My high school drama teacher set the class with what appeared to be a straightforward assignment: form groups of three and share a story about either your favorite or your least favorite teacher. We launched into our tales of terrible teachers: The time that Mr. Marrett, in a snit, threw an eraser across the classroom. Mr. Philbrook’s “creative” use of a 10-pound rock as a hall pass, forcing his students to haul the thing with them every time they went to the bathroom. And my own story about the time Mr. Nicholson refused to help me with my AP English essay. His justification: “No one is going to help you with your work when you are in college.” Oh, how I loathed Mr. Nicholson…
By a show of hands, it was immediately clear that out of our class of 25 students, a mere four or five of us had taken the positivity high road and talked about a teacher whom we liked. The rest of us had jumped on the teacher-bashing bandwagon. My drama teacher then revealed the lesson of this exercise*: when given a choice, our natural inclination is often to focus on the negative.
This truth abounds when it comes to critiquing someone else’s writing. Each time I read a piece for my writers’ group, I must make a conscious effort to note both what is working and what is not, to underline the clever phrases as well as the awkward ones. I try to put myself in the other writer’s position – what kind of feedback would be most helpful? What will inspire him or her to rush home after the meeting and start revising? After all, we are there to improve our writing, to learn from one another.
Of course, not everyone sees it this way. Some people seem to equate “critique” with “critical”, and behave more like the self-appointed Grammar Police or the Plot Development Marshall.
My friend Jen recently told me that she no longer reads aloud in her ongoing writing class whenever a new crop of students joins the group.
“There’s always at least one person who feels the need to establish him or herself by ripping everyone’s work to shreds,” she explained.
“Perhaps it’s like beating the crap out of someone your first day in prison,” I suggested. “Maybe they think everyone will take them more seriously if they come out swinging.”
Just last week, a new member to my writers’ group beat the crap out of my chapter. She began her written critique with this disclaimer.
My comments will reflect a lack of familiarity with what has been revealed before this point in the narrative, and for that I apologize. I hope that they are helpful to you, in any case.
This seemed a fairly reasonable statement to make, since she was coming in at Chapter Ten of my novel. She went on:
I’m not as much an appreciative reader, I guess, as I am a critical reader. I think of my function as to be something of an encouraging small voice asking how to make the narrative better. As I result, I need reminding to applaud that which is going well.
So far, this sounded pretty on par with my own philosophy. But as I read through her critique, it became clear she still had some work to do on the “applauding” portion of the program. Comment after comment, she had nothing but negative remarks:
This is cliché… This is vague and repetitive… I hate adverbs… Melodramatic… I’m beginning to lose interest because the telling is flat… Bland word choice, cliché structure.
It went on and on, until this final summary statement:
Not enough happened in this section, and the action that occurred was obliquely written, smothered in cliché, and sometimes vague and lacking drama. Even the ending: passive and oblique. Could be sharper, could be more briskly written. Could be more specific in the rendering of the moments and descriptions of the people and action.
By this point, I was laughing aloud. What on earth was I supposed to do with this onslaught of profoundly unhelpful commentary? Pronouncing a piece of writing as cliché, vague, and melodramatic is not, strictly speaking, a critique; it is criticism without the benefit of thoughtful insight or suggestion. And frankly, it’s kind of mean.
For the record, I received largely positive feedback from those members of my writing group who have read my novel from the beginning. Sure, they had suggestions for tightening up some of the sentences, clarifying vague statements, and the like. Their comments inspired me to sit down at the computer as soon as I got home. The new member’s comments inspired me to recycle her “critique”.
*I’m guessing his bigger message was “Stop doing that.”