Friday, July 20, 2012

Some lessons about writing and criticism

I've learnt a few important things about writing over the years. They follow below:

  1. Writing anything of good quality, whether a short story, novel, poem, academic paper, or web copy is hard work.
  2. Writing constructive criticism about another person's work is challenging.
  3. Writing destructive criticism about another person's work is easy.
  4. Keeping an open mind as others critique your work is difficult.
My point of entry into this subject is my cumulative experience as a teacher, a student, an editor, and a writer. So I have had occasion to experience both sides of the coin: I have been the writer, and I have also been the critic.

I know how challenging it is to gather one's thoughts into one coherent stream and to set them down in black and white. I do it every single week on this blog and elsewhere. The final product is rarely what I envisioned when I first set out to write. On a good day, that is fine, because I am still satisfied with what I've written. On a not-so-good day, the flaws in my writing are apparent to me, and it takes numerous rereads and drafts to finally get it right. By the time such a piece is done, I have invested my heart and soul into it. I may have spent a significant amount of time on research, and may have considered and discarded countless possible angles.

Then come the second pair of eyes and the criticism. Sometimes I am fortunate: The person who is critiquing  my writing may send it back to me all marked up in red, but the comments make it evident that he or she actually read my piece, took my ideas seriously, and engaged with them as I had presented them. This is the biggest compliment that anybody can pay a writer.

When a critic reads my writing and takes it on its own terms, he or she is respecting me as a writer. The critic may ultimately disagree with my major premises and present me with the reasons for this disagreement in detail. But that is fine. It gives me a taste of what my potential audience may perceive when they read my writing, and may help me identify and fix the flaws in my poem, story, or article.

On the other hand, I may disagree with what the critic says. Perhaps he or she misunderstood something fundamental in my writing. Even in this situation, reading his or her critique will help me determine whether I need to rewrite some of my work so that its meaning is more apparent to readers. The criticism is still constructive: Something good will come out of it.

For the critic, writing this kind of critique takes effort. First of all, he or she actually has to read the text. The critic has to immerse himself or herself in the world conjured up by the text to decide whether the narrative is true to the rules of that particular world. If there are problems within the narrative, then it is only by reading it closely and pointing to these specific problems that the critic can write a proper critique.

For criticism to be constructive it should also be true to the original intent of the writing. In other words, it should seek to improve the writing to the point that it achieves what the original writer set out to do. Destructive criticism does the exact opposite. It seeks to impose an alien purpose on the narrative: typically the purpose that the critic subscribes to in his or her own writing.

So, for instance, a destructive critique would fault a text for not being politically engaged, even if the writer had made it evident that he was not interested in writing overtly political texts. Such a critique would typically express the critic's sentiment that "This is what I would have done if I were the one writing this piece." Critiques of this form are never about the text or the writer of the text. They are more about the critic. And that is a problem. The critic's job is to engage with the writer's work, not with his or her own literary legacy.

This brings me to the question of the writer's reception of criticism: How should the writer respond to destructive critiques of his or her work? Well, the answer to that question really depends on the context. In an academic context, for instance, it may be in a scholar's best interest to defend his or her article if a fellow scholar misrepresents it in a review or analysis.

Another situation comes to mind: one where a writer is commissioned to write an article by somebody else. If the article doesn't meet the person's expectations, the writer will not get paid. So the writer has an incentive to respond positively to the criticism, even when it is not constructive.

A colleague recently found himself in that situation. He was hired to write a seemingly straightforward article. His client gave him instructions about the length, content, and tone of the article. For the amount of pay she was offering for the final product, the terms seemed reasonable.

Once he started to work on the article, however, he realized that there was some ambiguity in the subject she had asked him to write about. It turned out that the subject could be addressed in two drastically different ways, and she had not been clear about which one she preferred.

The writer sought clarification from his client. In her response, his client cleared the confusion up. Later, when the writer had completed the article and sent it to her for review, it turned out that there were other unspoken expectations she wanted him to meet. She outlined them at length, asking him to rewrite the piece accordingly.

The irony of the situation was not lost on the writer. He recognized that if his client had presented all this information clearly in her original request, he would have written a good piece the first time. He would also have asked for more money, because, as it turned out, the article she wanted was more complicated than the one she had initially described to him.

It was not the writer's fault that his client had initially failed to give him sufficiently detailed instructions. However, if he wanted to get paid, he would have to take her criticism to heart and rewrite the piece to meet her new specifications. In truth, her criticism was not constructive. Rather than giving him tips for improving his first piece, which was consistent with her initial request, she was essentially asking him to write a completely different piece.

In the business context, the customer is always right, even when she is wrong. So while her criticism of his article was unfair, there was little he could do about it. If he wanted to be paid, he would have to rewrite the piece and face the possibility that she would request yet another rewrite, and another one, and another one, ad infinitum. Not surprisingly, he chose not to rewrite the piece and ended up foregoing the payment.

My colleague's description of his experience struck a chord with me. It got me thinking about how separating a piece of writing from the context of its production and from its intended meaning is the easiest way to rubbish it. It also brought home to me the fact that some critics (whether they are literary critics or clients) have no idea how much work goes into writing. I happen to think it is fairly easy to be dismissive of somebody's work if one has never walked in that person's shoes and faced similar challenges.

I like to believe that my cumulative experiences as a writer and critic have helped me bring a balanced approach to these roles. Because I have worked as a teacher and editor, I am learning to take a step back from my own writing and to recognize the flaws within. This makes it easier to be receptive to other people's critiques and to see the merit in them.

At the same time, my experiences as a writer and student, subject to other people's judgments, help me to be more sympathetic when I am reviewing others' writing. Because I know how much barbed critiques can hurt a writer and undermine his or her courageous attempts to be creative, I try to keep my critiques constructive. Of course, this is a work in progress: Each new day brings new experiences and encourages me to grow as a writer, a teacher, and an editor.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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