Critical (re)thinking skills


Silk’s Post #37 — The 5 Writers are deep into critique mode now, with another deadline looming. In a little less than three weeks, we must all present ourselves at Whistler, prepared to say something intelligent, helpful, and maybe even provocative about each other’s books.

My post last week, Critiquing creative spirits, tried to look ahead to the challenges we would encounter in this task, recognizing there’s a certain amount of ‘critique anxiety’ that goes along with handing your virgin 400 pages over to someone else to pass judgement on. Frankly, I thought the post was pretty common sense stuff – nothing very controversial about it.

Was I ever in for a shock.

As usual, I posted a link to Fiction Writers Guild, one of the couple of writers’ groups I belong to on LinkedIn. And then the fun began. Unbelievably, as of today the discussion thread has drawn 322 comments, from the informative to the emotional to the argumentative to the downright nasty. (For a brief moment, I even found my name at the top of the FWG list of “Top Influencers for This Week”). Granted, much of this fire was stoked by a particular contributor who brought a very strong point of view to the topic and apparently had the time and the sustained interest to defend and promote it vigorously.

It was a real learning experience for me.

I’m not generally much of a discussion group participant, truth be told. I’m already struggling with a bottomless ‘to-do’ list. So what I learned about discussion groups is probably ‘old hat’ to those who frequent them. The main take-away was how easily threads can be hijacked by anyone who is particularly passionate about the topic, or craves attention, or has an agenda of their own to serve. No surprise, really, when you think about it.

The secondary take-away is that, in a discussion group, people ‘talk’ to each other in a manner that they probably never would dare to in face-to-face conversation. That has good and bad implications. The safe distance provided by cyberspace may encourage honesty and forthrightness. That’s admirable. It may also push forthrightness past the bounds of civility and promote flat-out rudeness and bullying. That’s despicable.

I can almost hear you rolling your eyes. Naive, am I not?

But enough Psychology 101. What did I learn about writing and critiquing?

First: that there are many species of critique that span the spectrum from the tiptoeing style of “writing by committee” in a workshop setting, to the no-holds-barred style of anonymous crits in a training setting such as the “Boot Camp” program for beginning writers.

Second: that the two issues which generated the liveliest and most interesting debate (for me, anyway) were honesty in critiquing, and which aspect of the process a writer learns the most from – giving critiques or receiving critiques.

Our 5 Writers critique process seems to fall somewhere mid-spectrum in the range of approaches. It is neither anonymous nor collaborative, but collegial. That is to say, we try to give honest criticism in a face-to-face meeting (supported by written critiques and often margin notes), but we don’t “work on” each other’s stories as a group or critique re-writes. From the forum, I surmised that this approach is most appropriate for – and likely used most often by – small groups of writers who are at an intermediate or higher level of craft, and are writing in similar forms (e.g., novels) and/or genres. Mostly, such critique groups include unpublished writers, but I understand that even some published authors may find them valuable. The key seems to be working with others at a relatively well-matched skill level using agreed methods and standards for critiquing.

But what about the honesty factor? Do the absence of anonymity and the constraints of diplomacy and personal friendship inhibit the kind of forthright criticism that writers truly need to hear – even though they may dread it?

My answer is: No. Or at least, not necessarily. Read on, and I’ll tell you why I think meeting this challenge is not only achieveable, but is an extraordinarily good exercise.

My thoughts about honesty in our style of critiquing are linked to the other key debate in the forum: which aspect of the process a writer learns the most from – giving critiques or receiving critiques. The stated purpose of our 5 Writers group is to provide our members with useful critiques of their own work so they can improve their novels with the ultimate goal of getting published. This, for me, has been a tremendous help in getting past my own blind spots and identifying strengths and weaknesses in my stories. Since I would call myself an experienced writer, but a neophyte novelist, critical comments that relate to the craft of storytelling are especially helpful for me.

However, over the couple of years I’ve belonged to the group, I’ve come to realize that I am, in fact, learning more from doing the critiques of others’ work than I am from receiving their critiques of mine. This has been a surprise, and perhaps it took me a while to recognize it precisely because it was unexpected. Why would I be learning more by giving than receiving?

The explanation is perfectly captured in the axiom:

“If you want to learn something, read about it.
If you want to understand something, write about it.
If you want to master something, teach it.” — 
Yogi Bhajan

When you have to give a written critique, it forces you to really think about the strength or weakness you’re commenting on. You have to get down to the specifics and articulate the problem in terms that will be useful to the writer. In other words, you must come to thoroughly understand your own critical thoughts before you can convey your insights, in writing, to someone else.

Very frequently, this thought process delivers an extra zinger: you recognize that your own work has the very same problem somewhere, but you had not quite been able to put your finger on it until you recognized it in someone else’s book.

Going back to the issue of honesty and diplomacy: I believe that the deliberate effort to serve up sometimes serious criticism in a digestible manner that will nourish the writer actually adds to the learning experience for the giver as well as the recipient of the critique. Some think that adding the ‘condition’ of being diplomatic rather than blunt inevitably dilutes the hard truth with equivocation or false praise.

I’m sure that happens. Maybe often. But I don’t believe it’s at all inevitable. The challenge of writing out the ‘hard truth’ in an honest but respectful (and, yes, sensitive) manner forces us to use our critical thinking skills – and writing skills – to the fullest extent. Therefore, we learn the most from writing the toughest critiques, and doing it well.

A great critique helps the writer receiving it to literally see his/her work through the eyes of the critique giver. As we learn this skill of critiquing, we also learn the corollary skill of seeing our own work through fresh eyes. Even more important, we learn to visualize our own work through the eyes of a reader. Perhaps not everyone gets out of this process what I do, but I believe these lessons are there to be learned for those who invest serious time and effort into doing their critiques.

Bottom line: things that are the hardest to do are the things that we learn the most from in our attempts to master them. And “hard” does not mean “impossible.” It just means, in the immortal words of novelist John Irving in The Hotel New Hampshire:

“… you’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.”

1 thought on “Critical (re)thinking skills

  1. I understand what you mean by learning from offering a critique, but i still think I learn more from receiving one. Maybe that means I’m still at the neophyte stage of development.

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