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Thursday, June 14, 2012

World Enough and Time: The Nature of Criticism

True story.

LadyQuill and I joined a local writer's group.  Their meetings consisted of reading stuff to each other, plus a writing exercise on occasion.  At one of these get-togethers, one of the other members read this rambling reminiscence story about a woman he knew twenty years earlier.

"She brought him up on stage," he read, "and she embarrassed him."

Then he moved on to the rest of his story.

The writing was good; his skills were there, the sentences were well structured.  But there's that whole "show, don't tell" guideline that he was completely ignoring--not just once, but at several points throughout the piece.

The real kicker came when LadyQuill tried to offer "show don't tell" as advice to him.  After all, LadyQuill has two books and a plethora of magazine and online articles to her name; she should know a little bit about writing and selling what's written.  But her honest advice was not welcome.

"This isn't a critiquing group," we were told.  "We're just here to listen.  That way, no one gets any hurt feelings."

Okay.  No hurt feelings, I can see that.  Maybe.  

If I take off my glasses, shield my eyes, lean in close, and squint, maybe.

Writing is about taking the images, and thoughts, and concepts, out of your head, and plunking them down on paper for the entire world to peek at.  Writing requires both the imagination to develop the ideas AND  the skillset to present them properly.  If you don't have the writing skills to get your ideas across, the whole thing falls apart, no matter how cool and interesting the original concept might have been.  And if you don't have a thick enough skin to accept criticism and advice, then how in the heck do you expect to improve?

"I don't write for publication," he said.  "I write for me.  I don't care if it ever gets published."

Ah, okay.  Critique not necessary if it's not for public consumption, I can see that, too.  But if it's not for public consumption...then why the BLEEP! did you read it out loud...?  Were we not "the public" in that particular scenario...?

LadyQuill and I didn't attend too many more meetings of that particular writer's group.

To me, criticism and critique should be treated as the advice and opinions they are.  On occasion, there will be some really good advice in there (like "show it, don't talk about it").  Sometimes the advice will be absolutely horrendous (like, "you should change your barbarian hero to a woman and have her talk to her opponents about their feelings").

One of the reasons I originally started doing Friday Challenges was to get critiqued.  I actually wanted to know what was wrong with my writing and how I could improve it.  I'm sorry, but "cool" and "nice" are probably not words used in an honest critique.

You--any of you reading this--you are my "public."  If I confuse you, or irritate you, or the absolute worst, BORE you...I want to know it.  I need to know it, or I'm going to keep making the same stupid--and preventable--mistakes.

How about the rest of you?  Do you have any views on criticism and "creative suggestions?"  What's the worst (or best) critique  you've ever received?

Allan Davis is a writer, photographer, and programmer currently hiding out in a corner of Nebraska. He started a new job a while back, and used that as an excuse to skip out on writing this column for way too long.
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