Probably one of my most annoying traits is the inability to think before I speak. I thought I’d managed to maintain some vestige of control over it where my writing is concerned. Until recently, when I discovered that, obviously I hadn’t…
A while back, I asked a couple of writerly friends to critique a short story for me – Colin – that I’d been wrestling with for ages. You know what it’s like? Sometimes writing is as easy as stuffing the contents of a can of Pringles in your face (or maybe two cans, right?), but at other times, the ideas in your head are frozen, like a type of stage fright, steadfastly refusing to make an appearance on paper.
Oh, come on – who am I kidding? It’s not stage fright. It’s constipation. Pure and simple. Rock-hard pebbles you have to push out with grim determination, that hurt like hell. I’m afraid to say, I think I might even have that same pained, scrunched-up expression when I’m struggling with writing that I do when I’m trying to… Er… possibly time for a subject change here.
I get this a lot (writing that doesn’t flow, not constipation. I swear. Please believe me), and usually when it happens I write the story regardless, ignoring the diabolical flow, hoping that eventually, it will all form a cohesive whole. Though in this particular case, there was no ‘whole’ when the words were finally committed to paper: Colin was the writing equivalent of a drunk in a bar – jerky and incoherent.
Anyway, I digress. Back to my writing buds.
I knew them well – having done a few modules of a writing course with them – and understood that I could rely on them to be kind, but more importantly, able to pick out what worked and what didn’t about my, by now, hated short story. In the past, I’d turn to them whenever I needed an honest opinion, and I knew they wouldn’t let me down.
Now let’s establish something here – something you may already know: one of the most important rules when receiving feedback is that you accept it without comment. Even if you don’t particularly agree with the critiquer’s opinion. I mean, as you’ve asked their advice, you have to accept it. And, there’s a couple of reasons why.
Firstly, if you start trying to justify writing that needs improvement, you start to look like nothing less than an arse. Yes, that’s right – an arse.
More importantly, remember the critiquing process is not just about you. it’s hard for someone to give honest feedback, especially when they know a writer has put their heart and soul into a piece of writing. And my two friends – let’s call them Ethel and Gertrude here, for the sake of argument – have given me lots of useful guidance in the past, helping to improve my writing no end. The reason they’ve continued to help, is because I’ve accepted it without comment – simply thanking them, going on my way, and using the parts of their advice that I felt was relevant to alter my work. Even if, at times, I’ve needed to have a little cry after.
So the rule for receiving feedback is:
I’ll repeat that again. Do not comment.
Yes, I’ll say it louder in case you didn’t hear me. DO NOT COMMENT.
You know this rule now. I know this rule.
In the past, I’ve followed it to the letter. Even when I’ve really wanted to say something in my own (writing’s) defence.
But, unfortunately, not the time when I got the feedback to Colin.
Instead of my usual ‘thankyou, you’re so great – your advice has been a great help’, I took the list of adjustments – which I FULLY AGREED WITH – and decided to explain my thought processes for the writing as it stood. I don’t know what got into me – I wasn’t arguing with their advice. What I was trying to do was show my intention in writing it that way. I don’t know, maybe I was embarrassed – I was used to having more creative success in recent times, and though I’d asked for their help (and needed it), there’s an element of pride being bruised when you’re told your writing needs so much improvement. Anyway, all that happened was I ended up looking like an arse. Did I tell you that you look like an arse if you respond back to criticism? Here’s another reminder:
But what was worse, Ethel was mortified. (Gertrude was quiet on the matter, but God only knows what she thought. Sometimes silence is more frightening than confrontation). She apologised in great detail, thinking she’d hurt my feelings, and said she hadn’t meant to step over the line in her critique.
She hadn’t. It was me. I was an arse.
But I suppose there was a positive in the whole situation – it made me understand that the critiquing process is a two way thing: it’s not just about you trusting your reader, but also, about them trusting you. Just as you need to feel safe in your creative relationship before you pass over your writing, they need to feel safe giving you advice, and understand that you’re not going to argue or nit-pick about the points they make.
So, basically, my point is, when you write, and when you ask someone to give you a truthful analysis of good and bad points, then take their advice, say thank you, and shut up. That way, they might want to help you again.
I was fortunate because Ethel and I had already established a good relationship, so she understood this was nothing more than a blip. But, in future, I’ll make sure I treat her with much more care.
That is all.