Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Grain of Salt: Why Writers (Sometimes) Make the Worst Critics

Guest Post by Josh Rutherford

One of the worst forms of feedback I’ve ever received came unexpectedly – from another writer.

It happened at the start of my writing career, when I was trying to establish myself as a screenwriter. My third script, Torero, had started to rise in the ranks in certain screenwriting competitions. No, it never placed first or second or even third. But it had finished as a semi-finalist and quarterfinalist in a handful of contests, which exceeded my expectations and boosted my confidence as a writer.

Emboldened, I made the next logical move: I joined a writers’ group. I answered a craigslist ad, met a few screenwriters at a coffee shop and proceeded to do the regular routine of exchanging e-mails and projects. After a few group meetings, I met a fellow writer for coffee to discuss his thoughts on Torero. For the sake of this article, let’s call this writer Ted.

I didn’t know Ted that well, but he was a regular in our group and had offered to read my work. Eager for feedback and camaraderie, I provided him with a copy of Torero. He read it thoroughly and by the time of our meeting, he had hinted that he had a lot to say about my script.

I remember the moments leading up to our meeting. You have to understand that at this point in my life, I took any discussion of my work very seriously. I felt as though this was a precursor to a pow-wow with an agent or manager. While I tried to limit my expectations, I also convinced myself that any rookie mistakes I had made would be outshined by the story and characters I had crafted.

As I approached the coffee shop that fateful day, my heart raced. My ears perked. I was wide awake. I was ready.

Ted’s discussion of my work reflected less enthusiasm though. As our discussion began, he commented on miniscule choices I had made, such as why I wrote ATV instead of All-Terrain Vehicle. Then he moved on to more substantial elements of my work, such as his disagreement over my use of flashback. I took all his advice with a grain of salt, nodding and taking notes, until he made the following comment:

“I think your screenplay would work better as a dark comedy.”

That stopped my pen on my paper. Dark comedy? What was this guy talking about? Torero was primarily a drama with a peppering of comedic moments. I had never considered it being either darker or more comedic or both. I immediately asked him why he felt that way. His answer was a muddled combination of screenwriting jargon and examples from my work where it could work.

However, I felt his argument was less than sound. I argued to the contrary, insisting that such infusions of dark comedy in my script would only confuse the audience and disrupt the narrative. After some more back-and-forth, we parted ways, with me scratching my head and feeling insecure about my project. I asked myself “Why was he so insistent on me choosing to retool my script as a dark comedy?”

My question was answered at our next group meeting, during which we read excerpts from Ted’s own screenplay. Lo and behold, he had written a dark comedy. In fact, just before the reading, he divulged that his specialty was dark comedy.

I felt betrayed. I had offered him my work in an effort to receive unbiased, honest criticism. What I received were his not-so-subtle opinions infused with his own personal preferences as a writer. I didn’t come away from that one-on-one with objective feedback. I came away with his thoughts on how he would have written my script.

And there you have it. Perhaps the most common instance of déjà vu you will ever experience as a writer. The kind where you request feedback from another writer, only to receive suggestions reflecting his or her own biases.

We are all guilty of it. Every single writer. While I feel this is more common amongst amateurs, I have also witnessed this phenomenon from agents, consultants and managers I have approached with my work, nearly all of whom bill themselves as writers in one form or another. My favorite example of writers’ prejudice happened a few years ago, when I submitted a query letter to a consultant for review. His ultimate (and lingering) response: you need to have a singular protagonist. Nevermind that my script was a buddy film or that examples from Hollywood abound of onscreen duos or ensemble pieces. Only later, after talking about the feedback with other writer friends, did I learn of this consultant’s unwavering advice of standalone central characters, no matter the story.

This tendency amongst writers to give tainted advice is often misleading and detrimental. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. One of the ultimate goals of writing is to develop your own voice as an author. It’s a monumental task, one made more difficult when you have others imparting their voice on you and insisting you conform to their tendencies.

Sadly, we writers subject ourselves to this flaw in our profession time and again, because while our comrades-with-pens struggle to part ways with their bias, they also serve an invaluable role. Writers’ circles and groups do provide the support we need, especially when we first begin our journey as scribes. I still remember the first discussions of my work with other writers. It was electrifying and inspiring, made more memorable by the opportunities to listen to and comment on other projects. Meeting other writers promotes discussion and exchange, tools necessary to discovering your own voice.

Examples of the benefits of fellowship are endless. You may have met a seasoned writer at the beginning of your career who served as a mentor. You might have been introduced to your agent at a writers’ forum or conference. Or perhaps you still rely on feedback from partnerships you formed with authors years earlier. The list can go on and on.

So, how do you safeguard yourself from the pitfalls of biased criticism while remaining open to help from other writers? There are numerous ways to protect your writing and your self-esteem, including the following suggestions I still practice to this day:
1) Develop realistic expectations – If you walk into a writers’ group expecting mountains of praise, you have set yourself up for failure. If you convince yourself that your work isn’t good enough for serious consideration, you have set yourself up for failure. Somewhere in between these two extremes is a sustainable middle-path, one that prepares you for the constructive feedback you need as a writer. Before passing off my work to another writer or to a group, I always ask myself, “What do I want from this experience?” or “What are my strengths and weaknesses?” That internal discussion in my mind prepares me for the possibilities of what I may receive.
2) Avoid negative energy – This is a tricky one, but I included it out of necessity. Because it never fails that in every writers’ group, there seems to be that one god-from-on-high-writer who believes that his or her advice is correct and beyond reproach. That one writer will argue their opinion with you until one of you dies. Such writers are impossible to avoid, but never let them discourage you from feedback, no matter their level or arrogance or self-worth. When faced with these critics, definitely take their advice with a grain of salt. Discard their negative, biting tone. But listen to them as well. Seek out the hidden gems of their discussion to find out why they did not approve of your work and if there is a way you can improve it while still maintaining your voice. This exercise will take some restraint and patience on your part, but the reward of becoming a better critic of your own work is well worth it.
3) Ask yourself why you are receiving the type of feedback you’re getting – Perhaps you submitted your work to your group expecting comments on dialogue, when in fact they focused on your character descriptions. Or maybe you had written a mystery, but your group chose to discuss the romances of your characters. What your group has to say can be very telling, so put aside your pride and listen. Especially if there is consensus. If one person makes a certain comment or suggestion, it holds less weight in comparison to one agreed upon by a group. Analyze why you’ve received the feedback given. By dissecting such comments from peers, you’ll develop the ability to discern between the biased thoughts and objective evaluations you need.
4) Become the critic you want others to be – You may be reading this post only to realize that you suffer from your own form of narcissism when offering advice to other writers. It’s fine. You’re in good company. We all do it. To better your own skills as a critic and to practice what you preach, consider how you offer help to others in your circle. Think of instances of when your own prejudices may have filtered through. Better yet, try to remember a missed opportunity when you could have offered advice that reflected the author’s needs and not your own. Such mental preparation on how to be a better critic, especially when practiced right before your next writers’ meeting, can improve your own powers of evaluation.  
Digesting criticism from fellow writers – your peers – takes years to master. I’m far from such professional maturity myself. But I keep at it. More importantly, I weigh the effects of my comments and suggestions. I do this not necessarily out of concern for the other writer’s feelings, but as a courtesy to the voice they are trying to create.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent advice. Not all advice is valid. Which is why I always say, "Take what resonates with you and trash the rest." I think it's also important to phrase things as nicely as possible, so you don't tear the heart from your writer friend's chest.

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  2. Josh, this is totally true. I actually have a similar tale about someone who did this… me. My best friend, the one who got me into writing in the first place, reads and writes cozy mysteries. When I first started writing, I was mostly a fan of hardcore thrillers and even horror and had never read a cozy mystery. So when I read my friend’s fledgeling series, I was like, “These are great ideas, but murders aren’t funny! Stop making the killing so funny and lighthearted!” So I basically encouraged her to chop her work to bits to turn it into the kind of mystery/thriller that I was used to reading, without recognizing that there’s an entire genre out there that her books are perfect for. Years later, I read a few cozy mysteries… and enjoyed them! And then I emailed my friend to retract all of my previous criticism of her series and say, “yeah, it’s an awesome cozy mystery series and needs very little tweaking in my opinion!”
    Thanks for the post!

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