Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Criticism: tough love for the ego

An acquaintance once asked me to critique the first chapter of her work in progress.
I didn't know her very well and I was unfamiliar with her writing history, but I figured she had only recently contracted the writing bug because her work was so raw.
So I decided to tread carefully.
I started with all the good stuff.
I piled it on.
Then, I began to point out sections that confused me.
I had barely begun when she stopped me and began to explain. She explained not because she believed her words would elicit more advice or solutions to the problems within the work. She spoke up because she decided that, like everyone else, I "just didn't get it."
She would have to move on.
I was stunned.
She'll never make it.
Not with that attitude.
In college (both in undergraduate and graduate school), we were not allowed to speak while our work was critiqued. For a good 45 minutes, we'd have to sit there jotting notes and biting our lips while six or seven other people tore our work apart and analyzed it bit by little bit.
Sometimes I had to bite so hard it bled.
I doesn't matter what we intend to say with our words.
Readers can't stop, pick up the phone and ask authors what they meant.
The writing must convey the message all by itself and the critique I received in those workshops was invaluable.
It toughened my skin.
The rewrites that followed taught me how to sort through it all.
How to ignore some criticism and embrace that of others.
And, most important, I learned to recruit readers who would be tough on me.
I might not always agree, but I'll take what I can get.
When people offer criticism, it's like they're giving away money.
Some people gives us just a penny or two.
Others give us gold.
But why would we reject the pennies? We don't have to spend them, but it doesn't hurt to accept them and, when we gather enough pennies, we just might find that they are more valuable when combined than we once thought.
But, then again, we need to be careful that we don't waste too much time gathering pennies.
Don't request critiques from people who will simply be enthralled by the fact that we can write at all. Seek out the gold, the readers who read critically and, therefore, are most likely to offer constructive feedback.
It becomes less painful when we think of the work as a joint project, one in which the person giving critique is invested. The work has been created. Now it needs fine-tuning. Sharpening. The critiquer can sometimes see the flaws that we cannot see because we are too immersed.
The critiquer, or beta reader, offers perspective.
I feel sorry for that woman whose chapter I read.
She will likely waste plenty of time seeking out readers who agree with her.
With each honest critique she rejects, her dream of publication will become less and less vivid.
It's a waste.
But it's also a choice.
A choice that requires strength of character, humility and confidence all rolled together.
We all have it within us.
But, if we want to be successful, we cannot let ego rule.

2 comments:

Rachel said...

I think this is great Lori. I agree that one can learn so much from other people's criticism (constructive). Like you mentioned, it toughened your skin and you may have been too close to your work to see what others can see. I always have dreamed about writing one day...I feel like I have stories to share, but I'll admit, I've never had the guts to ask anyone to read my work. Not because I don't think I could handle the criticism, but I don't have enough belief in myself. :)

twinsmom said...

Thanks Rachel. Despite what I wrote, I think people who are revealing their work for the first time, especially those who lack confidence, might be better off just getting kind, non-critical people to read it. Repeated exposure can help you get over your fear. Once you're over the fear-hurdle, then you can start looking for criticism.