How to Critique Others


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Helen Garner, in ‘Making Stories’ by Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe, Allen & Unwin, 1993, writes:

‘You’ve got two selves I think. One of them is the deep one that can do the work, and the other one is constantly discouraging you and saying: ‘oh come off it, who do you think you are?’Some days when you feel like this you just have to keep on.

Some days I look at what I’m doing and I think: this is pathetic. How can I have thought this was any good? Some days it’s so awful I have to put my pen down and lie on the bed. I feel I’m going to be exposed. Other days you start a paragraph and suddenly out it comes, all these ideas streaming out of you and you can hardly keep up.’

In her accomplished essay on Helen Garner’s ‘Cosmo Cosmolino’, published in the Sydney Review of Books, Tegan Bennett Daylight has this to say about the dangers of too much technical analysis when critiqueing our own and others’ writing:

‘We all grow our own methods from our own practice and our own personalities, but I’d say there’s a general consensus among us, and it’s this: simply, that less is more. Too many instructions, too many fussy little exercises about point of view and tense and conflict and character are likely to break the heart of the real writer, who is writing from an urge she can’t quite name, a place she can’t quite locate. When real writing begins, decisions are not made about point of view and tense. These things are for the writer to notice later.’

Thank you, Tegan, for putting into words what I find so difficult: that however well-meant, the sort of feedback that pulls apart one’s writing, agonising about  point of view, and whether the narrator is omniscient or close third person, can so confuse the writer who’s working from that deep space, the ‘other self’, that all confidence in one’s writing can fly out the window. The sort of critiqueing which focuses simply on ‘what works’ for the reviewer, and a global, emotional response, is so much more helpful. The creative self is a delicate creature, and needs to be handled with care. That said, no serious writer wants to hear ‘that’s nice’ or ‘well done’; tell us also what doesn’t work for you, what interrupts the flow of narrative, where there’s too much description, or too little.

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