Friday, May 11, 2012

Have You Been Shredded Recently?

Have you been shredded recently? 

Recent research suggests that “brainstorming,” i.e. throwing out whatever comes to mind without stopping to evaluate, organize or second-guess helps the people who do it feel better. However, it does not result in a better end product.

Constant criticizing and demanding improvement even when progress has been made, known as “shredding” has been shown to be an effective way lead to a superior result.

I remember how hurt Jo March in Little Women felt when she got feedback about her story from Mr. Dashwoods, even though eventually he paid for and published the story.

Imagine how she would have felt if the editor had been Steve Jobs who expressed his role at Apple as follows:
“We have an environment where excellence is really expected. What’s really great is to be open when [the work] is not great. My best contribution is not settling for anything but really good stuff, in all the details. That’s my job — to make sure everything is great.” ­

Of course he once famously berated a girl scout who was trying to sell cookies for pushing “junk food.”  I’m not sure I would have wanted to work for him.

As writers, we have all had the experience of getting brutally honest feedback. Sometimes it feels like our egos, not our work, have been sent through the shredder. Pointed criticism can hurt; it can also improve the work being presented for review.   

When have you been shredded? Did it help the quality of your writing or did it just hurt?


  1. Hi Warren. Interesting topic. I've been in critique groups with some harsh critiquers. I appreciate that kind of blunt assessment, and would often take the advice, but not always because sometimes I knew they were way off base. However, I know of several people who have left groups because their feelings were hurt. It can be hard to separate ourselves from our work, but if we can't, I don't think we can grow as writers. Two steps to writing--first the pouring it out, next the assessment which should be clear-eyed and unemotional. My take, anyway.

  2. I've only been shredded once, by a person working at a publisher. It killed my desire to write for years, then I learned that they had an ulterior motive. Hmmm. That was a lesson to me--take all shreddings with a grain of salt, and in the end, keep believing in my work, because not everybody will get it.

  3. Jan, Like you I think critiques that focus on problems in the writing are much more helpful than "friendly" reviews. It is hard to to open yourself to the world and then get pelted by hail. Writers need thick skins.

  4. About Bobbi C,

    There are people with hidden agendas who use the opportunity to give feedback as a chance to draw blood. I'm glad you believe in your work. It's hard sometimes to tell blunt from vicious.

  5. Warren, I'm a big fan of honest, unsparing critique, but there's a big difference between honest critique and shredding. In graduate creative writing workshops, you often encounter what I call "young Turks," usually but not always male, who build their own egos with attack critique. A good instructor doesn't allow them to get away with that, but unfortunately, good instructors can be in short supply at times.

    My current critique group consists of women who make a living with their pens. We all want to be held to the highest standards, but we also want to be treated with respect. Criticisms such as "This is crap!" or "This doesn't work at all!" are useless. What about the work in question is "crap" or "doesn't work?" A professional editor (and I worked as one for years) could never get away with that. A good editor or critique partner is specific and asks himself as he's reading, "What exactly bothers me about this? What is it that isn't working well?" Then she's able to give helpful criticism to the person she's editing or critiquing, criticism designed to strengthen the work in hand.

  6. I went to a week long workshop given by James N Frey in Portland a couple of years ago. I was told upfront that it would be brutal so I had an idea what to expect.

    There were 12 of us and each day we would read part of a manuscript. Then the other writers would comment, with Jim being the last.

    The one piece I read which got shredded the most was a scene with a lot of dialogue in it. The dialogue was good, and everybody loved it, then Jim shook his head (never a good sign LOL) and said it was trite and dull. Then he explained why. There were a lot of questions in the dialogue exchanges and he said that was deadly, as well it was all direct dialogue -- ask a question or make a comment and the reply is a direct response to that. He said use indirect and it will sparkle.

    He was brutal and someone not ready for it could be hurt, but if you were willing to listen to what he said when he explained why something didn't work or how to make it stronger, it could take you far.

    He made the comment a couple of times that the worst thing a writer can get is praise from their critiquers. It spoils them and makes them think they don't need to keep working on it.

    I reworked the whole ms when I got home and within 2 months had an agent for the book.

    It is useless as Linda says to just say something is crap or doesn't work. The writer needs to know why it doesn't work. But hearing a string of 'this is great' is even less helpful. Good critiquers are hard to find I'm sure they aren't welcome in all groups since criticism hurts.

  7. I had a college professor once who absolutely tore my paper apart in front of the class. It was an exposiitory writing class. He'd put the first paragraph of a paper from everyone in the class on a hand out. When I read some of them, I thought they looked like something a junior high kid might write. "I'm writing about the three types of speech; formal, etc.
    Well, that was the assignment. Now mine had more detail and a little humor. No one's name was on it, but I heard several students around me commenting favorably about mine before the prof came in. Throughout, the whole class he kept coming back to my paragraph speaking of it with derision. I'm sure everyone could tell by my red face who had wrote that paper.

    Later in the semester he apologized to me for that and I actually got a decent grade on the paper and an A for the class. I ended up asking him to be my advisor when I enrolled for my masters several years later. It still wasn't smooth sailing. He didn't approve of my proposal for a paper on Harriet Beecher Stowe. I stuck to my idea refusing to back down. I not only got an A+, but he wanted to share it with a Stowe scholar he knew in another college. He could see I made a valid point on what led Stowe to write Uncle Tom's Cabin for more reasons than just the money which her family did need.

    So sometimes criticism is good, but sometimes it isn't. Think of Emily Dickenson, who let one person, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, keep her from sharing her poetry with the world. She quite wrongly believed someone as important as he was knew what he was talking about when he said her poetry wasn't very good.

    I'm lucky with my critique group. They point out problems or the little glitches, etc., but they're also good with the praise for what they like. My first reader before the critique group was excellent,too. She made excellent suggestions on how to make scenes better and with laughter and not put downs.

  8. I have absolutely no problem being shredded if the writing deserves it, however, the shredding should still be wrapped in polite, professional consideration. I was once in a critique session at a writing conference. After I finished a 1000-word read, one guy merely held up his notepad with an assortment of hashmarks and said, "I counted 17 cliches." He then lowered the pad and stared at me. I don't think I heard another word of anyone's critique in the minutes which followed, because I was far too engaged in plotting that guy's brutal, a fictional character's death, pardon me. Have some class--armor-piercing rounds penetrate even the thickest skin.

  9. Linda, I agree one difference between critiquing and just criticizing is specificity of the feedback.

  10. PA Brown, Good critiquers are worth their weight in gold.

  11. We all have buttons that can be pushed. I once told a writer I like that his work was "not worth reviewing." What I did not express clearly was that it took him less less time to write a piece than it took any one member of the group to read it and prepare feedback. As a matter of courtesy, I think writing should be thoroughly reviewed by the writer before it is submitted.

  12. I don't bare my soul to hear pretty words. When I seek a critique, I want honesty, and I assume others want the same. No one is perfect. We all have weaknesses in our writing, that's why we're seeking feedback in the first place.

    I consider myself a brutally honest critiquer, by brutal I mean unsparing. If I'm critiquing a manuscript and something doesn't work, I always point out *WHY* that aspect doesn't work. If it's a personal thing—for example, I detest the laundry list descriptions of wardrobe and food that are de rigueur in cozies—I'll say why it doesn't work *FOR ME*. It's simply a heads-up to the writer who may be wondering why his or her work is being pigeonholed.

    The true danger with critiques is listening to everyone. Not all readers are going to "get" your book, why assume all critiquers will? Developing a thick skin and learning to listen and weed out the toxic feedback is imperative to a writer's survival. You're absolutely right, Warren, good critiquers are worth their weight in gold.

    I've been shredded a number of times, always by women writers who sense I have no romance in my soul (in my work relationships are for conflict, happy endings are for fairy tales). I'm okay with that. As I said, we all have our weaknesses.

  13. VR, If critiquers can be brutal, reviewers of books can be especially vicious. I think a writer needs to have a hide thicker than an elephant and a head and heart open to the world plus the sense to know when to pay attention and when to ignore feedback.

  14. Warren, you and the others are right about praise. That's not what I go to a critique group for. It can be helpful for a new writer who's just starting out and has little confidence, but once past that stage, what we need is people who respect us enough to tell us the truth in as helpful a manner as they can manage.

    I also know what you mean by telling the one writer his work was not worth a review. I believe--and so do my critique partners--that it's my job to make my work as good as I can on my own, correcting every single weakness that I can see before I put it out there for someone else. What I want from my critique group is to see the weaknesses I may not be aware of or problems my eyes may have skipped over because of too much familiarity. To take a rough first draft to a critique group is showing a lack of respect for their time and effort. Fix what you can on your own first, always. At least, that's my motto.