Jan 22, 2008

Be Brutal

by Terri Wagner

I thought I would carry over the theme of critiquing since I have found it to be a hot topic among writer support groups. I also do it for a living. As I commented on Joyce DiPastena's entry, I prefer brutal. I suspect it's because I've had it happen so many times over the years that I have developed an extremely thick skin. And I always retain my "right" not to use the "suggestions."

Even in my current non-work project, I have a partner who is quite brutal. We have rewritten our first scene four times already, and she continues to tell me what I'm doing wrong. Once, she rejected 5 rewrites brutally I might add and then regarded the sixth try as perfect. And in looking back at the piece, she's right. The 6th try was perfect.

The way our publication is set up like most of them anyone can come along and add something or delete something from your piece, even if you are bylined. In the beginning, I was hostile, hurt, offended and often contemplated revenge (but I'm happy to say never did indulge). But over the years, a strange thing happened, I became a much better writer. I stopped seeing the pieces as "my" words and starting seeing them as "communication" words. It made a huge difference.

If I don't communicate (whatever I'm writing), I've failed. No matter how great I think my words are.

I feel compelled to add a caveat to this: When it comes to grammar rules, no one seems to agree. Use your own discretion.


  1. Terri, I had to chuckle over your caveat: "When it come to grammar, no one seems to agree." How can we, when there are so many exceptions to the rule? And these exceptions have to be made when a Germanic language where word order prevails has superimpose upon it Latin grammar rules where suffixes make the difference. How English teachers of the time accepted this and thrust it upon English language speakers throughout the world, I may never quite understand. Probably it was simple desperation for any kind of rule, so they could know when to whack a student, and when to praise. Yet having no standard language laws couldn't have been that bad, since powerful writers, even Shakespeare, managed with no grammar rules, no dictionary, (or even copyright laws). Mark Twain is said to have commented that the only reason one should learn English grammar rules is to know how, when, where and why to break them.

    And on tough skin, my advice is to keep our skin as soft and smooth and pliable as possible, and always remember that, while unkind words or adverse opinions might sting a bit before they bounce off, they cannot penetrate without our permission.

  2. Dear Terri,
    I appreciate and respect your post--we all have different takes on what makes a good critique--and I didn't mean to imply that critiques shouldn't be frank and honest, but some people seem to take absolute glee in being frank and honest in the cruelest manner possible. Being honest is one thing. Being honest in a deliberately cruel manner is another, in my admittedly personal opinion. (And I think most of us can tell from the overall context of an entire critique, whether a critiquer is being deliberately insulting, or is just tired and muddled that night.)

    Yes, we need to have thick skins towards criticism. But the major thrust of my post was intended to be that it does no good to to be honest or brutal with our critiques, if we are not at least trying to critique for the genre the author is aiming at. A brutal critique that says, "Your story doesn't have enough action", when the story is meant to be a low-action, highly emotional, romantic story for a low-action, highly emotional, romantic genre, isn't very helpful to the author, for example. If you want to be brutal, at least be brutal regarding those elements that relate to the author's particular genre.

    Perhaps, as you say in your post's closing lines, "If I can't communicate (whatever I'm writing), I've failed." So perhaps I failed to communicate clearly in yesterday's post. If so, I have yet another area to try to improve in. In the meantime, in accordance with Anna's very wise advice, I'll be rubbing some extra lotion into my skin to keep it "as soft and smooth and pliable as possible", so that critiques of any kind might bounce mores easily off. :-)

  3. This is a very lively topic. I tend to agree with everything that has been said thus far. When I ask for a critique, I do not want only a proof-reading for spelling and grammar. I want to know if the story rings true, does it engage the person who is reading it. I know it engaged me to write it - but having an outsider tell me what they really think is appreciated. In the meantime - It is painful if you get comments that are cruel. But I learned with music that sometimes cruel was necessary. I was off in my own la-la land thinking everything was rosy - but it was really lousy. After I got through crying, and having my own little pitty party, I looked at what the core message was and went about fixing what needed to be fixed. In the end both in music, and in writing I had a better outcome. Because I am a nurse, I frequently look at things from a healthcare perspective. One can also look at the thick vs soft and supple skin analogy from a health care perspective. Thick calloused skin often cracks - and when the skin cracks - infection comes in. Keeping clean, soft, supple skin is healthy. It holds up against attack much better. Germs are not able to penetrate. I think say we need to do this for our psyche as well. Maintaining a balanced, clean, and open attitude give us much better mental health. With good mental health we will be more creative.
    Have a Happy Healthy Day!
    Margaret Turley

  4. Well, all I can say is that you do a superb job responding to my blogposts. I really appreciate it.


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