Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The brutal critic

In the course of cleaning out my office, I found some old manuscripts from one of the first creative-writing classes I ever took. They are other students' work, marked up with some of my comments. We used to discuss our comments in class.

What struck me was how brutal a critic I was, at least on paper: pouncing ruthlessly on every cliche, typo, and misused word. I had no patience then for anything remotely sugary: my comments on phrases that hint at any sweetness whatsoever are the written equivalents of groans and eye rolls. I only hope the comments I made out loud in class were more diplomatic. (And if they weren't, I apologize to my long-lost classmates.)

Nowadays I am far more likely to critique with an eye toward the big picture, and I try to help bring out the writer's voice, instead of imposing my own. Cliches and typos are easy to fix, so I don't dwell on them at first. I save them for late-pass line edits, and I no longer attack them like a starving hyena. I have far more sympathy than I used to, because I know by now how easy it is for stock phrases to creep into my own work. I've been blessed with editors who knew how to encourage even while they took my work apart, and they've taught me to be a better critiquer (I hope).

I try to focus the most attention on what's the most important, and to stay humble about it. Back then, I suffered under the delusion that perfection was possible, and that I was going to find it. (An idea that only makes me laugh, now, even as I keep trying.)

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