Friday, February 18, 2011

Not a Laundry List

One of the requirements of the MBA program in which I'm current enrolled is a course entitled Graduate Business Communication Applications. Basically, the powers that be want to ensure that by the time you graduate you'll be able to type a coherent memo and speak publically without breaking out in cold sweats. Given that I spent my undergrad years bouncing back and forth between literature and communications classes, little of the course's content feel new. But a section from Wilma Davidson's Business Writing: What Works, What Won't on how to provide feedback made me sit up straight in my chair:
Research affirms that trying to improve all that may be troublesome in a writing sample (at the same time) may do more harm than good. Pace your feedback to the writer's psychological state of mind. For the writing to improve, you must consider the context in which it is being written. Also, what is that person's present state of mind? Attitude toward writing? Attitude toward what is being written? ...

Before sending their writing out, wise writers recognize the importance of "trying it out" on a real audience -- like having a dress rehearsal. When someone asks you to see that rehearsal, remember: The idea is to "break a leg," not a psyche!
Oh, that everyone who offered fiction feedback would first read this advice. Between writing classes and online workshops, I've interacted with more than a few people who believe that the thoroughness of a critique determines its quality. No missed punctuation goes unnoticed, no cliché unskewered, no questionable motivation ignored, because that's how we get better, right? You can guess how this goes with non-professional writers, those whose manuscripts possess such errors in abundance: They become discouraged and, if regularly exposed to such counsel, eventually put their pens down for good.

Proponents of what I'll call the thoroughness view forget that one improves not only by noticing his faults, but by continuing to write after doing so. Sure, someone's short might be pure tripe, as three-dimensional and weighty as a sheet of letterhead. If it is, you won't be the one to fix it. The author might not be the one to fix it. It might be unfixable. Yet if the author keeps writing, perhaps he'll overcome his favorite flaws over time, one by one and step by step. So offer advice on a handful of the biggest issues, and let it go at that. This is
precisely what Neil Gaiman proposes for those offering writerly criticism:
It depends on whether your friend wants to be a real author one day and learn his craft, or whether he's just proud of having made something. When it's the latter, I just try and find something positive I can say that I mean. If it's the former, I try and tell people how they can make something they've done into something publishable, or fix it, which is going to involve pointing out it's not publishable yet. ...

And if you do decide to tell them what's wrong with their book then you don't have to tell them everything that's wrong with it. Pick the biggest thing -- "I hated all your characters and kept hoping that they would die and that we would get nothing but a description of the landscape for the rest of the book" or "It reads like you're recounting a D&D game, not a novel" or "All of your characters sound like you" or "Nothing actually happens until Chapter Four by which point anyone who isn't a personal friend of yours would have stopped reading" -- and talk about that. Don't do a laundry list...
(Picture: CC 2010 by foshydog)

7 comments:

C. N. Nevets said...

Great post, Loren. One of the reasons why my gut instinct is to tell people to avoid writing classes and crit groups is precisely because so many people don't know how to do this in a way that is appropriate to the particular writer, to the particular work, and to end goal.

I've benefited from some laundry list crits, but only when they were really geared right.

I know too many people who's writing careers have stalled out because of crit group limbo. It saddens me greatly.

Jessica said...

I'm reading a manuscript in progress at the moment. And, I must admit, that sometimes I want to point out the grammar errors. But I don't. I agree; in the beginning stages, it should mostly be about encouragement. Thank you for sharing these quotes.

Unknown said...

*shrugs*

To each their own, I suppose. I like thorough, and I like nitpicky details. I would rather see a complete dismantling of my story than advice to "make the characters more likable" or "the plot sags a bit here." I can take in specific laundry list items and decide whether or not to incorporate each one into the story. I can't make my writing better just by willing it. Generally, I already thought the characters *were* likable (presuming they were supposed to be) or that the plot was paced the way that best fit the moment in the story, and giving me general discussion points won't help me know what made you say that and what you think would make it better. I will always take a laundry list over general "reactions," any day.

Now, some overview comments in conjunction with a laundry list is best, especially if said list includes specific suggestions for improvement. (If the list author suggests something downright psychotic, you can thus adjust your salt intake for the other items accordingly.)

Loren Eaton said...

Nevets,

Making sure such laundry lists are geared right is important. Also, if you're going to receive that kind of crit, you need to trust the person providing it. Some folks don't provide feedback in good faith, sadly enough.

Loren Eaton said...

Jessica,

I hope it's helpful. Honestly, I don't see anything wrong with pointing out problem areas on a manuscript. I just don't think one needs to point out all of them.

Loren Eaton said...

SC,

See, but you have enough intestinal fortitude to have made it through Critters with your mind intact. Honestly, though, it takes a lot of emotional steadiness to wade through reams of advice, discarding the bad and keeping the good. Some folks have and others don't, but it would be wise the person doing the critiquing to measure up the author before he lets his opinions fly.

Unknown said...

True enough. Lord knows I've had Critters explode on me, like eggs left too long in the sun.