Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Pitching and Catching: The Five Rules of Constructive Criticism

If you're immersed in a community of writers--whether they're students, bloggers, or novelists--you will provably ask for feedback. And chances are good, you'll be asked to provide feedback on somebody else's work. Students participate in workshops, creative writers not only participate in workshops, but may also seek feedback from friends and colleagues or a network of trusted "beta readers." No man is an island, and very few people write in a vacuum where outside opinions are never sought or requested. But giving and receiving feedback can also be hugely stressful for both parties involved. So here are five suggestions to make the experience less frightening all around.

1. Be Specific

Picture"Your introduction is nice."
"I like the ending."
"The story is interesting, yeah."
"Good job!"
"Interesting argument."
"The ending was a little weak but overall everything else was okay."

I've seen vague comments like that more times than I can count. At times they were directed at me and my work, at times at my students' work, and sadly, I've even been responsible for vague feedback once or twice. If you don't know what to say or you're worried about hurting somebody's feelings, simple comments with vaguely reassuring words like nice and interesting seem like the safest route. And that might be the case, but it isn't the most helpful route. 

Nice is an empty word, more or less meaningless. Nobody wants to be called nice. That's no better than saying "I know nothing else about you but I'm expected to say something here." You should offer concrete feedback, referring often to the work itself in order to explain your reaction and thoughts. The introduction shouldn't be nice, it should be witty, engaging, intriguing, exciting, confusing, fun, anything but nice. If the introduction fails on some level, it'll never improve if you don't explain where it falls short.

On the flip side of that, writers need to be specific, too. If you're sending a piece out into the world for feedback, don't just email it to somebody and then wait and hope for the best. Ask specific questions to guide the reader's feedback. It can be daunting to workshop or beta read somebody else's work if you don't know what you're reading for. "Oh, I just want your opinion" won't get the sort of response you're hoping for, unless you want "Oh, I think it's nice."

2. It's Not Personal
PictureStudents find workshops very awkward at times. They tell me, "Who am I to judge somebody else?" That's fair enough. We're taught we shouldn't judge people harshly and we shouldn't form prejudices. Judging has very negative connotations for students. That's not the right way to view the situation, though. Feedback isn't about judging somebody else, it's about judging somebody's writing. Everybody has the experience, intelligence, and tools to provide judgement on another's work. Remove the author from your mind and focus on the text. Don't be harsh or critical, but remember you aren't insulting the writer when you find a passive sentence.And authors, remember you are not your work. Your worth is not measured by your essay, short story, novel, poetry, memoirs, or blog. Receiving negative feedback can be very painful, I know. I've been there many, many times. But it's not personal. No matter how much of yourself you've invested into the work, it's not personal. A reader who provides honest feedback is worth her weight in gold. Don't mistake valuable commentary as an insult.

3. You're Not an Editor (Unless You Are)

Good editors shape texts. They suggest revisions, cut out the dead weight, fix continuity, and generally collaborate with the author to create something new, something stronger. Editors are professionals with years and years of experience, and the best ones develop a rapport with their authors. The chances are good that you, dear reader, are not an editor. Which means you do not have an editor's job. Don't try to turn the characters into the people you want them to be. Don't rewrite sentences, cut paragraphs, or suggest a completely new ending. That's not your job, and unless explicitly told otherwise, it's not expected or appreciated.

If you're working with somebody who has an editor's eye, whether that's an actual editor or your best friend, be grateful for the opportunity to make your work stronger. I've actually butted heads with editors several times, and even though I felt completely correct and righteous, I realized later that I was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I might be the creator, but sometimes I'm simply not the editor. Evaluate each suggestion in good faith.

4. It's a Process

If there's only time for a quick read through for errors and typos before an essay is due, then that's all there's time for. But when I conduct workshops in my writing courses, there's never just one session because there's never just one area to focus on. It'll be easier for all involved if feedback is an ongoing process, rather than a rushed reading thirty minutes before something is due. It should progress in at least four steps, beginning with global edits and ending with proofreading. I've modeled our editing services based on that philosophy. If you're asked to provide feedback, read through at least three or four times, focusing first on global edits, then substantive edits, then local edits, and finally typos and misspellings. Looking for specific issues with each reading will help you provide specific feedback.

When you're writing, schedule time for a beta read or two. If something is due on Monday, that doesn't mean you have until Monday to write it. It means you have until Monday to complete it. You should finish with at least one or two days to spare so you can ask for feedback, make revisions, and strengthen the work.

5. Be Kind
Nobody likes an asshole. You're not going to impress anybody with your wit and intelligence if you use cruelty to demonstrate your brilliance. You're there for support, not to rip a text to shreds. You might one day read something that's absolutely terrible on every single level. It might even be the most atrocious thing you've ever read, but to quote Patrick Swayze in Roadhouse, "Be nice. Until it's time to not be nice." Use the sandwich method of providing two genuine compliments for every honest piece of criticism. Sometimes, you may need to ignore the text altogether and just have a friendly conversation with the writer, asking him specific questions about his work to help focus his thoughts and purpose. Sometimes, there's really nothing you can do to help but you should still be kind.

If somebody has taken the time to read your work, thank them. Be appreciative of the time your reader spent with the work and their willingness to provide comments, even if you don't like what you heard. Don't let frustration turn into ingratitude. Every comment, good or bad, can be helpful to you. Every opinion, vague or concrete, is one more opinion you didn't have before. You don't have to incorporate every change, or any of them. But no matter how you feel about the feedback and criticism you received, never forget the reader did you a kindness by agreeing to look at it in the first place.

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