I have used this space many times to lament the fact that I am a writer on an island -- critique group-less, feedback-less, buddy-less. But as I'm sure most of us know, one thing worse than having no input is having input that sends us astray.
We've all been there, right? We've seen critique groups whose members are too intense, too lax, too hoggish; they are too vague; they are too nitpicky; they don't "get" your stuff, or you don't get theirs. They have more time to devote to their writing than you do, or perhaps they have less. They live too far away; they meet too frequently or infrequently.
Even worse is the damning critique experience: the editor at a conference who treats you like a clueless newbie; the teacher who gives you a bad grade for trying something a little different. My friend, an actress, says at least when someone is critiquing your writing, he or she is not critiquing YOU. But still, when we write, we are exposing our souls to the world. And our writer psyches must be treated with care. (The cardinal rule of critiquing -- always start and end with something specific and positive to say!)
With my community college students, I introduce a vocabulary word in each class. The first word we discuss is "subjective." I want them to understand that as a teacher, the worst thing I could ever do would be to crush their creativity or confidence. In a required class, many students do not come to learn, and they do not care to revise. For those who do, individual feedback is the most important component of our coursework. But students must learn that I am not the final authority; they have to be the chief arbiters of what is right for their work and what is not.
When it comes to peer review, some student writers are terrific critiquers. On the other hand, some do not take the job seriously. Some are just dead wrong. As a teacher, I may often myself be dead wrong. Thus I try to approach first draft revision on a mostly global level. I find myself constantly asking my students, "Why did you choose to write about this topic?" The answer is often the key to a successful essay.
In TV writing, we are advised to distill our pitch into a one-sentence "log line." Fiction writers should be able to do the same. In expository writing, of course, this summary is called the thesis statement.
My classes are currently working on research essays and developing working theses for an essay that is supposed to propose a solution to a societal problem. One of my students, a Navy veteran, read his to the class this week: "Military body armor is responsible for a vast number of injuries to personnel." I found this quite a startling statement. In search of more detail and a proposed solution, I probed further. HOW was military body armor inadequate? My student stated that in fact, it was overly adequate; that many soldiers who would have died in previous wars were surviving attacks with grievous, lifelong injuries. "So," I asked, "Are you saying it would be better if they died?" He looked me in the eye and said, "Sometimes." It was easier to talk about body armor, of course, than it was to talk about traumatic brain injury and PTSD.
I asked him what he proposed as the solution, and he said more drone strikes and less hand-to-hand combat. In short, his essay was not really about body armor at all. What he really wanted to say was, "Please send fewer men and women into harm's way."
As writers, we often lose sight of the main thread of our story; as critiquers, we often get hung up on details that should be dealt with later. A good first draft critique is about distilling a story to its essence -- nothing more, nothing less. --Jeanne Marie
Reminder from Carmela: the deadline to enter for a chance to win a copy of the 2013 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market is 11 pm (CST) TODAY, November 7. See Esther's post for details.