As writers, a writer, we know I in good company when I recognize that having someone look over my writing, critique it (maybe you should surround “critique it” with em dashes instead of commas), is always going to make it better. Always.
Or is it?
No, I’m not really doubting this. Clearly writing improves with someone looking it over and giving it the fresh eye. But is there a point where we get too much feedback? Too many suggestions?
Or, more to the point of this post, is there a point where we give too much feedback?
I am a member and occasional participant in a writer’s forum where we share our query letters, first five pages of our manuscripts, and our synopses and critique them. We give opinions, offer up suggestions, and make editing changes. In other words, it is a forum specifically designed to seek and give feedback. It is a supportive environment, while offering honest advice.
But sometimes I wonder if we are overprogrammed for this task. I wonder if we are so tuned into trying to help each other create the best query letter we possibly can, that we lose sight of realizing that sometimes what we see is in good shape. There is a difference between looking something over and deliberately looking for mistakes or problems.
As a teacher, and more specifically currently as an English teacher, I look at a lot of student essays – both rough drafts and final drafts. Naturally, middle and high school students are still learning the craft and skill of writing, so I may give extensive feedback with many, many suggestions. However, I do award “A”s for essays, which means that even students who are still learning are not only doing something right, but a lot right. Did they make all of the revisions I might have suggested? Not necessarily, but that doesn’t mean what they chose not to change isn’t effective. I can have students submit a draft, and it can look fantastic right from the get-go, and yet I can fall into the trap of trying to offer too many tweaks. I have to remind myself not to go looking for things wrong in the writing.
My own experience with sharing my different versions of my query letter on the aforementioned writer’s forum has been hit or miss, but I’m not necessarily even talking about what others think of my own work. (I’m not saying I wouldn’t love it if I saw “This looks great! No need to change a thing!” because obviously I would, but that’s beside the point. Somewhat.) (UPDATE: I’m crossing out the lines before this because I discovered I was misleading some into believing that this post was a reaction to MY writing – when it really isn’t. It is entirely based upon what follows next:) I recently read a couple of queries that I thought looked good. I suppose I could add that I don’t necessarily have an opinion that means anything if I haven’t yet been successful with my own, but that can be said of almost all of us in that forum. That’s why we’re there, of course. My point is that on one, I saw someone receive 2-3 responses with detailed revisions/suggestions, but then it was followed by someone who was brave enough to say, “I love this.” I responded to another post with a similar sentiment. I read it and thought, this looks strong. It was clear, engaging, and tightly written. And yet… my response was followed by others who definitely disagreed.
Maybe it sounds arrogant to think that my response was the “obvious” one, but my argument really is that I’ve found the “this looks good” response to be extremely rare. With this scarcity, how do we know when we’ve gotten it right?
As a teacher, I want my students to keep learning and become better writers. As a writing critic, I want to give useful and honest feedback. As a teacher I also have to evaluate and this gives me a certain amount of power and an expected imbalance between “expert” and amateur. As a writing critic, this imbalance does not necessarily exist, and that is part of why we run into the “over”-criticize/correct/analyze mode. We don’t want to be responsible for someone else’s failure, even if it is an unfair self-judgment of ourselves. We may worry that when something doesn’t meet with success, that we failed in our jobs to find what was wrong with it. Sometimes it is simply a natural reaction that when someone asks if we can help look over something, we feel like we have to find something in order to prove we looked at it carefully and thoughtfully.
I have to confess that in situations where I have had people look at smaller bits of writing and all I got back was s a “looks great”, I may have doubted my reader. This whole thing is cyclical. In the end, I think we have to consider a couple of things. First, what has the writer asked us to do? When someone sends me something, I want to know – am I proofreading/editing? Am I simply looking for grammar? Or content? (This can be a very important question to ask because if we don’t, we may find that we are telling someone that her essay is a mess with no clear thesis and all she wanted to know was if the commas were in the right spot because she has to hand in the assignment in 20 minutes. Ha!)
Secondly, what are the stakes? If it is a query letter, a resume, a scholarship application or similar, we absolutely need to be committed to give it a highly critical eye. Everything counts. So yes, rake the writing through the coals. But in so doing, let’s not always automatically assume that those coals have turned to ash.
And since I always like to include a song, I cannot help but bring you Whitney Houston in light of her passing last night. I hardly ever knew anything about her except her music and movies, and holy crap this woman had a phenomenal voice.