Monday, July 26, 2010

On Critiques and Root Canals

I began my Friday in the endodontist's chair, effectively muted by a curtain-like drape, pervasive numbness, and numerous dental implements.  As the dentist violently excavated the roots of my molar, she made small talk about her brother-in-law, who had written a science fiction novel "for fun."  She said she'd read the first few pages at his request and that the writing was "childish," in a style that might be appropriate for a 10-year-old, but with subject matter that would never interest a 10-year-old.  A very valid criticism, I'm sure.  Unfortunately I was unable to ask whether she'd shared this opinion with her brother-in-law and, if so, whether family harmony had prevailed.

Critiquing is, frankly, a bizarre business.  As writers, we desperately seek feedback from others, secretly longing only to hear, "It's wonderful, it's perfect, don't change a thing!"   

Of course, when one gets feedback that's so resonant, so right-on  -- even if it involves a total rewrite, it inspires its own kind of writers' high.

Then there's the rest.

As a teacher, I find that one of my most frequent sources of frustration is students who totally ignore feedback.  Sometimes, I'm sure this is a factor of sheer laziness; sometimes, it's sheer stubbornness.  There are certain notes that are objectively indisputable.  "This sentence is a comma splice."  There are certain notes that are a factor of my own personal biases.  "You cannot use a photo of the Virginia Tech shooting victims to convince me that gun control is a bad idea." 

My day job involves constant editing, rewriting, feedback, discussion -- for the good and for the not-so-good.  Not a day goes by that I don't think of my high school teacher, Mrs. Weingarten, who taught me the critiquing method that I wish everyone on the planet followed:

PQP -- Praise, Question, Polish

Start with praise.  Always.  There's something good you can find.  Somewhere.  Always. 

Usually you can find a way to end on an encouraging note, as well.

In between, be constructive, be specific, and offer suggestions.

I try to run a workshop-based version of English 101 -- "try" being the operative word. I vary my methodology every semester, but I have yet to hit upon a procedure that truly works well. I've asked for voluntary online critiques via Blackboard (even dangling offers of extra credit), but usually only the same few students post.  They are typically reluctant to give specific feedback, and the most commonly read comment is, "I really liked your paper!"  In-class critiques are also difficult because there are always the students who have written something of a highly personal nature that they are loath to have classmates read.   (And of course I encourage them to write about personal topics and would never want to inhibit their honesty by forcing the issue.)  There are also the (many) students who don't finish their rough drafts in time for the critiquing session.  Then -- the very worst thing -- there is the specific feedback that makes the writer feel as though his work has just been gutted and spat upon.

Last semester, I had a student who was writing  a paper in which she argued that war should be ended.  I told her this was not a controversial premise, as she wasn't going to find anyone who would argue that war is a good thing.  I advised that she come up with some sort of specific plan or proposition to advance her cause.  She did and wrote an excellent paper.  Her peer reviewer hated it and was unstinting in her criticism of the"bias" of the paper.  I asked the peer reviewer what she would have found a more palatable thesis, and she replied that she felt that preemptive bombing of everyone in the Middle East was the solution to achieving world peace.  Let's just say I'm glad she did not write her paper on the topic of war.  I advised student #1 to ignore her peer review, but I know the damage to her psyche had already been done.    

Even more subject to personal bias is fiction.  If I were an editor, I would reject Faulkner (too obtuse).  I would ask for heavy edits on some of the most-loved children's books.  Who am I to say what's good and what needs work?  I'm just me.  I always remind students that writing is a highly subjective endeavor.  If they don't like my notes, they can feel free to ignore them.  If they feel strongly about something, I want them to feel confident and remain true to their ideas.  Just be prepared to explain themselves. 

Critiquing is a necessary part of the writing process for most of us.  We are too close to our own work to see what is often obvious to others.  Finding a nuturturing group whose members will offer honest, helpful, intelligent feedback is the ticket to making sure the process works.  

As you sit, mute, listening to others' commentary on your beloved manuscript, remember -- a critique shouldn't feel like a root canal.  And if it does, follow your gut.  It might be a sign that it's time to find a new group.  --Jeanne Marie


Unknown said...

I agree totally.
What was Christopher Paolini's editor thinking about when editing Book 3?

Anonymous said...

What an excellent analogy! NO matter how kind, gentle, compassionate the endondontist is, it's still a root canal.
I'll remember that and the PQP when I offer up my own work and look at others.
When my bear mind is ready to lumber out of hibernation I'll search for the kind of critique group you would organize!

Carmela Martino said...

>>As you sit, mute, listening to others' commentary on your beloved manuscript<<
I have a rule in my critique workshop that the writer cannot speak when others are commenting on his/her work. For some of my students, keeping quiet is the hardest part. They want to defend the choices they made in their piece. I remind them that when they submit their work to an editor, they won't be sitting in the editor's office when he/she reads it. Our writing has to be able to stand on its own.

Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford said...

LOL, Elaine. I was not so bold as to offer specific examples. I haven't read that one, but I'm glad I'm not alone.

Principal Pal of mine, I'd love to hear the results of your search. Thank you very much!

Carmela, I don't think I've ever been in a critique setting that didn't use the "mute" rule. It's a great one.

Beth Mithen said...

PQP is now posted above my desk! I have had the same experience with attempting to teach students to critique the writing of their classmates.

Michelle Sussman said...

PQP - that's awesome!

I used to dread critiquing (giving and receiving), but having done it for a while I've found a lot of joy in it. :D