How Much Honesty Is Too Much?

Over at right-reading, Tom Christensen shares a letter he received from a writer who says he met Tom years ago, and that Tom’s response to his work was so devastating that he stopped sharing his work for ten years. The letter-writer admits that he may have gotten Tom confused with someone else, and that, even if Tom was the editor he met with, his response might not have been as harsh as the writer remembers. Kind of makes me think of the hundreds of writing workshop sessions I’ve led, and what I said. As teacher and editors, we’re supposed to present the truth as we see it, no matter how harsh it might be, but it’s easy to forget that the person on the other side of the criticism might take our words too much to heart. While it’s important to point out strengths where they exist, and to be as encouraging as is possible in an honest way, the teacher or editor does no one any favors by heaping on undeserved praise.

The question, then: how much honesty is too much?

5 Comments

  • March 25, 2009

    Bryan Russell

    Hi Michelle,

    Always an interesting topic. I think the key to criticism is tact. How we say something is just as important as what we say. And I think, too, it’s important to make the subjectivity of our opinions clear to, even if we are experts on the matter. Readers respond very differently to words… and writers should always remember that it’s the spectrum of responses that is important rather than a single “all-defining” critique.

    And some people simply aren’t ready to take criticism, even if they think they are. A lot of people, I find, ask for criticism when what they really want is approval. And when they get what they ask for they can’t handle it. Sometimes the How and the What of a criticism are irrelevant simply because that person isn’t yet ready to receive it. But I don’t think the critic can put themselves up against the wall for that. It’s out of their control. All they can do is give the best advice they are capable of, hopefully in a palatable format ready for easy consumption.

    My best,
    Bryan

  • March 25, 2009

    Michelle

    Thanks for the comment, Bryan. Yes, tact is key. There is always a way to soften the blow when saying something the writer doesn’t want to hear.

    “A lot of people ask for criticism when what they really want is approval.” True. In workshops I’ve sometimes found writers to be shocked by the criticism of their peers, believing they’ve brought in their best work, still feeling so close to the story that they’re not ready for another person’s less-than-enthusiastic opinion.

    I don’t teach writing workshops anymore, and I have to say that, while I miss my students, I don’t miss the format. I’d hate to put my own work up for group critique. I didn’t like it when I was a graduate student, either, and I’m definitely not convinced it’s the best way to work out the kinks in a story or novel.

  • March 26, 2009

    Bryan Russell

    Having been through the whole undergrad and grad school writing racket, I’d say that the format can be very helpful for learning as a writer (depending, of course, on the random draw of people in any particular class), but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for polishing work that you hope to publish. If someone, say, already has a high-quality manuscript I’m not sure a grad program is the best place to try and fine tune it. But if you’re a young person working on your skills… that sort of critique and community can be very helpful. That’s my take on it, anyway, though everyone’s experience will be different. The workshop experience is so dependent on the particular people involved (and the group dynamics evolving from those particularities) that it can be hard to classify the experience in any way.

    I think if I want a manuscript polished I’d show it to people privately, where the socio-political tensions are megligible, or at least reduced. I suppose finding people you trust is the key.

  • March 26, 2009

    chet

    Do you recall my suggestion for a rejection letter back at MFJ? Yep: “You have wasted your life.”

    heh.

  • March 27, 2009

    Michelle

    Chet: understated, yet firm.