work without going into attack mode. The goal is to judge the work, not the worker.
In the next installment we’ll take a closer look at what ought to go in a critique, with an occasional sample of what shouldn’t.
Last minute update: Here’s a short video of me recorded by the Kennesaw State University /Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Their publicity staff is excellent!. They asked me to talk about writing. And, they asked me to keep it short. I tried, but if you know me, you know it wasn’t easy!
See for yourself: https://www.facebook.com/KSUOLLI/videos/1396902097052277/