How to be open to receiving quality writing critiques
In 2008, I had an opportunity to pitch a script for an historical fiction play that highlighted the role that people in northern Ohio played during the pre-Civil War years. A small percentage of Ohioans, mostly during the years between 1830 and 1860, helped slaves to escape from their owners, even though their actions defied federal law and were punishable by prison time and crushing fines.
Since I’m fascinated by the Underground Railroad era, I decided to create a proposal. Before I submitted it for consideration, I showed my 17-year-old son, since he also reads heavily about that time in history. “What do you think?” I asked him happily, assuming the proposal was ready to go. “Does it work?”
Now, Ryan is nothing if not straightforward and he simply said, “No. It doesn’t.”
No?? I’m thinking. No??? How can this not be ready? And, more importantly, how can I – who’d already been writing professionally for nearly 20 years at that point – have missed something that a teenager could quickly spot?
Swallowing my pride, I asked why the script didn’t work – and he gave me a piece of outstanding advice: “Because the subject matter of this play is naturally so grim,” he tells me, “you need to balance it with something quirkier.”
Hmmm. That made some sense. And, when I asked him for specifics, he spun out an offbeat character named Pepper Jack who added a whole new dimension to the play. I incorporated Pepper Jack into the proposal, sent it off – and eventually received word that my play was among the finalists and so the director wanted to meet with me. As I entered the theater that day, I was greeted by the director who enthusiastically waved his hand around the room and said, “I can already picture Pepper Jack walking across my stage . . .”
Humbling experience, no doubt. And, although I won the contest and got the contract, that probably wouldn’t have happened without the advice of my critique partner.
How is this different from proofreading?
Recently, we published a blog post containing professional proofreading tips, along with a profile of K.D. Sullivan, a professional proofreader and publisher. The type of feedback that we’re talking about today, though, must happen before the eye-straining work of proofreading (sometimes called copyediting) can effectively occur.
This is a conceptual level of feedback. Key steps include:
- Choosing the right critique partner(s)
- Having a solid idea to begin with
- Being able to communicate your idea to a reasonable degree via your writing
- Having the ability to know when you’re becoming defensive
- Effectively dealing with your defensiveness
- Deciding what feedback to incorporate
Choosing the right critique partner(s)
The person that I would choose to provide feedback on a memoir-type essay is different from the person I would choose as a critique partner for a more business-like piece of writing. When I’m writing a more academic work, I sure wouldn’t use someone who only has experience in writing marketing copy, no matter how persuasive the copy – and vice versa.
It’s important to find someone who has the necessary levels of knowledge about the type of writing you’re doing and who understands the goals of the writing. It’s also that important that:
- You can communicate with this person easily and comfortably
- This person:
- offers praise when something reads well
- can discern when something isn’t yet working well
- can clearly share the specifics of his or her feedback
You might think that a perfectly smooth, keep-emotions-out-of-it exchange of feedback and modification, feedback and modification might be the best formula. In my experience . . . sometimes, yes. Sometimes that’s exactly what an excellent critiquing relationship is like. Other times, though, it’s with somebody who can take me to the brink of being frustrated and maybe even borderline ticked off – but who is also someone whom I can trust to point out something that, at a minimum, needs a closer look (more about defensive behavior later on).
Here are just two examples of things some terrific critique partners have said to me over the years:
- When I arrived at the magazine office one day, where I served as managing editor and where we published dozens of high-quality print publications each year, the graphic arts director greeted me with: “Kelly Sagert, it’s time to come clean! You’ve bought stock in an em dash factory, haven’t you?”
- I received this opening line of feedback on chapter 7 of my manuscript about baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson from a well published writing friend with whom I’ve traded editing services: “Um . . . Kel . . . this isn’t the best chapter you’ve ever written.” He then shared specific examples of why.
In both cases, this feedback helped me to craft better pieces of writing because it came from people with expertise who were invested in the success of the writing. Sure, I probably snatched the copy back from the graphic arts director and mumbled, but it would have been done good-naturedly, and I would have pulled back on the punctuation mark in question. And, because my writer friend had already read so much of my writing, both already published and in process, I felt confident that he could spot when I wasn’t at my peak.
Two obvious factors
Even the most brilliant of critique partners can’t fix a piece of writing that doesn’t have a decent concept behind it to begin with. So make sure that you are crafting something worth reading – and writing to the best of your ability – before sending a piece of writing off for review. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with letting your critique partner know that an article is in its early stages, but you don’t want to put too much of a burden on the other person.
Who, me? Defensive?
Although it’s important to choose the right critiquing partner(s), it’s equally as important to learn how to:
- identify when you’re feeling defensive about feedback
- react appropriately when you notice you’re feeling that way
If I’m interacting with a critique partner in real time (in person, by phone, via Skype and the like), the easiest way for me to identify feelings of defensiveness: I want to interrupt. No, I don’t just want to interrupt. I feel an urgent need to interrupt. I find myself tapping my fingers, jiggling my legs, breathing more rapidly, and overall experiencing restless body language as I wait for this other person to just stop talking so that I can explain how what I’ve done is already precisely, exactly, mindblowingly RIGHT.
Now, feeling defensive, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. It’s just part of being human, of being invested in your work. But, how you react to these feelings can be a real difference maker in the effectiveness of the critiquing relationship and in the success of the final piece of writing. And, let’s face it. Unless your critique partner is required to be one as part of a formal job description, he or she isn’t going to participate in giving feedback for long if it becomes an excruciating emotional experience.
A healthy response to feeling defensive about your writing and the accompanying feedback could sound something like one of these:
- Hey, thanks for the feedback. You’ve given me lots to think about. Is it okay if we pick up this discussion after I’ve had time to think it all over?
- I’m finding myself feeling defensive about this feedback. Let’s take a break. I don’t want to waste your time until I can get myself back on track.
Common element of an unhealthy response:
- I was recently told that I use too many semi-colons. (First em dashes and now semi-colons! Sheesh.). An inappropriate response might involve a diabolical plan to criticize every single use of that person’s parentheses for the rest of his or her natural life. Or ellipses. Or italics. Or maybe his or her favorite color. Or pet names. Or haircuts. You get the drift. If you feel like going on the offensive, especially via a personal attack, back off. You’re in dangerous territory.
Instead, take that break. Walk your dog, take a shower, eat a snack, work on another writing project, play Angry Birds or crochet yourself a scarf. Whatever it takes to give yourself emotional space. Many times – more times that I can count – when I return to the feedback, it makes perfect sense and I can’t figure out what provoked the defensive response in the first place.
Other times, the feedback still doesn’t feel entirely right, but I can identify the areas where the challenges lie and I can ask my critique partner for more clarity. Usually, that resolves the issue – and, if doesn’t, maybe another break is needed if deadlines allow.
And, what should you do if a critique seems unnecessarily harsh? If it’s a response from a newer critique partner, it may be a red flag. If it’s from someone who normally doesn’t respond that way – and if you’ve given yourself time to deal with feelings of defensiveness – then you may need to say something like, “Hey, when you said ABCD, it felt pretty harsh to me. Can we talk about that?”
Sometimes, of course, you may not be able to self-identify feelings of defensiveness. Here, once again, choosing the right person to offer feedback and developing a good working relationship with him or her is the ticket to success. You want to create an atmosphere in which he or she can tell you that signs of defensiveness are in the air so that the two of you can handle the situation professionally.
Accepting or declining recommendations
Ultimately, you can typically choose to accept or decline feedback given, unless a job hierarchy dictates otherwise. If you have truly dealt with feelings of defensiveness and have genuinely listened to and considered feedback, then the final decision about what to accept is generally pretty easy. You’ve already done the hard work, the heavy lifting.
It’s also important to become an effective critique partner, so you can return the favor. But, that’s next week’s post!