Perhaps you have been following the debate on the merit of creative writing courses in the Guardian recently (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/14/creative-writing-courses-advice-students). It’s a long-running debate and there are valid arguments on both sides. But what interests me at the moment is the value of criticism in creative writing classes – and this goes for criticism in informal writing groups, too.
Personally, I love criticism. I’m greedy for it. I know how hard it is to find someone who can give honest, constructive criticism – criticism that makes you suddenly see the wood from the trees, makes you realize that what you were never quite happy with is just not good enough, and can ask questions in ways that leads you to answers you didn’t know you were looking for.As writers, we’re standing inside our stories, so it’s difficult to know how they look from the outside. As Kathy Lowinger says, ‘Get your work read because you can’t see yourself dance’. An outside perspective can be invaluable – and offers insights that you wouldn’t get otherwise.
But - having been a member of many writing groups, and a teacher of many creative writing courses, I also know how damaging criticism can be. I come across students who are afraid to read their work in case they receive a negative comment that makes them want to give up (and in this case, I tell them, ‘don’t read’). I come across people who were criticised as children for their creative efforts and were told they were ‘making a mess’ or weren’t ‘doing it properly’ . Needless to say, they haven't tried it since. And I come across writers who want to offer up their work for criticism, but only want positive feedback and defend their work against the slightest criticism.So I suppose I have concluded the following:
- A writer shouldn’t share their work until they’re ready for criticism and can take it or leave it without being mortally wounded. This is usually possible only after some time has elapsed after writing it.
- A writer should say ‘thanks’ for the feedback they receive, and nothing more. Then they can go home and decide what to do with it. If a writer tries to defend their work, the people giving feedback will quickly stop bothering.
- When giving criticism, try and restrict it to the one or two main issues – don’t go on and on.
- Try and give other writers the feedback that they are ready for. We can’t judge everyone by the same yardstick – and when I think back to what my writing was like when I first started, I cringe. By working to our strengths and strengthening the positives, the negatives often fall away all by themselves
- But even when giving feedback to experienced writers, don’t forget the positives. We all like being reminded of what we do well. It makes us want to carry on.
Heather Dyer - children's author and Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow
- For enquiries about creative writing workshops for children or adults, or editorial services, go to www.heatherdyer.co.uk
- For enquiries about academic writing workshops, go to: http://rlfconsultants.com/consultants/heather-dyer/