Nice but Not Gentle

Monday, November 24, 2014

There were several new people at my critique group last week. We also had one person who had attended before but was reading for the first time. He asked us to be gentle in critiquing his work, and I replied, “That isn’t how this group works. We’re nice but not gentle.”
Nice people want to help others, and sometimes that’s inconsistent with being gentle. If you saw someone choking and you knew how to use the Heimlich maneuver, wouldn’t you choose effective over gentle? Those abdominal thrusts may not be comfortable for the person who is choking, but they can save that person’s life.

Gentle doesn’t work for a critique group, either. At least not for one that wants to develop its members as writers. I attend the Highland Writers’ Group because I’m looking to improve my craft. If I just wanted to read my work or interact with other writers, I’d find a different forum.

That doesn’t mean we tear each other’s work apart. As my statement said, we do try to be nice. If we can’t give criticism constructively, we don’t give it at all. And we do ease people into the group. The feedback we give a new writer may be quite different from what we say to an established one. But if we can’t give constructive criticism, it isn’t a critique group.

I’m going to repeat a couple of points that I made in a March 4, 2013 post. Those of you who have heard this before will have to bear with me.

Experience has taught me two things about responding to writing critiques. First, if I want to improve my craft, I can't be sensitive. Second, if I want to improve my craft, I must be sensitive. The definition to avoid is "quick to take offense; touchy." The one to embrace is "responsive to external conditions or stimulation." (These two definitions of "sensitive" come from the fourth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.)

Several years ago, I was writing an overtly Christian novel and sharing it with the Highland Writers' Group for critique. I found myself constantly irritated by the criticism from one member. He appeared to be antagonistic to Christianity, and most of his comments showed that he misunderstood what I was trying to say in this sentence or that paragraph. My immediate reaction was, "You aren't my audience. Christians will know what I mean."

Then I went home and thought about it. Yes, he wasn't my intended audience, and maybe a Christian audience would understand what I wrote. But maybe it wouldn't. Equally important, what if a non-Christian picked up the book and read it? Better to reword a few paragraphs than to risk being misunderstood.

This has been a theme in the critique experiences I have found most helpful. If I quickly take offense and discount the criticisms, I don't learn anything. But if I think about what was said and respond offensively rather than defensively, my writing is the better for it. Yes, I still reject some of the suggestions I receive, but not until I have considered them carefully.

Nobody seemed to take offense at any of the critiques given on Saturday, and that’s good. But if they had, I wouldn’t count it as a failure.
Because sometimes we have to be nice but not gentle.

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