Constructive or Destructive?

Charles Yallowitz kindly tagged me for the first post challenge. (You can read his first post by clicking on the preceding words.) But since I was too lazy to think about who to tag or even to search through the files for my post, I’m going with this post instead. Thanks anyway, Charles.

A few days ago, my sister-in-law and I watched one of those reality shows—Four Weddings (which always makes me think of the 1994 movie Four Weddings and a Funeral). On this show, four brides-to-be agree to attend the wedding of each of her fellow brides and critique it based on a point system. The highest scoring bride gains a dream honeymoon.

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Well, you can see the conflict already. Since each bride vies for the honeymoon package, of course she’ll sabotage the others by voting down perfectly reasonable choices. And though you’ll hear comments like, “Oh, I LOVED that she had a bacon bar at her reception! LOVED her gown—soooooo beautiful,” when asked to vote on the overall experience (with 10 as the maximum), the critiquing bride-to-be will say, “I gave her a 5 out of 10, because she had an outdoor wedding, and I hate the outdoors.”

I got angry while watching the episode, because the person who scored everyone else the lowest and was generally the most caustic won the honeymoon. Guess her tactical maneuvering paid off.

Ugh. This show gave me flashbacks to some of my undergraduate writing workshops where we were supposed to critique each other’s work. The professor was the editor-in-chief of the campus literary magazine. Some students inclined toward toadyism were blistering in their critiques. “Insipid,” “dull,” “terrible dialogue”—you name it, I’ve heard it. Thanks to that experience, when I graduated, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to write again. Amazingly, I continued, but not right away.

So you can imagine my trepidation upon entering a graduate school writing program. I don’t claim to be a masochist. But I can understand someone thinking I have that tendency, since workshops are par for the course in the program.

Recently, three people called my attention to this Buzzfeed article: http://www.buzzfeed.com/shannonreed/jane-austen-receives-feedback-from-tim-a-guy-in-her-mfa-work#.ae0XKlORe

Though humorous, this post encapsulates my belief about workshops when I signed up for the program. I dreaded getting this kind of feedback when I attended my first workshop. To my relief, however, rules were given about the constructive criticism expected. One of the rules made a huge impression on me (and I’m paraphrasing it here): “The goal is to help the person to be excited about diving back into the piece after it is critiqued.”

To foster this, everyone had to comment on what was good about the piece before any comments of a constructively critical nature could be made. This was a nice way to build up an author. Perhaps that’s why many of the published debut books I’ve seen from graduates of the program were books started during the program. Now, that says something about the power of words to build someone up instead of words to tear someone down.

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Yes, there’s value to constructive criticism. Posting caustic comments, however, has become a sport on Twitter, Goodreads, YouTube, and other places. Many people are angry for various reasons, and seem to delight in tearing someone else down with their words. Words that blister say more about the speaker than they do about the person targeted. If we have to rip someone apart to get ahead or gain attention, what do we really gain in the long run?

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Bridal bouquet from home.adelphi.edu. Thin skin meme from memecenter.com. Mother Teresa quote from sawdustcityllc.com.

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49 thoughts on “Constructive or Destructive?

  1. First, that reality show sounds terrible and rather sick. Why would you pit 4 women against each other on one of the biggest days of their lives? Also, do the grooms get any votes or influence in this? Sounds horrible.

    “The goal is to help the person to be excited about diving back into the piece after it is critiqued.”

    If only all writing workshops worked this way. I remember the toadyism of a few people and they’d figure out the professor’s favorite subject. So they’d tear everything apart to connect it to that theme and how the work failed to ‘connect’ effectively. You could never get an idea of what their real style or story type preference was too because it was whatever the professor preferred, which got ridiculous.

    I really like that rule of having to say something positive about the work. Especially in those exercises where the author has to be quiet. Those always got to me because I felt like I was being denied a place at the conversation table. I was told that a big lesson was to teach new authors how to take criticism, but it always came off as mean. You had people that saw a chance to reduce the reputation of a ‘rival’ and that never went well.

    • You know, I thought that too–What did the grooms think? You really only saw them at the ceremonies and receptions.

      I’ve been in those workshops where everyone tried to buddy up to the prof. I wish I remembered the names of people in those workshops. I could look them up to see if that strategy worked for them. My guess is that for some, yes it worked for a time. For others, nah.

      I’ve often heard that writers need to learn to take criticism. True. But reviewers also need to learn to give criticism. It works both ways. Some reviewers can’t admit that maybe they’re having a bad day and really want to rip someone to shreds because of that.

      I’ve read stories when I was in a bad mood, which made me extra critical. But a day later, I thought differently. It happens.

      • I hate to say it, but the grooms might have gone along with it out of fear of the bride. You would need a couple where the guy wouldn’t say no to the whole insane idea.
        The kissing up definitely helped some with grades. Not sure if they got anywhere after that. I don’t remember many novelists in my courses. As usual, I may have been the odd duck since I focused on fantasy and had a ‘career’ plotted out. Plan didn’t work out as I imagined, but I’m still pushing ahead and writing.
        Great point on reviewers learning to give criticism. To be honest, most do or they stick to their opinions. We just seem to notice those that fling insults at the author more often. Good idea that one might have to wait if an outside force has them irritable.

      • I had the same issue–writing genre fiction (fantasy was my choice) when many people wrote contemporary realistic fiction. The genre prejudice was disheartening.

        I think you’re right about the grooms. All of the grooms probably didn’t want to get into an argument. Though one groom looked like he would be a fun guy to be around. 🙂 He married the bride I wanted to win.

      • It’s amazing how people hate genre writing. Never understood what that stems from since a lot of people who tell me that are into various genres for other mediums.

        I’m guessing everyone wanted the fun one to win.

      • My guess is that people still see fantasy stories as too imaginative to be taken seriously since you can’t find a neat list of rules to govern fantasy stories. Never mind the fact that creating a believable fantasy world takes skill. I’ve heard people say dozens of times that fantasy stories are for kids. They say the same thing about comic books. Obviously they’ve never read the unexpurgated Arabian Nights or Watchmen.

      • Imagination is something that people try to logic out of their children as soon as possible. It’s kind of disturbing in a way because you see an adult beating down the curiosity and flexible mind of a child who is still trying to find themselves. Let’s not forget cartoons being for kids . . . if you ignore a bunch of things.

      • Yes. People who haven’t seen Adult Swim or other shows probably still believe that. People need to realize that imagination gives birth to great inventions.

  2. I’ve thought about this a lot during the first year of my MFA. How can I give criticism in a way that is loving and shows that I care/respect the writer and the work. Sometimes I feel like people swing the opposite way. That friends are hesitant to say anything bad about my writing – which also feels unhelpful. I feel like there has to be a perfect balance between the two. I always try to remember that a rising tide lifts all boats. People in my workshops doing good writing really only helps me learn to be a better writer myself.

    • It’s tough, isn’t it, Alison? I agree that friends who are hesitant to ask the hard questions aren’t really helping you to produce the best manuscript you can. Some of the best feedback I’ve received is, “You can do better than this. I know you can. Give me more emotional here.” And then the person asked some tough questions about my character–questions I was embarrassed to admit I hadn’t thought about.

      • It’s definitely a balance. I have a bit of reputation for giving harsh feedback, but it is always meant kindly and I think most of the people in my workshop end up appreciating it (at leas I hope so!).

  3. This is why I don’t watch reality shows. The show you referred to sounds awful, L. Marie. You’re a perfect example of someone who provides constructive criticism with a kind heart.

  4. I’ve never heard of that show but sounds horrible. When I read the news or hear about shows like this I get discouraged; seems like we love tearing others down. I agree with you it’s more about the other person. A friend of mine reminds me to couch any criticism in a kindness sandwich, start with something positive and end with something positive. I’ve been in many workshops and have always been aware of trying to critique someone’s work in a positive, helpful way. It’s been years but I’m attending a one day writer’s workshop on Saturday and am nervous!

    • Love the concept of the Kindness Sandwich. 🙂
      Hope your workshop goes well. We all have to be critiqued. But some comments we can take with a grain of salt. 😉

  5. Yikes. Reminds me why I stopped watching some shows like Hell’s Kitchen, etc. Usually the good person ends up winning at the end, but it gets tiring watching people tear the others down. I think a big part of this snark mentality is the “I’ve been hurt so now it’s my turn,” way of doing things. It’s an easy trap to fall into.

    I love that rule you posted about the writing workshop. Man, what a great way to look at things! That sums up the whole purpose of getting people who love something to get better at it. Creative types are already sensitive, so we often need that encouragement at a higher ratio, at least 2:1, to the ‘constructive’ criticism.

    • Very true, Phillip. I think sometimes we forget the part encouragement plays. We think that a person has asked us to tell him or her what’s “wrong” about a manuscript. In part that’s true. But if we look at a manuscript like a piece of sculpture, our job as critiquers is to help the author clear away the rubble in order to produce a beautiful finished piece.

  6. ACK!
    Four Weddings sounds terrible.

    Oh, wait . . .

    My critique should encourage “the [producers] to be excited about diving back into the piece after it is critiqued.”

    Hmm . . .
    How to be encouraging?

    Got it!
    I’ll sandwich the negative between words of encouragement.

    When you’re at rock bottom, there’s no place to go but UP!

    Your show sucks!

    If at first you don’t succeed . . . try, try again!

    • Ha ha!! Great feedback. So true. Maybe I should offer them that constructive criticism. Maybe I should also see about getting a bacon bar. ‘Cause that sounds tasty to me.

  7. Love this! Criticism. . . oh so hard. Hard to give and hard to take. Shelley Tanaka said in one of her lectures something to the effect of — a friend who will give you their honest feedback about your work is worth their weight in gold.

  8. Excellent piece! I always measure the quality of my workshops by how eager I was to get back to revising the piece. I had two terrible workshops before I came to VCFA, and I have 12 copies of marked-up stories I never worked on again to show for each of them.

    • I hear you, Lyn. I’ve certainly been there. All of the books I worked on during my undergrad days died a quick death. I never wanted to work on them again. But I finished all but one of the manuscripts I workshopped at VCFA. The only one I didn’t finish was a science fiction manuscript. I let that die because I’d heard about a videogame with the exact premise.

  9. God that show sounds awful. I couldn’t imagine bitching about someone else’s wedding like that. I’m not a fan of reality TV because it often seems an excuse for people to just be mean to each other.

    Critiques are really tricky to give and to receive. I do think that if the person giving the critique is clearly well intentioned and goes to lengths to explain why they didn’t like something or why it didn’t work for them, it becomes a positive thing because they’re trying to help the writer improve. I’ve received a few comments like ‘this is boring’ or ‘it’s not my kind of story’, and it had me wondering what exactly they thought I could do with that kind of feedback. Phrasing and explanations are so important — explaining that pacing is a bit slow in a particular place is a world apart from ‘this is boring’.

    I definitely agree with the idea of highlighting the positives as well as the negatives though — no story is all bad and it can also be a real help to know what works. In a nice bit of blogging serendipity, Sue over at Doorway Between Worlds also posted something about feedback over on her blog! Great blogging minds and all that 🙂 http://doorwaybetweenworlds.com/2015/06/23/three-tips-for-writing-comments/

    • Thanks for pointing that post out, Celine. I commented on it. (And congrats on your upcoming book. I preordered!)
      I wouldn’t know what to do with a comment like, “This is boring”–which is not a measurable remark. I’ve also heard the comment, “This is not my kind of story.” I usually know to avoid handing that person a manuscript in the future. Learning who to trust with feedback has been one of my hardest lessons. The people who beta read for me don’t usually sugarcoat the hard things. But I know they’re in my corner. They ask hard questions. But the point is, they ask the questions. They don’t demand that I change something simply because they say to do so. They first ask me hard questions about character and plot to get me thinking about how to change the text.

      • Yes that’s a very good point about asking questions rather than making demands to change something. It’s always so disappointing when you trust someone with your work and they come back with “This isn’t my kind of story” or something of the kind. I guess with time and experience we can build ourselves a network of trusted critique partners so there’ll be no more need for those kinds of remark.
        and thank you again for the preorder – I’m really excited for you to read the book!

  10. Interesting, L. Marie – both your post and the comments. You have such good dialogue with your followers. 😉 I always try to at least start with something positive in any kind of critique, no matter how challenging it might be, and can only hope the same be granted to me.
    I’m not one for reality shows – for any reason. hehe

  11. There is a difference between constructive criticism and downright meanness. There is always scope for positivity and encouragement, whatever we think.
    It is the same with social media. I know you read my last post, it seems it reduced most of my FB community to tears, which wasn’t my intention. But the amount of goodwill sent to my family and I has been overwhelming.

    • Yes, that’s the good thing about community, Andy. We share our stories. And though that post had to be difficult for you to write (what a sweet dog he was), I’m glad you shared what happened. Grieve with those who grieve” as it says in Romans 12.

    • What’s sad is that all of the weddings were lovely. I didn’t like seeing ceremonies that meant a lot to family and friends so roundly dismissed. Fifteen minutes is right, Laura. I doubt we’ll see them again. But I could be wrong. 😦

  12. I can’t remember which book I read it in, but one author once cited the example of two writing groups he knew of, one for guys, one for gals. The guys were really mean to each other. Like, really, really mean. The women, on the other hand, did the constructive criticism with much encouragement mixed in. (The point was not the boy-girl contrast, but just examples that happened to have a boy-girl split as a notable difference by which to distinguish the groups.) The guy’s group eventually fizzled and no one went on to be published, whereas many of the women were published.

    Another interesting thing: A friend of mine, not really a power-of-the-word proponent, let her kids do an experiment with their garden. Every day the boys said mean words to one group of plants, and nice words to the other. To her mild surprise, it made a SIGNIFICANT difference in how well the plants grew. The nice-words plants did pretty well, but the mean-words plants either didn’t grow, or barely grew.

    So, yeah. Words. They matter. 🙂 I’m glad your second experience was better than the first.

    • Wow. That’s an incredible testament to the power of words. I need to speak to some of the flowers out in the yard. They’re really wilting. They probably need a kind word. 🙂

      I’ve been in critique groups outside of school where encouragement was almost nonexistent. All of those fizzled out.

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