Is it worth it?
Ping-pong dialogue

Feedback, humility and the sword of truth

Whether you have one would-be writing buddy, or a large writers' circle which meets twice a week, or a bunch of eager or reluctant students, giving and getting feedback is central to most writers' lives, but it's a while since I've blogged about it.

This discussion usually comes up when someone on a forum has found feedback distressingly painful, and battle lines are quickly drawn: "fluff is useless" vs. "no one has the right to destroy confidence", "some people just want to be told they're wonderful" vs. "some people can't admit there are other ways of writing". I've blogged before about how it all works best when there's a good match of style, but recently I've been thinking about what sort of mindset we all ought to try for, if we're going to get the most, and give the most, from feedback situations.

So where do you start trying to be useful as a critiquer? I think John Updike's Rules for Reviewers fit rather well. Editing out the specifics of reviewing, they go like this:
  • Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt ...
  • If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?
  • Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. [or, I'd say, do your best to set aside such considerations. If you really can't, don't get involved in feedback.]
  • Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind.
  • Never, never ... try to put the author 'in his place' making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers.
  • Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban."

First, I want to say clearly that there is no inherent merit, no virtue, no bravery and no use in being brutal for its own sake. "This is shit, you fool" is no more useful than "This is wonderful, darling." If anything, it's marginally less useful because it damages the writer's confidence, and un-confident writers don't dare do the things which would make their writing stand out. If the writer feels bruised or worse, then it's a regrettable if sometimes inevitable side-effect of being told how their creation affects another reader. Those bruises are not a mark of how right the critiquer is.

So, if you have a lot to say about what's wrong with the writing

a) have a bit of humility. Don't assume that you're right, when it's really just that you're you. Don't hand down your comments as if they're the laws of the Medes and Persians. To quote Updike, check it's the writer, and not you.

b) keep it specific. "This is shit" is useless and damaging. "The middle paragraph is flat and unengaging, maybe because you're suddenly Telling in the middle of the scene" is useful, if painful, because it's specific about both which words, and what's wrong with them: it may be hard to take, but the writer knows it's worth swallowing. And that "maybe" is a nod towards humility.

And it's forcing yourself to be specific about others' writing - good or bad - that will make you a better writer yourself. At least 50% of the value in critiquing is in how it educates the critiquer, so stay humble long enough to be grateful to the writer for offering you the chance of that education!

c) be specific about what works, as well as what doesn't. It's not about sugaring the pill, it's about reflecting the piece back to the writer: it's information which is equally useful. It does also help the writer not to shut off from tougher things you're saying, out of a very natural instinct of self-protection,

d) don't be afraid to say what you think. Someone has asked for your opinion, in order to improve a piece of their writing, and you do them no service by not being honest about your opinion. It's patronising to behave as if they can't cope with the truth as you see it. Better to practise being specific and honest, as above, than to just dish out bland and useless "lovely darling" stuff for fear of hurting feelings.

e) think twice before crossing out and re-writing someone else's work. It is often the quickest way to show (rather than tell) what you're trying to say about something. But it is an assertive act to write over someone else's words - not least because it lacks humility. If it really is the best way to make your point, make it clear that this may be what you would do, but of course the writer must find their own way to address the issue. In other words, if you've taken power over someone's writing, hand the power back to the writer at the end.

f) if you find yourself being very brutal in how you express what you see as the truth, bear it in mind that the words may be brutal not because you're right and brave and splendid and everyone else is a wuss who only wants affirmation, but because you have the hide of a rhinocerous and are incapable of hearing anything said less forcefully.

Not all writers have rhinocerous hides - most of the good ones don't, because you have to be thin-skinned to life to be a good writer. If in doubt, assume that the writer has a thinner skin that you have. You are a writer too: you're perfectly capable of expressing a truth in a way which helps without damaging. If you're not that much of a writer, why would your comments be useful and what are you doing in a writer's circle?

g) let the writer demur. Your job is not to persuade the writer that you are right (and by implication they were wrong.) One in many ways excellent writing teacher I know is, somewhere inside him/herself, a bully. It's not that what they say is wrong, or that how they say it is brutal: it's that they're temperamentally incapable of letting the writer disagree, and in conversation will push on and further, in an attempt to win the argument. But the critiquer's job isn't to persuade, it's to mirror. Even as a teacher, your job is to reflect back the effect of the piece of writing, and make suggestions - not assertions - about how that effect could be strengthened or changed to benefit the piece.