Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Giving Feedback

"You are the toughest critic in the group."
-paraphrase, Marie

Sunday was the writers group meeting and at dinner afterward, we got to talking about the group's dynamics. My demonic nature came up, and then a few of the folks added that I'm also the one who tends to be the hardest on a given piece of work. Marie also commented that, if she could survive my critique, she could survive anyone else's. They meant it in a kind and gentle fashion, with lots of love and no mention of bodily harm. They also mentioned that I say a lot of positive things in critiques too, but there's always the "but." Food for thought.

I started to think about my reasons for being so tough on people. I think it's mostly one, a golden rule sort of approach, "Review as ye would be reviewed." I tend to be merciless on my own work, willing to hack away, chop with abandon, and completely change characters/settings/structure/etc. I give credit to David for at least some of this.

For instance, one semester I did an independent study with him where I wrote a handful of stories based on mythological templates, i.e. my version of the story of Ganesh. He read the rough draft of that story and, instead of saying, "Okay, this scene could be tighter, and I want more of X here," he said, "Okay. What I want to you to now is set this draft aside. Don't look at it. Then, rewrite the story." At first I was a bit flabbergasted. What? I had to rewrite it from scratch?! He explained the logic though - by doing a blind rewrite, I'd lose the least memorable parts of the story and keep the best.

The main part I remember was that I had a scene where the main character has an argument with his dad. It was I think two and a half pages of dialogue. I loved it, I thought the dialogue was great. The only problem was I couldn't remember it verbatim. So what was a 2+ page chunk of dialogue became about half a page long. The kicker - it still said everything it needed to, but said it better.

David wasn't afraid to demand "impossible" things from his students. On more than one of my poems, he said "Alright, it's not bad, but it doesn't really get good until the last stanza. So, cut the other six, make the last one your first of a new poem, and go." The impossible things he demanded from me have made me a much better writer than I would be otherwise. He was very rarely "satisfied" with what I did, but because of it, he forced me to always improve.

As far as blame goes for me being a demanding reviewer, I share it with him. I know how much his high standards helped me, so I have a thought that mine might help someone else. Besides: if everyone else in the group disagrees with me, then by all means, the writer is free to as well. I just like to find ways to up the ante, so to speak. If it's a good story, then good, but what if it could be a great one?

What kind of a reviewer are you? What do you think are the most important things you can do/say in a critique? Why? How did you develop your approach?


D.B. deClerq said...

I think I'm a fairly easy reviewer/critiquer. I tend to point out what is working for me rather than what isn't, especially in a verbal critique setting. This came from watching some of those negative people you talked about previously. I guess I feel that everyone needs to hear something good about their work.

You may be tough, but you aren't negative. There is a big difference between those.

Whittaker Luckless said...

I try to be brutal. I used to keep anything positive out of anything I said, because I didn't see "I liked it" as a particularly useful criticism. Just like "I didn't like it" isn't particularly useful by itself. But I realized after a while that positive things can be creatively conducive--I'm practicing alliteration for my English class. It sort of surprised me to realize pointing out what was good, and thusly dividing it from what was blecky, and vice versa, could help the writer do the same in their mind, and cover the blecky bits with a sort of chocolate whipped cream film which made it look much nicer.... It's sort of late at night for me to be on the computer, and I'm not sure what the air conditioner is sucking in from my neighbor's house. He's a little bit...new age.

-John said...

...Whittaker, you are someone to worry about.

To reiterate, being tough IS different from being negative. The hardest thing to do is tell someone what they DON'T want to hear despite the fact that it's exactly what they need to hear, and deep down they know it.

I don't know how tough I am, I just know that I try to have something to say beyond, "I read this." Some days are better than others.