Category Archives: constructive criticism

All The Best Intentions…

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.

Image

If only writing was always as easy as binge-eating.

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.

Image

It’s best not to let your writing loose on people when it’s 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.

Image

Being an arse wouldn’t be so bad if only it meant being pert and shapely. I knew I’d get the short straw.

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:

Don’t comment.

I’ll repeat that again.  Do not comment.

Yes, I’ll say it louder in case you didn’t hear me.  DO NOT COMMENT.

women with her mouth taped up

Sometimes, when you can’t keep your mouth shut, only tape will do.

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:

fat-thong-topless

Yes, I’m an arse for all the world to see.

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.

 

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under constructive criticism, Short fiction

Great Advice by Roxane Gray (link): Eight Questions Writers Should Ask Themselves.

Association of Writers & Writing Programs.

Leave a comment

Filed under constructive criticism, Novel, Short fiction, Uncategorized

Okay, so why am I here?

Why This Blog?

First, of all, I’ll be honest.  I’m not comfortable with all this blogging business.  That is, when I say not comfortable, read that as ‘I’m panicked at having to reveal things about myself to a bunch of people I don’t know’.  There’s the fear that I’ll be JUDGED on what I’ve written… Is the content funny enough?  Is it well thought out?  Does it make sense? What about the punctuation and the grammar?  All of this is scary.  (Apparently, the average writer is an insecure type, and I can vouch for that).  So why do it?  Well, see, there’s the question.  I really want to make it in writing.  I really, REALLY want to.  And the common consensus is, to be a writer, you have to get yourself out there.  And being afraid isn’t an option.  So, here I am!  I’m out there!

Hello.

It’s good to be here.  Outside my comfort zone.

Or so I’ve been told…

Reading over that first paragraph, I’m having a strange sense of deja-vu.  At one time, I had exactly the same feelings about creative writing itself.  I remember the awful crawly-skin of having to show someone something I’d written, the tightened chest as I realised I might be JUDGED, and even worse (dum… dum…. DUUUUUUM!!!) being really proud of a piece of writing, only to receive a critique which made me realise I wasn’t quite the natural I’d been led to believe.  (‘Your emails are sooooo funny, Sally.  You’d make a brilliant writer.’  PAH!)

Image

Accepting Constructive Criticism

Yes, criticism is tough.  But the key to improvement is to accept criticism from people you trust (and not simply show your writing to people who will tell you what you want to hear).  Believe me, in the end, you will value and even welcome those negative comments on your work.  As long as the comments are constructive.  And there’s the word – constructive.

Before I consider what constructive means, let’s look at the word trust. I trust my husband, Mr W.  With everything.  Well, with everything apart from my writing.  He just doesn’t get it. In the few times I’ve let him read what I’ve written, he’s nit-picked every typo (which, I’ll grant, is important), but then never mentioned anything good.  After he’s fed back, I’m the writerly equivalent of a snail that’s been crunched under someone’s shoe.  And that is not good.

You see, basically, he’s not interested.  And he doesn’t understand the whole reviewing thing.  For starters, it annoys him that I use words in my writing that I’d never use in real life.  Duh!  He can’t seem to get over that.  I assume it’s because he knows me too well.  To add to this, he only likes certain genres of writing – action, crime, thrillers, and war.  That’s it.  I don’t write that kind of stuff.  He can’t get over that either.  Thirdly, as you may have already realised, he’s pedantic to the core.  For him, this means that on a grey and cloudy day, he’s certain of rain.  He’s seen the weather report, and the meteorologists agree with him.  They forecast rain too.  But, he’ll focus so much on the rain, it means that he’ll not see the rays of sunshine peeking out, or the rainbow above the trees.

Don’t get the wrong impression – Mr W likes to laugh, but complaining is so much more his bag.

So, what I’m trying to say is, though I trust Mr W, I don’t use him as a reviewer.  He’s virtually useless to me, as my confidence becomes pancake flat with every word he reads.  This should not be the purpose of critiquing.

And here we have it.  The crux of the issue.  He’s not constructive.  He can only see the negatives.  On the other hand, my teenage daughter, Ms Backchat, (known, henceforth, as Ms B) is.  She’s not cruel, but neither does she tiptoe around trying to keep me happy.  I’m her mother.  Why would she want to make me happy?

Anway, back to the point.  Once you’ve got someone whose opinion you trust to review your work, you have to be ready to not always like what you hear.  A critique is only helpful if you are told the truth, even though it’s likely to hurt.

However, as with the word trust, there are levels of truth too.  For me, when I say truth, it’s preferable if it’s a truth that’s wrapped in cushions and feathers, so that it doesn’t hurt like a rock smashing into your face as your reviewer clumsily hands it over to you.  If you’ve not been lucky enough to experience constructive criticism yet, the cushions-and-feathers part of the review sounds like this: ‘I like how you set up the scene.  It’s really vivid, and I feel like I’m there.’  But wrapped within it is the rock of: ‘But do you need to use shimmering, hovering, and searing all in the same sentence?  (But I like ALL of those adjectives!)

What I want to know is, why is it always the bits I like best that have to go?

For a novice writer, no matter how small the criticism, it always feels brutal.  The cushions and feathers might help, but like the princess in the famous fairy tale, they don’t hide the discomfort of that tiny dried pea.  No matter how many soft mattresses you might pile up on top of it, you still come out of the whole experience feeling bruised.

But, you have to remember that, if all that someone tells you is, ‘OMG, that’s amazing, that’s the best thing I’ve ever read!’ it’s actually not very helpful. Neither is them telling you that your writing is ‘Pap!  Utter Pap!’

What we all need is a reader who can highlight the good, but also identify the bad.  From this, as writers, we can learn and move on.  We can get better.  And for those writers who don’t want to hear about the bad, or who are not willing to act on constructive criticism, I’d say, their writing is never going to improve.

If you’re serious about improvement, you will realise that every time you write or re-write, it helps you to achieve your purpose – to become a better writer.  And the consequent result, of hearing more positives in the constructive criticism that you receive, will make the pain of the rock a little easier to bear.

4 Comments

Filed under constructive criticism, Creative writing