Monday, 25 January 2010

Looking that gift-horse in the mouth

Someone at my writer's group said last week that feedback was a 'gift' - which would suggest that being up for review is rather like Christmas come early. Sometimes it feels more like a firing squad, except they're not trying to give you a quick, painless death, but blowing little bits off you piece-by-piece until you just wish you were dead.

If your Christmas is anything like the gift-giving orgy that mine seems to have become then along with the few things you really, really want, or the rare gifts that surprise you with their usefulness, there's also an awful lot of stuff that needs to go straight down the charity shop.

Trouble is with feedback, it's hard to know which is which. What you may need to hear is not necessarily what you want to hear. There's a couple of maxims I've heard that have an element of truth: pick the feedback that resonates; if more than one person says it, fix it; but still, you can't please everybody, and as Peggy Riley discusses in her excellent blog post, it's very easy to lose your way when rewriting.

And I guess that's where we come close to the nub of it – it's easy to dismiss criticism as subjective, but the reality is, all the choices we make as writers are subjective ones - some writers would argue they don't make choices at all, they just write, which only re-enforces the point – but what we need to improve the work is objective responses, and there lies what I think is the problem – if the reviewer doesn't understand the subjective intention of the writer, it's very difficult for them to give an objective view on whether they've achieved that – particularly as a lot of the time the writer isn't even sure what his artistic intention is.

I think we all know, as writers, what we like or don't like about fiction, and we can see it when we observe other writer's work, but the truth is, it's hard for us to look at our own work with the same cold, dispassionate eye - to attain that all-elusive critical distance – which is why we end up turning to others.

As writers, it's worth remembering that if we ever get these bloody things published, then anybody can print or publish an opinion on it without concern for how we might feel about it, so it's probably best to hear the worst now, however ill-considered, when we still have an opportunity to address it in the writing, or ignore it, after serious thought, with confidence.

And it's worth running the gauntlet of local and online critique groups in the search for those one or two people who really come to understand our artistic intention, and have the language and skills to explain when it works and when it doesn't in a way that doesn't break our hearts too cruelly.

But perhaps the biggest lesson to learn here is to treat other writers' work in the same way you'd like yours to be treated, and give feedback with good grace; even though it might not be well received at first, if you've thought long and tried hard to engage with the text, the writer will thank you eventually.

Here's my three stage approach to giving good feedback, developing skills in these three areas also improves our ability to develop our own work:

1. Try to recognise areas in the writing that need improving or don't work.
2. Try to understand why this is the case in order to explain to the writer.
3. Try to offer solutions to these problems.

The only way to develop these skills is to seriously critique other peoples work - only by learning to spot problems in other people's work can you learn to spot problems in your own. When critiquing, you must perform the stages in the order presented. It is no use presenting a solution to a writer when you haven't explained what is wrong. The ordering of the stages also reflects the usefulness to the writer – if a problem is well enough understood, then the solution will present itself to any writer worth their salt.

And as for achieving critical distance? Well that's another post…

1 comment:

  1. Boy, is this post bang on! It's really easy, as you say, to even remember what your own artistic intentions are - what on earth was I trying to say with this book?! I'm starting Boot Camp for that reason - to try to hone my own critical skills for others - so that maybe I can recognize them for myself... but that's probably too much to ask! Thanks for the kind words... Peggy :)