Sunday, July 18, 2010

What Do I Do with Critique Feedback?

“Like brewing a proper cup of English tea, take feedback and give it time to “steep.” When it tastes right, add the feedback to your manuscript.”—Scoti Springfield Domeij

Handling the Truth—Or Not
Susan* dropped into one of my writing critique groups. She sent her first draft composed that day for a critique three days before our meeting on Saturday—eleven days past the submission deadline. 
     Susan’s deadline to submit her story to the publisher? Said Saturday—midnight.
     My first gut instinct? Just edit the story and return it to her. It was a wonderful story with a strong ending. All it really needed? A stronger hook, some editorial tweaks, replace repeated words, and change passive verbs to active verbs. I resisted the urge. However, since she had a deadline, I spent four hours to offer a detailed critique of her story.
     One of our submission rules includes that the first person who submits by the deadline, receives their critique first. Any manuscripts arriving after the deadline, receives a critique in the order sent—if there is time.
     On Saturday, I moved the critiques along to make time to critique Susan’s manuscript. She attacked the first person providing legitimate feedback. Her body language, tone of voice and verbiage? Defensive. Contemptuous. Angry. 
     While we critiqued the first three manuscripts, I had watched Susan, hoping she’d observe the first three critiques to recognize the process. Susan didn’t. And we didn’t treat her manuscript with any less care than we treated everyone else’s. The next person, one of our strongest critiquer’s, offered valuable feedback. Susan went into aggressive mode again, attacking the critiquer and arguing every point.
     I was shocked, felt sick and embarrassed for her. How could anyone behave this way with people she really didn’t know? It would take me years before I’d be comfortable enough with someone to act like that. I’d reacted that way when I discovered my husband’s continuing unfaithfulness.
     The critiquer calmly requested that Susan wait until the critique was finished before responding, giving me courage. My arms automatically raised, palms out. I said, “Wait a minute.”
     Susan’s response and treatment of others in the group was way out of bounds. I explained the role of a critique group, a critiquer and the person receiving a critique. She calmed down, took the critiques home, and worked on the rough draft she thought was darn near perfect. 
     Late in the afternoon she called, “Can I email my story using your Internet access?” I agreed. She said, “This doesn’t sound like my story anymore.”
     After 11:30 PM she arrived on my doorstep. I got her submission emailed by the midnight deadline, but not before she said, “Oh, I don’t know if I saved my story to my thumb drive.” After she left, I re-read her submission. She Frankensteined in every edit, suggestion and comment offered by every critiquer, plus doctored her manuscript with personal changes.  
    She was right: It didn’t sound like her story. And I felt terrible.

What Did I Learn?

I love encouraging others to pursue their writing passion and hone their skills. However, my strength in this situation was also my weakness. I offered access to the group, when the best response would have been to set a boundary to protect Susan and the group. I confronted myself, What do I need to learn from this experience?

Firm boundaries and agreeing upon mutual objectives prevent unnecessary conflict. I don’t know what assumptions Susan held about what to expect. And her attitude and behavior didn't live up to my expectations. However, I made a number of mistakes, some of which include:
  • Accepting Susan’s manuscript past the deadline. (Hey, our group members already offered grace to each other, why not Susan?)
  • Responding to the urgency of Susan’s deadline without any regard for our group’s submission deadline.
  • Sending Susan’s work to members for critique without giving Susan adequate orientation.
  • Not allowing time for Susan to build trust with group members.
  • Offering a critique with no commitment from Susan to our critique group or our agreed-upon purpose.
  • Not closing our group to new members without identifying their interest and commitment.
Confront immediately. I looked back over the critique groups I’ve participated in where conflict arose. I realized that the first time one person treated another group member with anger, disrespect and contempt, we let it slide hoping it was a one-time event. When it continued we gently approached the person offering a kind, grace-filled Matthew 18 confrontation. If the person does not respond and continues in the group, expect bad feelings and confusion to fester, breed and disrupt the group’s goals.

Recognize—sooner rather than later—who is NOT ready to participate in a critique group. Someone in denial or struggling with personal issues—unresolved anger or past abuse, inability to trust others, controlling behaviors, prickly, insolent personality, or destructive communication patterns—may be too emotionally wounded to accept constructive feedback. And if someone is not mature enough to receive a critique, group members need to honestly evaluate, “Is this person ready to participate in a critique group?” Sound harsh? It’s not. A person not-quite-ready-for-prime-critique-time can destroy the critique group’s morale and even kill the group.

Protect your group. Up until this point, before Susan's not-so-grand entrance, our critique group’s interaction? Incredible. Harmonious. Positive. Everyone wanted to learn, work on their craft, and encourage each other. The members appreciated feedback from the group and respected each other. I could not allow one person to destroy our camaraderie. I reached out to Susan. She rejected getting together one-on-one and further attempts to connect were met with excuses. She didn’t return to our group.

Not every person’s feedback is gospel. It’s important to let new critique group members or beginning writers know that feedback strikes at your deepest insecurities. It takes time before a newbie recognizes what feedback to incorporate into a manuscript. You gain confidence about what changes to make, when you realize your writing weaknesses, identify the different strengths critique members offer and trust their feedback.

One Last Comment
Whether or not you incorporate someone’s feedback into your piece or it fits your voice, it’s important to be grateful. Be thankful that others care enough about your success to invest their time and input into your writing.

1 comment:

Sue Tornai said...

Scoti, I don't know if you remember me from Writing for the Soul 2009 but I sat at your table several times and we prayed for your proposal. We even talked about writer's critique groups. At Inspire Christian Writers, my critique group, we have had people like Susan join us. We call them fly-by-nighters. Regardless of how lightly we try to take it, our hearts ache for the person who becomes defensive and attacks our members. The novel I brought to our group several years ago that a newbie critiqued still hasn't come down from the shelf since she gave her evaluation. She, however, was not a fly-by-nighter. She stayed and she is tough. I have learned to accept what I can from her and let go of the rest. Otherwise, I fear she would change my voice. I appreciate your solutions and plan to use them since I am a small group leader with Inspire. Thank you for the post.