Yesterday, I had the amazing opportunity to be a guest on a writing podcast (I’ll share the link when it becomes available) by Stuart Wakefield, called Write Hearted. It began as an opportunity to talk about microfiction and Twitter fiction, but then also touched on a few other things, including the musical I’m writing, and also my thoughts on critique and criticism. I won’t go into all of that here, but as Stuart and I talked, it got the mental gears turning and– as usually happens with me– it wasn’t until later that I thought of the perfect analogy, so here it is:
Say I’m riding a bicycle. I’ve been bicycling on-and-off since I was six or so; I know how to do it, I’m fairly good at it. But on this particular bike ride, I get in an accident. I swerve too hard, or lose my focus for a moment and crash into a tree. In any case, I fall off my bike onto the asphalt and my arm gets all scraped up and full of gravel.
If someone came along right after that, they could approach the situation in several different ways:
“Are you alright? Can I help you?” (sympathetic)
“Ouch! That looks like it hurts.” (empathetic)
“Is your bike okay? Do you need a ride home?” (practical)
“Oof. I’ve done that before.” (connecting)
“You really shouldn’t have swerved like that.” (critical)
“You just need more practice.” (patronizing)
“You’re not hurt. Get back up and keep riding.” (dismissive)
Of course, someone could give more than one response to the situation. And some responses will be more helpful than others. But what I really need in the moment, as someone who’s just taken a spill on her bike, is to get the blasted gravel out of my arm. Does anybody have a pair of tweezers?
If I’ve written a story, and I sense something in it’s not right, and I come to someone for advice, I want to see that pair of tweezers: help me remove the most glaring problems as you see them (because if the gravel’s in my arm I might not be able to see it all myself).
Offering to help is nice (sympathy), if you’re in a position to do so (again, do you have tweezers? Or antiseptic?).
Yes, it’s frustrating to realize my writing’s not perfect on the first draft (empathy), but I accepted that eventuality when I decided to write (life is pain).
How nice of you to offer practical solutions to fixing my story– I love recommendations for improving my craft, learning more on the topic I’m trying to write about, etc. That will for surely be helpful, after I’ve taken care of the most immediate concern.
I love talking with other writers who have had similar struggles and experiences (connecting); we could be friends (but I still need those tweezers).
What I really don’t need is someone simply telling me I shouldn’t have written something the way I did. Unless you have some insight or personal experience to offer that can enighten me, I’m still stuck where I’m at– blanket criticism doesn’t help.
And please don’t just offer empty platitudes, like “You need to practice more,” or “You need to try harder,” or whatever. Sure, it’s true we can all use more practice with our writing– even seasoned authors make mistakes– but that doesn’t get the freaking gravel out of my arm.
Anyway, take from the above analogy what you will. What’s truly the most helpful input I could hope for from readers, is this:
What parts did you like? What did you not like? And why?
Were you moved? And how?
Do you see a glaring problem? Please, please, please don’t keep it to yourself. Let me know, so I can make my story– and future stories– better. Don’t be afraid to brandish those tweezers. Just…be gentle about it, and make sure you’re actually using them properly to remove the bad parts (the gravel), not the stuff that’s really okay (umm, like my skin).
Do you have personal experience with something I’ve written about? I definitely want to hear about it so I can learn more and be more accurate in my portrayal.
Did you have an emotional response, or were you triggered in some way by what I wrote? I want to be sensitive to that, and am open to you talking more about it if you feel able to do so.
The best beta readers I’ve had have been the ones who were quick to point out things like, “I’m not sure Character would approach things that way; it seems inconsistent,” or “This doesn’t make sense to me, I’m confused.” It’s made me go back and reread and rethink through things, and sometimes I realize the reader was right, and I never would have realized it on my own with my limited scope.
Because here’s the thing: I may get annoyed or aggravated by certain readers’ responses to what I write– I may flat-out disagree with their interpretation of my work. But I still have to respect them as readers. I have to realize that wherever they’re coming from, their response may be perfectly logical for them. Whether I choose to change or not for their sake is up to me, and they will either love me or hate me for it and I know I can’t please everyone.
And here’s the other thing: As much as I may hate to hear the words, “You just need more practice,” well… They’re right.
But I’m not riding my bike again until I get my arm fixed.