Meanest Feedback for Writers–a Worst Ten List
Writing criticism is a terribly, terribly hard thing to deal with. There are lots of rules. Never start a piece of writing with a cliché. Never end a sentence with a preposition. Avoid gratuitous adverbs. My first sentence just broke most of them. But while rules abound for the corralling, branding, and slaughtering of bad writing, shouldn’t there be more about what NOT to say to the fragile neophyte writer?
Here is a Top Ten List of some of the worst writing responses that I or someone I know has received (for the ones I may have doled out, mea culpa, and I say that knowing I may do time in Dante’s purgatorio for any poeticides in the second degree that I have inadvertently committed):
1. The Dis and Dismiss. A novelist friend of mine, whose 11 novels as last listed on Wikipedia have received over four prominent awards, told me a chilling tale about his first visit to a writer’s colony. The head honcho was an icon whose most famous novel is named after one of the first villains ever written in English. Anyways, there was to be much coveted face time with this celebrity writer for all the attendees, and when my friend was up to go he was understandably excited. The literary lion was his personal hero. The meeting was scheduled for a half hour. It lasted about two minutes. The VIP was seated at a desk. Newbie walks in. VIP starts reading silently down page one of Newbie’s submitted short story, pen physically tracing the descent until an abrupt stop: Here. Here is where I stop in my tracks every time. A real writer would never write a line like that. And there, I kid you not, the meeting ended.
2. Questioning Authority. Another young writer at a small liberal arts college tried to get into a very small, very serious (and not a little clubby) creative writing concentration. This was back in the days when there was no payoff for faculty to have asses in seats. The would-be writer grew desperate one year when applying to the overly selective program and ended up writing an eighty page play—an opera written entirely in a then nascent musical phenomenon known as rap music. True story. This sad sophomore was rejected promptly for those efforts. In the margins of the submission were nothing but terse appraisals of failure connected to the same interrogative. Examples: This doesn’t work…know why? Totally off here…know why? [and the one that gave the lifelong singe] Though I’m sure you didn’t intend humor, you had me laughing here, know why?
3. Ego-Razing Amazement. This is a scenario I’m sure you know well. It’s when a writer submits the piece de resistance, the masterwork after great suffering and development, after intensive growing pains in their agon with the heartless constraints of craft. How does the teacher respond? With an amazement that tells you just how terrible your former writing was thought to be. The worst example comes from a close friend whose story received this red remark: I’m astonished you wrote this! That was followed up by an office meeting which seemed more like an interrogation. How was this written? When and where exactly? Under what conditions? Until the dreaded question that made the noir scene utterly complete—it was the filmic equivalent of that uncovered swinging light bulb—Did anyone help you write this? Good cop and bad cop all in one tweed blazer. Book em’ Dante!
4. Hide the Salami. In a freshman year creative writing class that focused on the short story, one young writer I know kept receiving this unhelpful piece of feedback on every single thing she turned in: This is not a story. Sure, there were other nice things said—You’ve clearly got a knack for language. Lyrical line here, and other such bread on the criticism sandwich, but the upshot was always the same. You did not even come close at satisfying my genre expectations. Too bad, because I’m playing Hide the Salami with those expectations for the whole course…know why?
5. Perfunction Junction What’s Your Function. There is a type of response that is not necessarily wicked, while still being a crack shot at sniping budding writers right out of their literary nests. For those engineers of perfunction junction, a favorite tactic is the same one that wicked administrators use when putting off unloved employees. It’s the perfunctory chat. Here’s how it works: You submit a story. They write all over it. They may even meet with you about it. Again, they will spill words all over you. The problem is: nothing they say will be about you, your story, or even about writing at all. They will chatterbox your dreams to dust with their perfunctory conversation, a logorrhea that no diet of bananas, rice, or bread can ever hope to stiffen. Nothing is worse than bad feedback (and you’ll excuse the scatology) except maybe for criticism constipation, and I pity students forced into the impactions that occur during long stayovers at Perfunction Junction.
6. Autobiography Attack. One of the best and worst things about writing is how personal it is. Automatically, without even trying, young writers understand the connection between self and story. One of the worst pieces of feedback we all get from time to time involves this presumption of autobiography. One way it happens is when you stretch beyond the experiential. You finally write a character who is NOT based on your own finite experiences, whose emotional contours are fleshed out by your imagination and observation. This person may even be a manifestation of someone you’d actually hate to be in life, but your professor doesn’t think so. In fact, in front of the whole circle, she looks you right in the face and says with a soul-crushing smile… “Is this character autobiographical?” The flip side to this is just as bad. It’s when you keep hearing that you ought to write more autobiographically, more from your own experience. To you, the implication is clear and condemning: Your attempt at anything else blows chunks.
7. Stinging Silence. Apologies for the redundancy, but this is a true story. I know a thesis MFA who needed feedback from her primary adviser before turning in her final draft to the whole committee. After unnecessary stalling, the tardy adviser finally returned the draft with nary a mark in the margins. On the last page, only this sepulchral message was written: “My mother always told me if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” True Story! That candidate went on to get the degree and is now happily employed at a university, where she finds it very easy to avoid repeating the failings of her instructors.
8. Habla Espanol. This category could go by many titles. It’s when you experiment so much with language that it is taken for sheer incompetence. In my case, I loved to play with language, especially, as it turned out, when dealing with professors who did not. A writing teacher once asked me, quite sensitively, if English were my native language and then gently suggested that I begin writing with a dictionary close by. It took all I could muster to prevent a stream of profane gibberish from escaping my lips at that moment.
9. The Hack and Slash. I had a writing teacher once who believed so firmly in the virtues of editorial omissions that he would slash his pen through entire pages of writing deemed worthy of cutting. Students in the class did claim to be better writers afterward. But they all seemed to have a different look about them too. A distant stare would overtake them in mid conversation. Their gaze would trail off to some horizon invisible to the rest of us where unwanted words roamed the curvature of the earth in hauntingly bovine silhouettes.
10. Killing Cliché. Maybe these are appropriate for journals, but no teacher whose aim is education should ever hand one of these hot potatoes back to a student without elaboration: It didn’t flow. More tension. Not authentic. Needs exposition. Pacing is off. Wasn’t emotionally jolting. Etc. etc. Without explanation, these tiny brands of red-hot platitude will mark a young writer’s spiritual sash of rejection as indelibly as any of the absolute doosies in the trophy case of the Writing Hall of Shame—When it’s good, it’s only by accident; Someone out there might like this, but I can’t imagine such a person; This is more of an anecdote or a skeleton than a story; You’ll never be a great writer; The style is forced, painfully so…and all of them said about Fitzgerald or his indisputable masterpiece, The Great Gatsby.