Dance Naked

Absolute Blank

By Tawny McDonald (Butcher)

My first year of university, I signed up for an introduction to literature course, thinking that my high grades in high school English would help me breeze through. The first thing we read was Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and shortly after that, we were assigned our first essay.

Looking back, I’m sure that the professor must have dealt with her share of smarmy students who made As in high school and entered her classroom with egos that touched the roof. So when she handed out the assignment, she also handed out a healthy dose of reality. “If you want, show me your first drafts,” she said. “I’ll tell you where to improve.”

I wrote my essay and brought it to her, confident that I was going to blow this woman away. “Wow,” she would say, as she read my prose. “This gal is a genius!”

Of course, that’s not what happened. I still have my journals from my university days and the entry on the day she handed back my first rough draft reads as follows:

I really despise my English teacher. I gave her my essay to read over today and she told me it had no direction, it didn’t have a thesis and therefore, she had no idea what I was trying to prove. (Also, I had no purpose!) She said she read my opening sentences for each paragraph and found nothing—she couldn’t see the point in reading the whole thing.

Pretty harsh feedback, certainly not very nice, but it was honest. Looking back, I realize two important things. One, she was telling me what I needed to hear. Two, if she didn’t care, she wouldn’t have bothered asking for the first drafts.

Dealing with critique is one of the toughest skills to acquire as a writer. Our writing, after all, is something that is very personal and, often, the result of a lot of hard work. But the writing is the easy part.

Handling critique happens in three steps. The first thing you need to be able to do is share your writing. The person with whom you are sharing will critique it. Receiving the critique is your next challenge. Even harder is accepting it.

Step One—Sharing your work

Before you can receive critique you first must share your work. For even experienced writers, this is perhaps the hardest step. Maya Angelou said, “I have written eleven books but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find me out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.'” That fear is quite normal and it’s a tough fear to overcome.

It’s like undressing in front of someone for the very first time. They’re similar in that you first worry if your audience is going to like what they see. You worry that they’re going to notice those little flaws—that your sentences wobble like your knobby knees and your dialogue drags like your saggy bottom. You get past that only to worry that your audience will tell you what they don’t like and that can be the most devastating of all.

Make it easy on yourself. Find someone you trust. If you trust this person, you will know that they have your best interests in mind. This person will tell you what you need to hear and they will be honest with you. You will feel comfortable with them and when it comes time to share your writing, you won’t be able to get it to them fast enough.

The Second Step—Accepting the critique

When you receive critique on your work, it’s hard not to take it personally. This is your writing after all, something that you invested a lot of time and effort into. It is a reflection of you, your exposed, naked body. So when someone critiques it, we really feel their words.

In an ideal world, every word that we write would be perfect. Sentences would be flawless, paragraphs immaculate. Our readers would fall at our feet, utter words of awe.

There are writing sites out there that promote this kind of atmosphere and they are often successful. After all, who doesn’t like to receive constant praise? UPOP (Unqualified Praise Only Please) is nice—it helps to fluff the ego and makes you WANT to write—and any writer can accept that kind of praise quite easily. But it’s not critique and it won’t help you improve as a writer. It’s someone telling you that you’re not fat when even you know you could shed a few pounds.

The opposite of UPOP is ROTC (Raked Over The Coals) critique, a brutal massacre of your writing. It’s the person who has an ego the size of Texas and who thinks that any writing but theirs is a waste of time and paper. This person could say things like, “You’re such a dumbass, you shouldn’t be ALLOWED to own a pen and paper.” When you start to cry, they tell you to quit blubbering and stop writing while you’re ahead. I’m sure there are people out there who are like that; fortunately, I’ve had the good luck not to run into them. Hopefully, you won’t either. But if you do, don’t feel like you have to put up with their abuse. According to Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird, “No one should talk to you like this. If you write a long piece, and it is your first, and you are wondering if it’s publishable, and it isn’t, even by a long shot, someone should be able to tell you this in a way that is gentle yet not patronizing. So that you are encouraged—maybe not to pursue publication, but to pursue writing.”

This brings us to the third kind of critique, which we need as writers who want to succeed: Nit Picky Critique, or NPC. We need someone to take an objective look at our work and point out what’s good and what’s not so good. They’ll point out character inconsistencies, inaccurate details of your setting, comma usage that is embarrassing to watch. They might growl at you when you mix up “its” and “it’s”. They might be so blunt as to say, “Sorry. Nope. Doesn’t work.”

This is the type of feedback that you want. Feedback like this is what makes your good work great. It might sound harsh to you and some of it could sting and cause you to prickle up, but it’s what you need to hear. Wipe your tears, take a deep breath or go for a walk. Calm down and read through the critique again. You’ll see that the person who critiqued your piece had your best interests in mind and is trying to help. Understand that they think your piece has potential or they would never have bothered going over it in the first place. The person who is honest and tells you what your work needs to improve is the person who wants you to succeed.

Step Three—Responding to Critique

Regardless of the type of feedback you receive, it is usually polite to respond to the person who took the time to read your work. Drop them a line or call them up and tell them thank you. These people worked hard at helping you and they deserve that much. If the critique was a mere UPOP, you don’t need to say anything further. If the critique was ROTC, still thank them and consider Lamott’s advice to “ditch the sucker”. If the feedback was the third kind, NPC, thank them and do your best not to get defensive. According to Ursula K. LeGuin’s Steering The Craft, “it’s almost impossible for an author whose work is being criticized not to be on the defensive, eager to explain, answer, point out—’Oh, but what I meant was…’ ‘Oh, I was going to do that in the next draft…’ ”

Don’t succumb to the “Yeah, But” syndrome. Take the opportunity to ask them to clarify some of their comments or to inquire about what they thought of certain parts of your piece that they didn’t address. Use the critique to your advantage, understand that their comments are just suggestions and you don’t have to use them. After all, as LeGuin points out, “Always in the last analysis, you are your own judge, and you make your own decisions.”

I remember looking at that first draft with my professor’s notes written in red pen in the margin. The anger and devastation that I felt, and the humiliation was like standing naked before someone and having them laugh and point and call you fat. I can still recall that strong temptation to run to her office and pound on her door. I wanted to lay on her floor and thrash my legs and flail my arms. I wanted to throw a tantrum. Instead, I took deep breaths and calmed down. I went home and vented in my journal.

Even then, I knew she was right. One line followed my tirade against my professor:

I guess I should be grateful—I know what changes to make.

My ego was wounded—let’s be honest, deflated—but I was still able to see her critique for what it was. Since then, I’ve been dealing with critique in the same manner. I still share my work thinking that it’s the best writing ever and I still bristle when I get it back with red notes all over the place. I’m still tempted to yell, “YEAH? OH YEAH?” But I don’t. I breathe deeply and go for walks. I accept the critique for what it is. These three steps have helped to establish myself amongst my peers as a writer that is both dignified and gracious. The same can be said for any writer once they’ve learned to deal with critique.

Be brave. Share your writing. Keep a stiff upper lip and recognize critique for what it is. Learn to be grateful and how to be gracious. Acquire these skills and no matter who your audience, you’ll be able to dance naked.


References

Ban Breathnach, Sarah. “Owning Your Talent” from Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1995.

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing & Life. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises & Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland, Or.: Eighth Mountain Press, 1998.

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