Constructive criticism: can we do without it?
By Anne Whitaker
Where would we writers be, without constructive criticism?
One of the most useful pieces of advice I was ever given came from a newspaper editor I once worked for, a crusty old chap who called a spade a spade. “You’re too wordy, my girl!” he observed. (this was in the good old days, before my even thinking he was being offensive might have got him arrested….) “I’ve never known any piece of writing to get anything other than better by the removal of 25 per cent of its wording. Now – take “How I was left on the shelf and found true happiness” away, and chop it!”
Honestly, I did write an article with that title, for the Spring Brides feature of a provincial Scottish newspaper a few decades ago. And yes, dear reader, it actually did get published, minus 25% of its wording. Somewhere in my files I have the cutting to prove it….
Another piece of even earlier straight-from-the-shoulder feedback has just found its way to the front of my braincell. Picture the scene. Aberdeen university, the infamous Sixties. I had left my seriously overdue history essay till the very last possible evening before my second exasperated extension from my usually genial tutor had expired.
I finally stopped procrastination and began writing at one am. Many cups of coffee and cigarettes later, at 8am, the task was completed. It had to be handed in by 9am or I would not receive my History class certificate. Without that, I could not sit my degree exam. Serious business.
I ran most of the way to my tutor’s office. It was pouring with rain. On the way, I somehow managed to drop one of the essay’s ten pages into a puddle. It was only rendered semi-illegible – and only the bibliography, I thought, thankful for small mercies. Made it by 9. Just.
A week later I visited my charismatic and much loved, but somewhat fierce, history tutor – Owen Dudley Edwards. He glared at me as he thrust the dishevelled bundle of paper that was my essay back at me. I scanned the title page. “Phew!!” I thought with relief. Fifty per cent. A pass!!
“This essay on ‘The Origins of the American War of Independence’ ” Owen Dudley said severely, in words I have never forgotten, “bears all the hallmarks of the triumph of native intelligence and writing ability over little if any credible content.” There was a long pause. ” The bibliography – I had cited Winston Churchill’s ‘History of the English Speaking Peoples’ having once flicked through it – I assume is a joke….”
There was a frosty silence. I left, not feeling as chastened as the good Mr. Edwards had intended.
“Mmmmmm” I thought to myself as I headed off to the refectory to buy a much needed bacon sandwich, ” maybe I should be a writer if I ever grow up.“
That crusty newspaper editor is probably long dead. Owen Dudley Edwards is still with us, and still giving out his straight from the shoulder opinions. I know this because I heard him on the radio a couple of months ago. I am grateful to both of them for their never-forgotten feedback. It was direct, it pulled no punches. It let me know where I stood. Grit in the oyster, it helped me become a competent writer.
However, in recent times, constructive criticism seems to have morphed into something altogether much less forthright, much more timid, much more inclined to dish out indiscriminate praise and affirmation regardless of performance. Is this helpful to young people’s education and development?
Anne Whitaker has written in one context or another all her life, having had many articles and essays published in recent years in contexts as diverse as The Mountain Astrologer (USA), Kindred Spirit (UK) and Scotland’s Sunday Herald. Based in Glasgow in Scotland, she is now focusing on writing, and on running her popular website for writers and readers : “Writing from the Twelfth House.”
Her first book “Jupiter meets Uranus” was published in April 2009 by the American Federation of Astrologers. It is a research study of the Jupiter/Uranus conjunction of 1997, set in its mythological and historical context. She is currently seeking a publisher for her second book, which is now being serialised on its own website : “Wisps from the dazzling darkness – a sceptic’s take on paranormal experience” .
Contact email: contact.anne.w @googlemail.com