Confession of a Meanie

I strayed this week. After years of temptation, I drove 50 miles out of town to meet with writers in a workshop group of which I am not a member. My own writing group is small, sometimes redundant, and some of the members call me a meanie, the Simon Cowell of the group. [Ha ha.] Well, I don’t think that’s so funny. So, as much as I love the members of my writing group, as committed as I am to remaining one of its members, I decided to step out on them and visit the largest and best known writing group in the Metroplex, the DFW Writers’ Workshop.

I’ve told you how my little group meets in the café at a SuperTarget and has to enunciate over the angry sounds of the slushie machine. In contrast, the DFWWW has a paid membership sufficient enough to allow it to rent a community center one night a week and even pay an off-duty cop to patrol the parking lot. While we have a group leader, they have a President, two vice-presidents, a director, a treasurer and a couple other officers whose job titles I don’t recall. They run a yearly conference. Their ranks span the gamut from Harlequin writers to writers of literary fiction. Many are published, which is hardly the case for my little group, unless you count the anthology they self-published. After rejections and acceptances are celebrated, DFWWW breaks the crowd into smaller groups for critique. Of course, each critique group has its own room. Impressive? You bet.

To ensure their members get what they pay for, there are specific rules to control time usage. Members who sign up to read are allowed 15 minutes tops. Both reading and critique time is handled with a stopwatch. Writers may not “waste” critique time arguing, explaining, or otherwise justifying their work. And non-dues paying visitors, such as myself, have to keep their traps shut. I thought that would be difficult for me, but as it turned out, staying silent and listening to the others was reassuring. These people went for the bone. Spilled blood didn’t faze them one bit. Sure, they began each critique with a token positive comment, but they quickly got that out of the way and focused on the weak points in the craft, plainly stating what wasn’t working and offering constructive options. I’d heard other writers call the critiques at DFWWW “mean,” but I say they were stunningly accurate. This is not to say that the writing offered up was weak. Five of the six offerings I heard were quite good and, I’m sure, will be even better because of the critiques; the other? Well, a person shouldn’t use words he can’t pronounce and/or doesn’t know the meaning of. But he’ll get better, too, if he has the fortitude to continue.

As I sat silently listening, I thought about how I’ve had to defend myself in my little group against being called mean, an accusation that is always leveled with half a smile. While I will point out flashes of brilliance and always make sure I say at least one positive thing as I critique, I use my critique time to dig quickly into what I perceive could be improved. Yet there are a few in my small, Target-based group (not all) who only say positive things about every piece of writing they see, hoping to encourage, they argue. It’s that pop-psychology idea that encouragement will lead us to do more and that practice will make us better. Well, no. It won’t. It’ll lead us to produce more of the same. I have asked my little local group to be rough on me, to ferret out the problems I can’t see, but certain members simply can’t bring themselves to do that. Their nice-only critiques are impractical, it seems to me. In fact, I don’t consider them “nice” at all. In this case, being “mean” is the “nice” thing to do. Fortunately, I have friends in cyberspace who’ll provide me critiques that keep me humble—and improving.

I won’t give up my little, local group with their well-intentioned, Christian critiques. But that 50 miles between them and the larger group? Somehow it doesn’t seem as far as it used to. And guess who finally got me to try the new group? None other than the leader of my smaller group. Guess I’m not the only writer stepping out, looking for more and better feedback.

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30 Responses to Confession of a Meanie

  1. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    FTR, that thumbnail of the writing group is neither of the DFWWW or my little group. But writers pretty much all look alike.

  2. Moriah Jovan says:

    Good post. (That was not token.)

    [...]but certain members simply can’t bring themselves to do that.

    Somewhere in the last couple of years in my writing chat room, I’ve realized that often, when they “can’t bring themselves” to offer a critique it’s because they aren’t skilled enough to know what’s wrong. It takes me a while to ferret out who’s being nice and who just doesn’t know.

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Yeah, Moriah, I think you’re correct in suggesting some may not know how to critique. But some of these folks have been coming for years and have heard the standard critique points. Maybe, for some, it boils down to not really wanting to be critiqued. You know, “You have your style and I have mine, and who’s to say which is ‘right’ and which is ‘wrong’.” And there is one woman in particular to whom I never say a negative thing too. I’ve learned that it literally hurts her, so I don’t. She is one who won’t critique anything but the placement of a semi-colon. But I ask to be “abused.” Sock it to me!

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      I hate it when I post something, then reread it and see I’ve typed something stupid. Eliminate that “too” pls.

  4. Th. says:

    .

    We should hang out. I don’t need other writers to tell me I’m already good. I know I’m good. But good ain’t good enough. I had a member of Fob once tell me they kept a page on which I had placed two checkmarks (checks being my shorthand for particularly good). But those checkmarks didn’t make the story any better. It was my railing about what was wrong that did that.

    Ah, mean people. They’re pretty much my favorite.

  5. Angela H. says:

    I think there’s something to be said for style when we talk about critique. I’ve spent a lot of time in writing workshops, both as a student and as a teacher or facilitator, and it seems to me that the very best critiques come from people who can be incisive and direct without being dismissive or condescending or “mean.” Offering up a thoughtful, tough-minded critique leavened with kindness and an openness to other people’s artistic decisions is an art. It takes practice.

    Some of the very worst critiques I ever received during my MFA were from people who were way too interested in being mean, in the sense that they weren’t approaching the other person’s work collaboratively–they were simply using the workshop opportunity to grandstand, show off, pontificate, etc. Some people saw their meanness as a gauge for how committed they were to “art” . . . but I call baloney on that. It’s like that raging chef on the on Fox cooking show (I can’t remember what it’s called because I couldn’t bear watching the guy for more than 5 minutes). We’re supposed to believe that he’s reducing those chefs to tatters because he loves food so much, but you know what? I’ll take Project Runway’s Tim Gunn and his comments like “does this look a little busy to you?” or “does this seem age-appropriate?”, offered up with a pensive little head tilt, any day. In the end, I think that style is ultimately the most effective. Whereas the Paula Abdul, “oh you look so beautiful!”, enthusiastic-flurry-of-appreciative-claps version of critique we can all agree does nobody any good, of course. (Okay, yeah, I’ve been known to watch a few reality shows. Go ahead, critique me.)

    And Lisa, whenever you’ve read something I’ve written, you’re much more Tim Gunn than (agghh, I’ll just google it) Gordon Ramsay.

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      Great points, Angela. And thanks for not calling me mean. I’ve heard other MFA-types say they had that kind of experience as well. There’s no competition like that in my little group. I hope when they call me mean, its their way of paying a back-handed compliment.

    • Th. says:

      .

      Yeah, that’s a good clarification. Sometimes I forget the world has meanmean people.

  6. Scott Hales says:

    I will always be grateful to the BYU professor who sat me down in his office, read aloud from a paper I had written about Homer’s Iliad, and critiqued it sentence by sentence. He didn’t mince words. He had a lot of negative things to say about my writing. By the end of the paper, I was thoroughly ashamed of it.

    Of course, that shame made me try much harder. I’ve never improved as a writer from a good critique. (They make me feel better about myself, certainly, but they don’t make me want to try anything new.) I’ve tried to apply this to the English comp classes I teach. While I still include the token nice comment (usually: “This essay seems to be on the right track…” or “This essay has a lot of potential…”), I spend most of my critique zeroing in on what needs to be improved. This tendency hasn’t won me any glowing reviews on ratemyprofessor.com, but it has–I think–helped my students’ writing improve. Most students appreciate in the long run.

    I’ve recently been thinking, though, about how to apply the “meanie” principle to book reviews. I’ve noticed, for example, that most of the book reviews posted on “This Week in Mormon Literature” are usually very positive. Do Mormon book reviewers tend to be overly nice and positive when it comes to reviewing a book…even when the book is (c’mon) not that great? Is there no Michiko Kakutani of Mormondom?

    Whenever I review of a Mormon novel, I’m always a little reluctant to rip into it–even when I think it deserves it. Part of my reluctance comes from knowing how poorly Mormon novels–especially non-Deseret titles–sell in the first place. Do I really want to be responsible for making those sales potentially lower?

    But I also recognize that honesty is the best policy. If I review a lousy novel positively, that reflects poorly on me and also cheats readers. I sympathize with the writer who has put his or her heart and soul into a book–but if a book’s not good, it’s not good.

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      Actually, honesty is not always the best policy, but that’s an argument for another time. I think a fair review should be very clear on what a reader should expect in their encounter with a book. I haven’t reviewed LDS fiction, save Glen Beck’s _Christmas Sweater_. (And I may do one of Jamie Ford’s _Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet_, even if it isn’t LDS in topic.) I tend to avoid it bc, being a writer, I find it awkward to review someone else’s fiction. I’ll happily critique before publication, but perfer to leave reviewing to someone else.

      Anyway in my lone fiction review , I aimed for transparency. I think it was fairly clear Beck’s novel wasn’t my kind of book, but I tried to identify the readers who would like it. It wouldn’t be fair to slam a book for being something that it didn’t set out to be. But yes, pls don’t imply a reader will see world-class story-telling when that simply isn’t the case. So I prefer to think of good, or fair, book reviews as those which are transparent, those which tell me exactly what to expect, warts and all, rather than honest. Honest is subjective, after all.

    • Th. says:

      .

      The first paper of the year, I make copies onto transparencies (postits over the writers’ names) then grade them live. I must say it’s the single most effective method I’ve found for teaching writing.

  7. Wm Morris says:

    I don’t mind “mean” feedback when it’s clear that a) the editor/critiquer understands what I’m trying to do in the story and b) the editor/critiquer doesn’t try to rewrite the story in his or her own image/style.

    And because that’s what I don’t mind, that’s what I also try to provide.

  8. Scott Parkin says:

    While overly polite critique offers dubious value I’m not convinced that critique that focuses purely on flaws is usefully better. It’s gotta be a blend of what worked and what didn’t—and why from the critiquer’s point to view.

    A story devoid of flaws may yet contain nothing praiseworthy—and as such is somewhere between adequate and irrelevant. Identifying the parts of the story that work and pushing the author to explore those elements further is what develops a precocious talent into a marketable one; readers will forgive flaws in the presence of some element of excellence, but a flawless writer with nothing to recommend them is just literary musak.

    We all have to solve the problems in front of us. I’ve been fortunate to be in writing groups where a surplus of kindness was not the problem, so getting people to be more critical has not been the challenge I’ve had to deal with.

    And there’s nothing at all wrong with attending more than one group (so long as it doesn’t take too much away from your writing time). It’s a professional development aid as well as a social group; a variety of voices and approaches can be very, very useful.

    • Th. says:

      .

      You’re right of course that knowing what works matters as much as what doesn’t. But both should be up for debate. Without a writing group vigorous enough to disagree and contradict the writer ends up with a simplified notion of how the story functions. I wonder—

      Just the writer is clearly too small an audience. A writing group of a thousand would clearly be too much feedback to be helpful. I wonder what the perfect number is? And what factors affect that number.

      • Scott Parkin says:

        That’s part of why I think two (or more) groups is useful—different voices, different takes. The challenge with any group is that comments get stale because people say essentially the same thing each time. Rotating groups every year or two keeps it fresh.

  9. “Do Mormon book reviewers tend to be overly nice and positive when it comes to reviewing a book…even when the book is (c’mon) not that great?”

    Ha! yeah, I’m guilty at times. Cruel to be kind.

  10. Moriah Jovan says:

    @Scott

    [...]most of the book reviews posted on “This Week in Mormon Literature” are usually very positive. Do Mormon book reviewers tend to be overly nice and positive when it comes to reviewing a book…even when the book is (c’mon) not that great?

    I have been struggling and struggling with this for about a year now.

    For one, I am not the usual Mormon audience for fiction, which is to say, I don’t mind “questionable” material (e.g., Angel Falling Softly). When I look at the ratings that book got (on Goodreads) and read the comments, I feel like a definite outlier. Yeah, it had its problems, but “explicit sex” wasn’t one of them. IMO. (OTOH, my readers picked up on my liking of that book and put it in their TBRs, so it may be that it starts getting a wider audience.)

    For two, I’m already predisposed to find flaws related to content if it’s written to reinforce a church standard whether it makes sense or not. There was a book reviewed a while back on AMV that had (as described) what was, to me, objectionable content because it flew in the face of common sense. But the heroine was widely praised for having the “courage” to make the choice she did because it aligned with our current standards. I would be tempted to rip that book to shreds over that; thus, I haven’t (and won’t) read it.

    For three, I simply don’t want to be seen as the Bad Guy any more than anybody else does, but some of these works drive me up a wall because they’re badly written yet they’re praised to the heavens. I don’t know if it’s because everyone really thinks Title A is a good book, or because they’re being nice, or because they’re friends and family and are boosting its rating. Being the only one to stand up and say, “Hey, this is badly written” and getting (anonymously) dogpiled isn’t my idea of A Good Time.

    For four, I don’t feel like getting my head handed to me for what I write in retaliation for expressing my opinion on someone else’s bad writing. There’s a world of difference between something somebody doesn’t like and something that’s simply bad, and I don’t want to fight that fight. I’ve already experienced a bunch of this on my blog and in my email (anonymously, naturally), and I don’t want a bunch of anonymous people not reading my books but going around giving me 1 stars based on the fact that there’s sex and language. Members probably should be above such cowardly tactics, but they’re not, and I don’t feel like fighting that battle.

    But. Some of these writers who are putting out some of this bad work are giving writing advice. And THAT is what’s got me in a dither.

    Do I think there are (regular) reviewers of LDS lit who a) softball their reviews and/or b) don’t know good writing? Yes, I do. Do I think some of those people are writers and they’re reviewing their friends? Yes, I do. Do I think someone(s) needs to take up that slack? Yes, I do. Do I think it should be me? Some days yes, some days no.

    What I KNOW is that this needs to be addressed. Our oeuvre as a culture cannot take much more Charly-level (or inferior) writing before the core audience really does start to think it’s good writing–and our future writers are trained by people who can’t write.

  11. Scott Parkin says:

    Without disagreeing in any way with your cogent points, I know that I tend not to do bad reviews because I won’t spend the time on a book I think is irrelevant. I want to spend my effort on titles I think are worthwhile; I suspect other reviewers tend to feel the same way.

    That’s where commentary after the fact is useful on blogs or discussion lists—it gives you a chance to offer a contradictory opinion and at least get the thought out into the community. We will never eliminate dog-piling, but reputation over time does have value.

    The challenge is that when we leave reviews to fans (friends, coworkers) we end up with a less useful canon of reviews. Sadly, I still don’t want to take the time with bad reviews (though as I peruse my own entries in the review archive I see an awful lot of critical commentary…), so I’m not sure how to address the larger problem. Life is too short to waste on bad books.

    Hmmm…

  12. C. M. Malm says:

    As an English teacher and as a beta-reader/writing group member, my guiding concept is always “what will make this better than it is now?” I will ask questions if something confuses me (and point out that I’m asking *because* I’m confused). I will point out things that fly in the face of logic and/or physics and/or common sense. I will note where a different word might be more accurate/effective, or suggest different wording for a sentence that flows poorly. And, of course, I proofread. I also give praise where it is warranted…not just to be nice, but because too often I have seen people change passages that were originally very good, apparently out of some mistaken belief that they weren’t.

    I do all of these things unapologetically. So far no one has called me mean, although I can see where someone might want to. The ones who really didn’t WANT help (just praise) are probably thinking I’m mean when they start saying, “But…but…but….” Fortunately, I don’t get a lot of those, partly because the number one rule that must be understood before I beta for someone is this: you are absolutely free to take my advice (which you have ASKED me for), and just as free to ignore it, but if you start whining at me about why I’m wrong and you’re right, we’re done.

    Mean? Probably. But it’s a waste of time and energy for both of us for me to give a substantial critique when the writer just wants to be patted on the head and told how good they’ve done. And I’m not a total ogre–I *have* given pat-on-the-head critiques to young writers who wanted (and needed) encouragement to continue more than they needed technical advice.

    The advice I want on my own work is similar to the advice I give to others. Not “advice” that makes me feel like every word I’ve written sucks (there are certain people in my life who aren’t allowed to read my drafts *precisely* for that reason). Not advice that’s a “nice” head pat (okay, it feels good once in a while, I admit; but it isn’t very *useful*). I want advice that helps me see where the problems are and helps me figure out how to fix them. I can’t remember if it was in an essay or perhaps in person, but Scott Card said something once about useful readers, and he was spot on. A good beta-reader is worth their weight in gold (although, alas, most of us starving writers couldn’t afford that!).

    • Scott has a section on “Creating a Wise Reader” in his book, HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY (which is worth reading even if you don’t write science fiction and fantasy), on pages 121-124 (of the copy I have).

      Basically, you do create a wise reader by asking the reader questions like “where were you bored?” and “was there anything you didn’t understand?” and “was there anything you didn’t believe?” and questions about whether the reader liked the characters and why or why not about the other things the reader liked or didn’t like, and so on.

      One of the most valuable things a reader can do for a writer is mark where the reader’s attention started to wander.

      Scott points out that the writer really has to respect the reader’s feedback, and figure out why the reader has responded to the text that way, so that the writer can use that information in improving the story.

      • Scott Parkin says:

        When Th mentioned his checkmarks as a sort of “acceptable” grade I hitched a little because I use checkmarks in the manuscript to indicate when I looked to see how many pages were left—aka, when I became bored enough to check total length. If I do it in the first third (or if there are more than one), there’s a serious problem.

        Card and Wolverton have both done work on reader theory to help writers understand the dynamic, and I highly recommend any writing books by those authors.

  13. Jonathan Langford says:

    I think part of the reason why positive comments are often less useful is because they tend to be less specific. I’ve had some very useful comments that were both positive and specific: this and this particular element are working well. Such comments were very useful in the process of revision. In fact, the experience of being on the other side of those comments has made me work harder to point out specific things that are working well in a story.

    Back when I was working as an English teacher (college freshman composition), I tried to focus on no more than 3-4 main areas of comment per paper, on the theory (common in composition circles) that focusing on too many things at once reduced the chance that the writer would actually learn from and apply what I was saying. While that’s *not* usually the way I approach critiquing stories, I wonder if it ought to be. If we knew that we had only 5 minutes’ worth of the writer’s attention, what would be important enough to say? I’ve been in critique groups where my time (and everyone else’s) was wasted by listening to one reader take the author through a detail-by-detail challenge of typos and (sometimes dubious) grammatical errors. On the other hand, sometimes comments on the very detailed level can be quite useful.

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      Yes, I liked the way the DFWWW limited critique time. I’m not sure what it was, but it had to be around 5 minutes total. That’s five minutes for everyone in the group to respond. Important points were brought up and, if they were very important, quickly reiterated. In addition, no copies are passed out so there is no time wasting on punctuation. Of course, this means there’s no deep rhetorical advice either, but it seemed to work well.

  14. Th. says:

    .

    Before I ever belonged to a writing group, I invented one in my head called WWAG (Writers with a Goal). To join, you couldn’t be a mere hobbyist–you had to be serious about pursuing publication. Sending things out would be a requirement of membership. And, presumably, every member would demand a serious and helpful critique.

    I still feel this way. Maybe I should develop more charity towards writers who just write because it makes them feel nice, but I probably won’t. Let them form a WWoutAG club.

  15. One of my favorite approaches to giving feedback comes from a writer and workshop leader named Algis Budrys. He pointed out that the manuscript is not the story. The manuscript is the result of the writer attempting to convey the story to the reader. And the purpose of any kind of writing group or workshop feedback is to help the writer improve the manuscript (those clumsy, inadequate marks on paper) so that it does a better job of conveying the story to the reader.

    So feedback, by that definition, needs to be based on some kind of understanding of what the writer is trying to do with the manuscript, and then figuring out what needs to be changed in order to accomplish that, or at least get closer to accomplishing that.

    It does not, as has been mentioned already, mean that those giving feedback should try to rewrite the manuscript to fit what they believe to be the story. Only the writer knows the real story, and only the writer knows what feedback is actually useful in helping the manuscript to get the real story across to the readers.

    I submit that writers and readers should remember this when participating in a writing group or workshop situation.

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Algis also offered the invaluable advice (for me, at least) that writing is not the opposite of reading. The reader will fill many details in from their own mind and imagination, and will (often) remember a scene as containing a richness of detail that was mostly absent from the text itself.

      Unless that extended description is part of your audience’s expectation (manor punk, etc.), the author’s art is to select the key details that will trigger the reader’s own imagination; let the story and situation carry the rest.

      Which is not to say that florid is bad, but rather that you pick when to go deep and when to get out of the way as a matter of craft.

  16. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    These have been fun comments to read. I was glad Kathleen thought to mention asking questions from the group. I’ve taken to doing this bc I usually bring a section to a group bc I’m not sure something is working. I still have this fantasy that someday I’ll be able to place my fiction outside the LDS community, so I take my LDS stories to my non-member group, largely to be sure I’m communicating well. I don’t always cross that bridge of understanding too well, but without my specially asking about something, my group may not understand what I need. How do they know I’m not communicating something just as it is, since they aren’t part of the group. Boy, (plug alert) I had fun explaining the bra over the garments when I brought in “Straight Home,” recently published in Dialogue. But Kathleen is right when she says the most important thing is often just knowing when a reader’s mind wanders. That’s crucial feedback.

    I’d also like to confess that I’ve asked my group not to tease me by calling me mean. I told them I’d happily pull back if they’d like me to. Of course, they all said they didn’t want me to, that my critiques are sharp. But would they tell me otherwise if they truly felt I was too hard on them? Not likely. These are some of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. And I love them all.

  17. Mark Brown says:

    Regarding the unkindness of too much kindness, I use the following analogy with my students: suppose one of your classmates, someone you like and respect, walked into class after a 5 minute bathroom break and had a four-foot tail of toilet paper hanging out of her pants. She’s obviously unaware of it but everyone else in the class sees it. What’s the kind thing to do? Pretend it’s not there? Say nothing and let her discover it later and realize that everyone saw it and kept their mouths shut? Or would it be kinder to immediately hop up and ask her to talk her in the hall? Everyone’s drafts have long tails of toilet paper hanging off of them. The kindest thing we can do is let people know about them before they walk into the public arena of trying to get published.

  18. Julie Wright says:

    you are totally right! What is mean is someone telling you everything is fine and then someday that work actually ending up in publication and forever being stupid when it could havev been changed at the editing level! I prefer mean. I have a few reviewers that are ruthlessly vigilant in improving my writing and sometimes I have a good cry and a chocolate after reading their edits. And after a day or so of throwing darts at their pictures, I realize they’re right and make the changes they suggest because I would rather fix it now than have it pop up again when it’s published and it’s too late.

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