Writing: The Power of Critique Pt. 1

If I had to rank the skills of a writer in order of importance the list would look thusly:

  1. Disciplined persistence/focus- these two are inseparable and form a kind of positive feedback loop.
  2. Critique- both the giving and receiving of such, identifying useful from not so much, etc.
  3. All the other writerly things in whatever order seemeth thee good.

The various structural and artistic skills of writing come to each of us in different orders, based on the level of talent and skill we bring to our careers. The more you do it, the more those will build on each other over time. So improve your craft, for sure, but don’t get so concerned about your prose that you lose sight of bigger picture issues. Furthermore, the artistic stuff is variable, not to mention subjective, there is no clear advantage to pursuing one’s characterization technique over one’s plotting ability.

No, the only advantage comes from dedication to Butt In Chair-Hands On Keyboard (BIC-HOK) style discipline and the constant improvement of your work not from your own eyes, but someone else’s. Others have filled volumes* with how to cultivate focus and persistence in your writerly ways, so I won’t go down that road. Rather, I think the skill of being a good critique partner and appropriately utilizing the critique of others is woefully undervalued and still a mystery to too many writers looking to improve.

So let’s see what we can do to demystify the process and amplify those skills, shall we?

top view photo of people near wooden table

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First, let’s take a deep breath and realize that perfection in communication is not possible.

We may revel in coming up with just the right turn of phrase or get a little giddy when we see how the plot twist at the end is going to both unhinge and delight your readers. But that doesn’t make them perfect. No one can communicate mind to mind (yet). So the best anyone can do is try, fail, and refine until they get to something that is close enough.

Do you know what this means? THERE”S NO PRESSURE TO BE PERFECT!!

But here’s the best part, since no one can perfectly put their thoughts into words, there’s no such thing as a perfect story.

Take any of the classics you like. You will find run-on sentences, awkward phrasing, typos, bad dialogue (so much bad dialogue), and all kinds of stylistic wonkiness that may have worked for its time, but isn’t working now. Tastes, trends, and techniques change. And that’s great.

It doesn’t give us permission to be lazy. Please don’t take the pass on perfection as a pass to write poorly and not try to improve. We need to edit. We need others to help us edit. But then we need to be done. We need to let the project go, and move on to the next so we can continue to improve and grow as storytellers.

Author Julie Berry once said, “It’s ok if you write a mediocre book. The world is full of mediocre readers.”

This was a kidding, kinda, moment from a keynote she gave at the ANWA Time Out for Writers conference a number of years ago. But I’m betting it made you feel a little less like the universe is lurking over your shoulder, demanding the highest quality product ever, before it will allow your manuscript to see the light of day. 

You might be saying, “But I pick up errors in books all the time. I’m a really good editor.”

And that may be true. Most of us who get into writing started as voracious readers. We know what we like in a good book or essay. We can spot a bad comma-splice a mile away.

In someone else’s work.

No one can see their own work clearly. All the story, character, and setting stuff that you have tucked away in that big, thinky noggin of yours gets in the way of your ability to separate what you see from what the reader will see.

You may describe the protagonist’s jacket as blue. Which you understand means it’s the same cerulean of the eyes of his lady love from so very long ago; clearly indicating that he is still carrying a torch. So when a would be mugger tears the jacket in the next chapter, it makes sense that he flies into a rage, and doesn’t merely fend the attacker off, but beats him senseless.

All the reader knows is that the jacket is blue. Not even what kind of blue, just blue. And what the heck is wrong with your main character that he would display such violence?

See the issue? We fill in the gaps for ourselves, especially after we’ve seen a chapter on our screen (or in a notebook for us old school types) again and again. It solidifies in our heads as being the prefect representation of what we are thinking because we can’t uncouple our meaning from our writing. So much of the subtext that we take for granted has to be on the page in some way, so that the reader has access to it, too.

This means that when you are getting feedback, good feedback, it’s not about you as a writer. It’s just about helping you get all that beautifully imagined wonderment onto the page so that the reader can see it. Too many writers think that the best outcome of a critique is, “I loved it! It’s amazing! It doesn’t need anything else, except I fixed one uncapitalized ‘I.'”

That is not the best outcome. This is a less than useful outcome.

It is the sign of a critique partner who doesn’t know what they are doing. Maybe they don’t have the experience to help improve your writing (maybe they are newer at this than you are). Or perhaps they are your grandmother who likes you so very much and doesn’t want to say anything discouraging and here dear have a cookie.

pensive grandmother with granddaughter having interesting conversation while cooking together in light modern kitchen

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When hunting for good critique partners we are looking for folks with the skills not only to point out where the commas and the quotation marks should go, but who can say in a thoughtful, objective, helpful way how we can improve our composition as a whole. They say things like, “I’m confused by this word choice, do you mean x or y?”, “Why do we need to know this right now?”, or “How does the protagonist feel about what’s happening here?” These are the kinds of feedback that point an author to real improvement and awareness of where their own pitfalls lie. It gives them the opportunity to fix what’s broken, based on their own vast knowledge about their story or topic.

Good critique partners never seek to transform another’s book into the book they would have written (more on this in later posts), but to mold a Work In Progress (WIP) so that it more closely resembles the vision the author has established for their own work.

And how do you attract such helpful helpers?

  • Read my subsequent posts to discover techniques that will make you a valuable critique partner.
  • Find writer’s groups (most likely all virtual right now) and practice those skills by reading for others. This will invite others to read for you as well, and give you practice recognizing useful from useless feedback.
  • Don’t drive good critique partners away with either hostility or constant explanations about why you are right and don’t need to change what you are doing.
  • Remember that perfect is not possible. For anyone. So let that nonsense go.

The fastest way to ensure that others decline to read for you is to rebuff every bit of input with snappish comments or constant explaining about why you did the thing they are finding confusing/over-wrought/incorrect. You won’t be able to follow around every reader explaining bits of the book to them.

The book must explain itself.

And you are doing neither the story nor yourself any favors by acting like a shield warrior, deflecting all incoming missiles of correction. There are no prizes for rough drafts with less red ink on them than others.

So let’s get the blood bath going.

We can sop up the mess later.

You’ll find that writing doesn’t scar. The reader can’t tell you were corrected before they read the sentence. They can only tell when no one corrected that sentence/chapter/story arc at all. And they don’t appreciate that kind of disregard.

Ready to get into more of the nitty gritty?

Good. Next time we’ll talk techniques and best practices. And I’d love to hear your horror stories about bad critique partners, if you’ve had them, in the comments. It’ll remind you and everyone else how important giving and getting good feedback can be.

~Anika

*Here are just a few of the titles that might interest you if persistence is your weak link: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Grit by Angela Duckworth, Take Joy by Jane Yolen, Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, Atomic Habits by James Clear, and many more. I’d love to see your suggestions in the comments!

Good Questions Get Good Answers feat. Cal Newport

I’ve been an advocate for devoting personal, solitary time to the completion of worthy endeavors since I was in high school. It didn’t make me popular then. I don’t really expect it to now, but I take so much hope from seeing an increasing number of people applying the kinds of principles espoused by the author of “Deep Work,” Cal Newport.

eyeglasses on book beside macbook

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He has recently started a podcast called Deep Questions with Cal Newport where he fields questions from his email list subscribers about living a deep, intentional life that is aimed at skill acquisition and work/life balance. He expands on the concepts in books (which if you haven’t read them, why not?!) on a slightly more personal level.

Well, in a moment that surprised the heck out me, I popped onto iTunes to listen to the latest episode, titled “Battling Email, Online Learning, and a Game Plan to Escape the Shallow Life,” and guess what?

He took my question! By accident naturally. It was part of a segment he calls question roulette, where he pulls a random question from the many he gets and answers it on the fly.

And he pronounced my name correctly!! Please take note for anyone pronouncing my name in the future.

If you just want to hear my question and his response you can click the link above and skip to 21:45. But the information is golden across the board. And really you should just subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.

I do think we are experiencing a transition within certain sectors of American society. The frenetic, distracted, stress-glorifying pace we have been told is optimal in the technology age is just not satisfying us. And it’s not producing high quality content that is meaningful and resonant. That can only be accomplished by the slow, practiced, dedicated attention to building skills and conscientiously applying them.

If that intrigues you at all, Cal and his books are a great place to start.

Enjoy!

 

Tomie DePaola: A Legacy in Narrative Craft

This is my copy of Strega Nona.

IMG_2546As you can see it has been well loved.

As I’m sure most of you know yesterday saw the passing of the artist and author Tomie DePaola. The tragedy is not that he passed. As the Stoics remind us, we are all mortal and our end must come. No, for DePaola much of the loss is in the timing. With the modern equivalent of the Black Death running rampant anyone who simply passes on of natural causes, regardless of their impact go mostly unremarked upon and are quickly brushed aside in favor of blame-laying, fear-porn headlines and the growing lists of those taken by the CoVid Reaper.

Tomie DePaola would have been mourned with vigil and sincere outpouring of emotion. Curated galleries of his prints would have appeared in museums, and may still yet. He defined what it meant to craft a narrative in picture and word, and sometimes without word. There might have been a parade, and certainly a retelling of how he told his elementary teacher that he didn’t need math because he was going to write and illustrate books when he grew up.

If you are looking for a list of his books or vignettes about his life or his art, Google is your friend. There are those that did not let his passing go unmarked, but ever since I learned of it, I cannot stop thinking about what his work has meant to me and what he left behind.

So right now, I just want to talk about mortality.

There are two legacies we can leave in our wake: 1. The relational, who we were to other people and who they were to us, how we treated those around us, and were we connected in positive or negative ways to many or few and 2. Our craft.

The deep work required to build a skill to the point of excellence is a shrinking thing in modern society. Too many of us feel and succumb to the pressure to be everything, do it all. But in chasing this many faceted ideal, we make our own purpose unclear and never cultivate talent into craft. We lose touch with the authentic bits of ourselves that really matter, and we never give ourselves the chance to transcend the mediocre.

And let me be clear, “the World” (whoever that is) doesn’t have to know your work for it to reach a level of technical and artistic mastery that makes others sit up and take notice. My grandmother passed away late last year, and based on the numbers at her funeral you might suspect that she had a minimal legacy. Maybe in some quantity based metric she did. But all who knew her spoke of her service. Her constant attention to the needs of others was the hallmark fo who she was. And her quilts!! She made some of the loveliest, softest, most beautifully stitched quilts in the world. They are considered treasures among our family. The masterpiece she made for my wedding, one of the last before arthritis rendered her hands unable, is undergoing quilting triage at the able and expert hands of my mother-in-law who shares her talents, because we loved that blanket a little too well.

In my office sits a framed 3×5 canvas depicting a cabin in winter, a delightful monochrome painting done by my paternal grandmother that reminds me every time I sit down to work that I am an inheritor of a legacy of creativity. She was a woman so gentle and intuitive that hummingbirds would sit in her hands. Her paintings are treasured possessions among our family, not merely for their beauty and proficiency, but for the piece of her they carry into the future.

If either of these women had said, “Well, I don’t have time,” or “I’m just not that creative,” their families, if not the whole of society, would have lost out on an example of what it means to strive to develop oneself and examples of what expression channeled by skill can manifest.

The world, most school age children of my generation, and those of future generations can thank Tomie DePaola for doing the same. For learning craft and technique and applying it again and again in ways that were not always successful, but left indelible imprints on those that experienced them. From the levity and silliness of The Popcorn Book to the wordless quiet of Sing, Pierrot, Sing he invited all audiences to feel and laugh and wonder with him. He embraced his own style when illustrating the words of others and his distinctive voice when creating his own. He illustrated the tales of his Christian faith, unabashedly loving Christmas and illustrating multiple yuletide tales.

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Just a few of my newest acquisitions. Story time!

He was himself. And he was an artist. And because he simply set out to do work that he enjoyed, pursued the skill that resonated with himself, and didn’t stop he leaves us a bounty. Not only will I get to introduce my children to The Knight and The Dragon, but a tiny piece of Tomie will linger in the learning of my children and perhaps theirs. It will inform and inspire my own work, as it did my development as a child. All artists cultivate a creative lineage, master storytellers and artists that leave their mark on us as we grow into the artists we will be.

It is my desire, arrogant though it may be, to leave such a legacy. To construct a body of work, one story at a time, that others (though perhaps not many others) will cherish. The greater challenge, for me anyway, is to be the sort of person that even if unremarked on by the world, would be a touchstone of my family’s ethic. I am the recipient of the love and example of so many good people who simply sought to do good in the world, to beautify it, to make it a little more livable for those around them.

If my work is remembered with fondness because I am remembered with fondness, I think that might be enough. And if the work itself is good enough that others know it and carry it on, well that’s good, too. I think it is the change in our nature, not production numbers, wrought by humble creation– daily pursued– that brings us peace in the end.

I hope he had such peace. I hope he knew how many of us loved him and were grateful for how willing he was to share himself with us. And that his passing, despite its appointed moment, did not go unmourned or unmarked. We will miss you, Tomie.

~Anika