Sometime back in the 90s—I don’t remember exactly when—I took a stab at the Writer’s Digest School’s Writing to Sell Fiction correspondence course. I never finished, never even made it too far into it. I guess I wasn’t ready, or something. Can’t say for sure.
Anyway, the instructor I had was Dean Wesley Smith, who was a science fiction writer at the time. I sent him the first part of a short story about a guy who was a freelance asteroid miner. I was going to have him discover something unusual, but don’t ask me what it was now, cause I’ve slept since then. The story, like so many of mine in those days, never got finished and neither did the course. I still have the course book, found it in my storage a month or so back while I was looking for something else.
I didn’t think to look and see if the first letter he sent me was in there or not, though it would have been neat to’ve found it. See, Mr. Smith—and for all I know, all the instructors at the school—used what’s called constructive criticism. Or, that’s what it was called then. It was all the rage back in those days.
I’m not sure if anyone still uses the technique these days or not, but the way it worked was this: when you critique someone’s work, whether it be creative writing, a painting, a report for work, whatever, you start out by pointing out the good things about it. This works, I like that, and this over here is great. Then, after you’ve built them up, you bring up the bad parts, but even then you do it gently.
As writers, we learn to develop thick skins. We learn to differentiate between someone pointing out the weaknesses in our mss and our own personal faults. Yes, sometimes one has something to do with the other, but not always. Point being, we understand that criticism of our writing isn’t criticism of us. Well, most of the time, anyway. Seems it’s harder to take when you’re submitting to agents.
It seems to me, though, that this idea of constructive criticism has fallen by the wayside. Well, in the group I attend, anyway. I don’t mean that they’re, well, mean or anything like that. And, when you take into account the size of the group, it makes sense that the method basically amount to “If we don’t pick on it, it’s good.”
When you’re part of a group that often has ten or twelve people to read every meeting, you have to make decisions on what to bring up and what not to. For instance, we don’t correct misspellings and typos out loud. We just note them on our copy of the ms. We critique concepts, parts of the story that don’t work for us. You know, “You’re doing an infodump over here, and I think you could reword this part here and it’ll flow better.” Things like that.
And we’re not without praises for our fellow writers either. I don’t mean to imply we’re some dour Star Chamber passing judgment on our lessers. It’s nothing like that.
But still, I think we could take a little more time to point out what’s working in someone else’s story. We do that on occasion, but I wonder if we do it enough. Maybe we do, since it took me this long to even wonder about it (I’ve been in the group for about two years now or thereabouts). That’s why I’m at pains to make sure I’m not dissing the group. It may be a case of we do this more than I realize.
The general point, though, is a good one, I think. Yes, we need to know what doesn’t work. That’s the main point of going to the group, and I’d quit if we abandoned it. Given a choice, I’ll take you pointing out where my writing needs strengthened over where it’s good. I can pretty much figure that, if I get whole pages back with no markings on them and no one has much to say out loud, then I must be doing something right.
Sometimes, though, I’d like to know what that something is, you know?
Okay, so I did a good enough job that all you can really talk about are my typos, and maybe a sentence or two that could be reworded to sound better. All well and good. That means I’m doing my job.
If that’s the case, though, why not point out where I’m doing good. I mean, sure, I can take the ms home and know that a lack of comments means I’ve done a good job. But there are bound to be parts where I did better than in others. What worked for you? What made you so enraptured of my writing that you forgot to note the minor glitches? What about it grabbed you so intently?
I’m not saying we should have some kind of mutual admiration society going on. And, as I said, we do occasionally point out the good parts. But I’m wondering if we might could do it just a little more in-depth.
I’m as guilty as anyone, though I have started—occasionally—writing things I like on my copy (I just hope they can read my crappy handwriting; I have a feeling the typewriter was invented by someone who wrote as badly as I do). But I doubt I do it near enough, especially since I’m the one bringing this up.
Again, given a choice between the two, I’ll take you telling me what the gigs are any day, because those have to be fixed. No question.
But telling a writer what he or she is doing right can be just as helpful, maybe even more so, in a way. We writers are notoriously insecure about our writing. We know everything that’s going on in our heads when we write a story. Goes without saying. And that can be the problem. We know everything, but we know we’re not supposed to write all of that down. It can be deadly for the story.
Problem is, that means we sometimes leave out important stuff and don’t realize it. That’s what the critique group is for: to point out things we’ve left out.
The same can apply to the good things we do, though. Because of our insecurity, we don’t always realize—hell, I don’t think I ever realize—when we’ve written something especially good. I can’t count the number of times people have reacted quite well to what I thought was a pedestrian bit and not said a word to passages I thought were worthy of Shakespeare (yes, I’m exaggerating).
I say let’s take a little extra time to point out what we like about something and why we like it. Maybe that’ll help us all to focus on improving, perhaps even perfecting, our strengths. I bet if we do, it can’t help but improve the parts where we’re weak as well.
Just a thought.