Constructive criticism part 2

Right. I’m back from work and I’ve had tea. Earlier I looked at what constructive criticism is. Now I’d like to consider why writers need constructive criticism and the need for a writer to be in a frame of mind where they can accept it. Then I’ll say a little about the first time I was asked to give some written feedback on a manuscript of poems and my feelings and thoughts at the time.   As before, I’d appreciate any comments on any aspect of this subject. Thanks.

Creative writers have (or should have) an emotional attachment to their work. Perhaps not everything they write will be the product of deeply personal experience or firmly held beliefs, but an investment of the self is necessary on some level in order to produce something the writer can feel is worthwhile. Writing a poem or story generally requires effort and time, and this means that attachment to a piece of writing is strong.  This inevitably means it is difficult for the writer to see the strengths and weaknesses of their own work, so in order to improve it someone else’s opinion is valuable, assuming they are asking the right person.

For this reason the giving of feedback to a writer is a delicate task requiring an empathetic understanding of how closely associated with the work the writer might be

Tread softley
Resistance to all criticism, constructive or otherwise.

Of course the writer must be in a place where they are able to at least listen to feedback without immediately responding with defensive counter arguments or explanations which might even border on the hostile. I remember being in a workshop where all comments (which were I think, on this occasion, were all considered, respectful and constructively delivered) were met with a succession of responses as to why they were misguided or ‘wrong’. I did wonder why the writer had attended the workshop at all since she appeared not to want to hear what people thought and seemed to think her poem was beyond critique. I am not talking about the understandable response to destructive criticism (I’ll go into what that might be later) but about being receptive to reasonable and reasoned comments and suggestions.

At some point I will talk about further about my own experiences, positive and negative, of being given feedback on my writing. But now I’d like to share a little about my experiences of giving feedback.

I have only offered feedback to writers who have asked me for it. I have done this as part of a workshop and in response to e-mails from friends. Once or twice I have had to decline the invitation to critique a manuscript. There are a number of good reasons
for declining invitations to give feedback which I’ll go into later.

The first time a poet friend sent me some of their work for feedback I knew they had entrusted me with something very important and I experienced a range of thoughts and emotions. I was pleased that they thought I was qualified for the task. I was excited. I knew I liked the work I’d seen and was looking forward to reading more. I was honoured by the invitation. I wanted to be useful, to develop my skills in reading carefully and writing a considered and well-organized response. I was slightly nervous. I knew that I would have to point out aspects of the poems that I thought didn’t work. I was worried about upsetting the poet. I didn’t want to do any damage. I was keen to be as honest as possible (I’ll return to the concept of honesty or candour in another post.) I wanted to be subtle yet clear about areas I thought might need work. I wanted to be balanced. I was aware that the task, if done properly and sensitively, would take up a lot of time.

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14 Comments

  1. I think there are a few writers, usually beginners, that join a group to hear how good their writing is and feel let down when they are given anything other than high praise. When I was teaching beginners I used to try very hard to be constructive, indeed not picking up on anything unless I had something constructive to contribute and even then only choosing one or two areas to comment on. However I would still get a response like “Why don’t you like my story?” or “But that’s what really happened”. Others would listen and then not change a thing, preferring their own version. It takes time for such writers to realise that being able to accept constructive criticism and testing the advice of those more experienced (even if they discard it later), is part of becoming a fine writer and a careful editor of their own work.

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  2. Thank you Lesley. I’ve not had much experience of this response from recipients of feedback, but I imagine it must be a common experience for teachers, and one that I’m sure would frustrate me at first if I were in this situation. That sentence ‘ not picking up on anything unless I had something constructive to contribute’ seems to me the essence of constructive criticism.
    I know from my own experience that you are right about time being the essential element in learning to accept and (as you importantly add ) test the advice.

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    1. As an ex-teacher, and, indeed, as an author, long ago, of articles and a book on the teaching of writing, I know there are no right answers to this. But. There’s a sort of commonsense answer at the heart of it all. Basically it’s about ground rules. As a writer I won’t show anybody anything that I’m not prepared to change. For me, if you think it’s right then take it to an open mic. or submit it to a publisher. So, anyone running a workshop has to establish the rule. If you’re not prepared to change it, then don’t bring it.
      The Poetry Business Writing Days work this way, and we all get used to it. Basic rules for workshopping.
      Pick three things that you think are working, or that you like and that’s the first element of the feedback. If you think things might be tweaked, then my formula is always: try x or y and see what happens.
      If there are things that are puzzling (often to do with syntax) then say so.
      When I worked with school children I always asked them to tell me what they liked, and to pick out one thing they thought wasn’t working. It worked fine for me as a system PROVIDED we all understood and accepted the contract. That everything was provisional at that point.
      If a writer says: ‘this is finished’ then I ask ‘are you happy with it?’ and if they say yes, then that’s it. Wish them good luck.

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      1. I did have ground rules but didn’t include accepting change as one of them, which doesn’t seem very sensible now, looking back. I like your “basic rules”; simple and fair.

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  3. Thanks John. I think ground rules are essential. I am (or I used to be) too nervous or distracted or overexcited in new situations to take on new information. This may be why I don’t recall having ever heard anyone set out ground rules for a workshop or feedback session. I think your basic rules are great .

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  4. After a while in groups where criticism just was not expected some of us started a group entirely for mutual critique, following more or less the rules John describes here. It has been invaluable and I suspect I have learned even more from trying to give constructive criticism than from receiving it. We are a mixed genre group (not enough poets to stick to poetry) but much can also be learned from a member’s response as a reader even when they write in a different genre. Still so much to learn.

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  5. Hi Linda. Thanks for joining in. I guess that can happen in some writing groups – that criticism is not expected. I suppose they might still have value as a place for beginners to share work and build confidence, but imagine it is much more useful to be in the sort of group you are in now.
    Also interesting that you feel you have possibly learned more from giving constructive criticism than from giving it and your comment about readers responding to different genres. Also good to see that John’s rules are being applied and are effective.

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  6. I am teaching a prose group at the moment – all new writers – highly intelligent, and well-read, all women of a certain age. My ground rule was this to begin with: no one has to read what they write. In this way, I believe, the writer just writes – does not filter their creation for effect. The words are therefore more honest. Gradually, one or two have been brave enough to share their words purely for the joy of having written them, and seeking nothing more than a nod, a smile and an indication that the listeners have enjoyed the experience of listening – and that’s fine. In the last session, one lady read her new work, and unbidden, another told her that it was far too wordy and she should edit hard. I jumped on the commenter. Gently. For breaking the ground rule. Tomorrow, we tackle to delicate art of working in groups, including this topic, which is why I am so delighted to see it being explored here. Having worked myself in groups where excellent, sensitive writers (who isn’t…?) have been frightened off completely by crass comment, I am very aware of the damage ill-judged feedback can do. But likewise, I am also aware of the waste of time for aspiring writers if they seek good feedback and end in groups where the only feedback is a mishmash of ‘Oh that was wonderful’. The path is not straight, and the ground is swampy. I do like the ground rules proposed above by John Foggin – and am going to share those, and the link to these discussions with my writers. Thank you again.

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  7. It’s great to have your feedback Vanessa, thank you. Your passion and understanding of this subject comes through in your comment. It is good to hear how your group is set up initially as a ‘safe place’ and that the intention is to progress from there. It looks like John Foggin’s rules are going to be very popular, and I’ll definitely include them in a summary of points when gathering up what has emerged from discussion of this subject.

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  8. My day job (programming – teaching and doing it) involves lots of assessing. Sometimes it involves suggesting that people transfer to another course, one they’re more suited to.

    “Writing a poem or story generally requires effort and time, and this means that attachment to a piece of writing is strong.” So does writing a program. It’s difficult for programmers to see the strengths and weaknesses of their own work. But better programmers learn to become detached. In [non-commercial] computing there’s the idea of “egoless programming” – encouraging criticism of one’s own work, writing programs in such a way that others can find bugs, rather than trying to hide mistakes via obscurity, etc.

    “I wanted to be subtle yet clear about areas I thought might need work.” – but if they can’t read between the lines? I’ve been at workshops where the regulars have clearly given up offering constructive criticism to particular individuals, being kindly instead. When new members comment on the individual’s work, they point things out as if the writer were a beginner, unaware of the etiquette of the group. It’s awkward. But as long as they’re happy, what’s the problem? But are they happy? Whether the writing was cause or effect of their problems I don’t know. Maybe photography would have suited them better. Maybe writing prose. They’d still have the chance to meet people, but the interaction would be more authentic. They’d be able to interact with people beyond their sheltered environment without the risk of being upset.

    The other complication is money. For selfish reasons a tutor’s going to encourage prospective writers to do their course or have private tuition. I know writers who have spend 1000s of pounds for a few hours consultancy. Of course the consultants always offer false hope along with their constructive criticism.

    At the group I go to, new people can try us out before they need to pay. And as Lesley says, they sometimes want to hear how good their writing is. We could say “Well, it’s a bit rough around the edges but there’s some promise” and only after they’ve paid be less subtle. But we prefer not to take their money under false pretences.

    But I agree, “giving of feedback to a writer is a delicate task requiring an empathetic understanding of how closely associated with the work the writer might be”. The poem and the writer are entangled. This is why I feel more comfortable dealing with budding writers who are already successful in other challenging fields, and haven’t staked their fragile self-esteem in their poetry.

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  9. Thanks Tim. There’s a lot to look at here. I’m glad you conclude by agreeing about the delicacy of the task. I’m not in a writing group so am interested to hear about people’s experiences.
    The phrase that worries me in all this is ‘ of course the consultants offer false hope along with their constructive criticism’. It’s the ‘of course’ that worries me.

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    1. Hi Tim… hope you are well. To pick up on the ‘of course’ as well – logically one has to assume you mean that all workshops/teachers/consultants, in giving positive feedback, are spreading false hope. Hope of what? Of publication chances, and comp chances. Yes? Not sure that’s right, meself. No workshop/teacher/consultant is in control of the publishing world, and the students ought to know that. Any teacher etc worth their salt tell the students exactly how the publishing world is… an uneven playing field like no other. Telling someone that their work is “good”, is a validation, not a ticket to publication. Happy to debate!

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  10. Sorry, I wasn’t clear. What I meant was that when the consultants I mentioned above (one of whom had already been paid over 2000 pounds for 20 hours work) were asked something like “So do you think my novel has a chance of publication?” they offered another 20 hours of their time for the usual rate. When one of the writers subsequently joined a writers group she realised that her first attempt wasn’t worth salvaging. She’d have preferred the consultant to tell her that (it would have been more constructive) but of course he didn’t. As I wrote before, money complicates matters.

    Oh and Roy, you mention you’re not currently in a writing group, so let me point out another complication. I’ve been in a group where a person’s mental health issues forced the committee to return his membership fee (luckily their constitution allowed this). When I was in Liverpool long ago I was told that staff at the local mental hospital recommended the writers group to patients (therapy on the cheap I suppose). One of the patients seemed to think the group was also a dating agency, and wrote poems accordingly. We critted accordingly. When someone prefaced their poetry reading with “poetry is my life”, clearly any feedback took on a new significance. At the group I go to, a recently widowered man joined. His poems were thematic. We never suggested that he try a different topic, though I think his poetry might have benefitted from such a change. He left after a year. Patricia Oxley, the Acumen editor, said at a talk that she got a phone call from someone who’d sent some poems in. He said over the phone that he had a gun, and was about to use it. These are more extreme cases of the difficulty of separating poet from poem. I think it unwise to assume that such separation is possible (some OuLiPo might come close). Nevertheless I think it’s a laudable aim.

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