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Critiquing Step 1: Becoming a Pot-Bellied Pig

Thursday, September 7, 2006

Just go with me on this one—I have to have my analogy, or I won’t be happy.

As I’ve thought about critiquing, I’ve realized that the first thing we each need to learn is how to receive critiques well. Because until we know how to receive critiques, we will never be ready to give critiques.

I’ve seen several shows on Animal Planet about the [now-waning] phenomenon of having pigs as pets rather than dogs, cats, or other “normal” animals. As I’ve learned more about them, I’ve discovered there is much we can learn from these humble animals. (Facts are taken from the Sea World/Busch Gardens website:

1. Pot-bellied pigs have tough, sensitive skin. An oxymoron, you say? According to the SW/BG website, these creatures have skin that is tough enough to repel parasites and fleas and yet is still sensitive enough to burn in the sun. As writers, when our work is critiqued, we need to also have “tough, sensitive” skin. We need to be tough enough that we don’t take the critiques personally, and that any negative or overly-harsh remarks don’t do more than maybe just sting at the surface level. But we also need to have the sensitivity to be able to take in the comments so that we can improve our writing—but without getting burned. You cannot write FOR your critique partners—they cannot control your story, characters, or writing style. Pigs learn where the best mud-holes are so they can cover their skin to keep it from burning and yet still enjoy being outside doing . . . whatever it is they like to do. They still receive the warmth and benefits of being outside in the sunlight, without the damaging effects. Pay attention to and learn from the constructive criticism and practice keeping the negative stuff from penetrating your “tough, sensitive” and damaging you as a person and writer.

2. Pot-bellied pigs have excellent hearing. Be a good listener (figuratively if your critique group is one of the online varieties). Each semester when we assembled on campus at Seton Hill for our week-long intensive residency, part of our required work was critiquing 10 pages of writing for ten to twelve other students. The rules of these workshop critique sessions are detailed and strictly adhered to (I will summarize them and refer to them throughout this series of blogs). One of the most important rules is that when the student’s work is being critiqued (yes, aloud and face to face), the student is not allowed to respond to any comments until after everyone has had their chance to speak. Usually we take notes on everyone’s comments (although they give us their annotated copy afterward), to be able to answer questions when it is our turn to speak. I have seen several students (usually first termers) become defensive during this process, and their turn to speak is usually filled with defending their work to anyone who said anything the least bit not-flattering. The first time we ever get honest, objective feedback from someone on our writing, it can feel like a personal attack—or, for those of you who are parents, like an attack on your most beloved child. We may have never shared our writing with anyone else, or if we have, it may have been family members who only had wonderful, positive, flattering things to say afterward. Before being critiqued, we think we are the most wonderful writers in the world. No one likes to have their weaknesses, shortcomings, or mistakes pointed out—especially when it is something as personal as our writing. So we become defensive when we do receive criticism—even the positively-worded, constructive kind. I’ve been guilty of this—I still feel this way occasionally: They don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know as much about writing as I do. They’re only questioning this because they haven’t done the level of research I’ve done. When I realize I’m doing this, I have to stop, go wallow in the mud, and then come back to it with my tough, sensitive skin and pig-ears firmly in place. No, not all comments and advice given in critiques will be useful or even valid—which is why it’s important to have two or three critique partners. If only one person raises a question, then it may be something you can leave alone. However, if two or all three comment on it, it’s definitely an area of concern. But listen to everything your critiquers have to say first. Don’t put up your defenses and stop listening, because you may miss the key that will be the difference between producing something mediocre and something fabulous.

3. Pot-bellied pigs are herd animals. They are loyal (some say loving), each has a role to perform within the group, and they protect each other. Consider your critique group your herd. As a member of that herd, you have a role to perform which includes giving as much as receiving support to/from the other members. Each member of your “herd” will have different strengths and weaknesses. Learn what your strengths are and ask your crit partners to focus on the areas you feel you are weakest. Are you good at grammar but don’t know much about Point of View? Get your critiquers to focus on showing you how to go deeper into your characters’ heads—or even help you decide if you’re using the correct POV for the story. Are you great at description but don’t know a simile from a cliché? Get your partners to focus on your wording or even suggest rewrites that can help you learn how to turn a phrase in a unique way that can become your signature voice (no copying someone else’s style!).

4. Pot-bellied pigs have personalities and interests apart from the herd. The most important thing to remember in the critiquing process is that your writing is still YOUR writing. You cannot be so bound by the critiques you receive that you alter your voice, style, or story to fit what someone else thinks is best. You must remain true to your inner voice and to your story. One of the main complaints about writers who focus too much on critique group or workshop feedback is that they begin to lose their unique voice and style as a writer. If you are uncomfortable with changes your partners suggest or feel they aren’t right for your story after careful consideration and study, then don’t make the changes. Now, that doesn’t mean they aren’t right and that your writing won’t suffer for not making the change, but above all else, you must be true to yourself as a writer.

  1. Carol Collett permalink
    Saturday, September 9, 2006 7:26 pm

    Ha Ha…after the dinner I consumed at Texana tonight, I feel like a pot bellied pig. Great information. I’m getting psyched about meeting my new crit partners at the end of this month.



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