Monday, October 11, 2010

How Discouraging!

I spent the weekend reading student rough drafts--the first drafts of my current composition class. All were interesting, and some had real potential as writings, even outside of the course.

What I always find most interesting, though, aren't the drafts themselves, but the responses I get once I've returned them with feedback. So many of you are writers, and even if you are not highly sensitive to criticism yourself, you know at least a few writers who are. You can remind me, if you like, how hard it is to hear that something you've written isn't fantastic, and I'll agree.

When I send my own writing out into the world--whether to another writer or a beta reader--I naturally hope to hear how fantastic it is, that I'm going to be the next J.K. Rowling, that it was a life-changing work, etc. That's not what I hear, though, and I am prepared for that. I have pretty thick skin.

My students, however, do not. Their skin is thin, for many of them have not been writing long, and they may have never shared their writing with others before. First they get feedback from others in class, and then they get my response, covered in blue or purple comments. I don't use a red pen, but that doesn't mean the comments don't hurt.

I could be gentler, letting them get by with more, but that wouldn't serve my students in the long run. That would be akin to telling a friend/writer that his or her novel is ready to be published when I couldn't get through it. I don't tell my students what to write, but my #1 task is to help them write what they want to write in the best possible way. And that means I have to be honest.

My students do have it harder than most writers, though. Writers can choose to show their work to no one. Writers can get belligerent when feedback isn't what they want to hear. Writers can send whatever they want--in whatever stage of development--out to agents and editors, and they can curse these people when all they get in return is rejection slips.

My students have to show their work to me, even if they skip the day for peer response. They are forced to hear the criticism. Even worse, they have to use that criticism to revise and improve their papers. They can't ignore due dates or opt out of essay assignments. My classroom is a dictatorship, and I'm in charge. I'm the only editor, the only agent, the only chance they have.

Sounds pretty hopeless for them, doesn't it? It would be akin to the oppression of the setting for V for Vendetta, except for one thing. Just like real editors and agents in the real publishing world, I want my writers to do well. My feedback is intended to hone their writing, to help them accomplish their writing goals better.

Beta readers do the same, expressing when characters, settings, situations, or even individual lines of dialogue don't work, or don't fit with the rest of the work. In fact, I don't know a single person who has ever read my stuff who didn't intend to help me, even if that person didn't quite get what I was after. Yet I know so many writers who are still too afraid of failure to show their work to anyone.

Don't be afraid. Get the feedback. Welcome it. Yes, it might hurt--and you might feel bruised for quite a while--but your writing will be the better for it. The feedback you get will make all the bruises worth it.


  1. If I write shit people are not afraid to tell me it is oriented to the fecal. Some more directly than others. Do I listen, yes, do I make recommended changes about 1/2 the time.

    I do know exactly what you mean and understand what it is like working with them who have never shown their work to an audience before and the amount of cajolery it takes to get it out of them.

    I have created more (for lack of a better term) microphone whores than any brothel in New Orleans and coached (cant do it myself) 3 kids to Slam champions.

    But before I work with anyone I tell them that it is their piece, I will listen and suggest changes but they have the final say regardless of whether I like it or not. And you know what Shakes...8 out of 10 times they make it work the way the wrote it once they have the confidence in their own voice. The other two times they see the flaw for themselves once it's pointed out and because we usually work one to one they are able to concentrate on the change not their peer standing.

  2. Your emphasis on voice is true. It may seem easier, when they first get back an essay, to just scrap the whole thing, but I don't believe I have EVER suggested this. Confidence automatically leads to a more effective response to criticism. Rather than taking it personally, they say, "Okay, what I'm trying to do isn't working. How can I make it work better?"

    When students don't trust their own voice, they just find a reason to give up (or remain in denial, believing my comments only stem from my own prejudices, and that I am merely judging them, trashing them so that I can feel superior). Revision teaches them to hone, to consider their audience more carefully, to make their voice come through more clearly, so that their words truly represent the ideas they are trying to convey.

  3. I have had three kinds of critics. (a) Those that gush but have nothing useful to say. (b) Those that look over my stuff critically, tell me what works for them, what doesn't and, often, what they'd suggest would improve things - and they're not afraid to tell me if it's not working. (c) Those that dislike my stuff because it doesn't fit into what they thought it should.

    By this time, I'm pretty adept at noting which camp a reader falls into. My (b) readers, I treasure. Once someone fits a or c, I'm less likely to seek them out as a reader. (a) because value added is limited and (c) for the same reason. I've a pretty unique way of writing and it's just not for everyone - why torture us both?

    Having said that, there are few things more satisfying than winning over a critical reader, turning someone who seemed not to be interested in what you wrote into a believer. One reason winning over my husband is so rewarding is he is often very critical at the early stages. Winning him over in the end is a real thrill. I bet the same is true for your students, even if it's not so happy in the beginning.

    I do know that I've provided all three types of criticism myself. I've gushed over work that completely won me over. I've provided critical review and comments for work with promise. And I've clearly been so far outside the intended audience that I knew my inputs would be of limited value. It comes with being honest and have as individual a reading taste as I do a writing voice.

  4. Alright, I know I wrote a comment. Even saw it here, because I checked to make sure the formatting came through. Now it's gone.

    I wonder what happened?

  5. I see it, though I did copy it from e-mail to make sure... if you still don't see it, let me know.

  6. Yeah, it isn't fun to have your writing torn apart. But you do learn from each and every one of those. And your writing gets better.

  7. You go to school to get better and learn what you can learn on your own… you should want to hear what needs to get better and how.

    To me that’s what every writer should want to hear, what you liked, what did or didn’t work, how can I improve as a writer?

    If you include positive fixes and not just pointing out the bad… then they should love everything you say, because in the end it will make them better. (Why else would they be taking classes on how to write better? Ummm let’s see—to get better, and the only way to get better is see your weaknesses)

    Don’t beat yourself up over it, they need to learn to take criticism or they won’t make it in the writing field.

  8. I wouldn't be hard on yourself. They did sign up for the class. In that act, they signed up to be graded and receive criticism.

    Taking a critique is a skill to be learned too. Perhaps that could be talked about before they receive any.

  9. I know it isn't fun to have stuff torn apart... and so many people find it hard... but it has to be done.

    We'll see how it goes from here.