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Constructive criticism: can we do without it?

January 31, 2011

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 W

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

  1. January 31, 2011 3:18 am

    Thanks for being our guest writer today Anne – and for giving us a glimpse into your earlier life and thoughts on constructive criticism.

  2. January 31, 2011 7:32 am

    Thanks for inviting me, Annie! I am now off to see if I can find Owen Dudley Edwards whose verbal slaps around the ear were so helpful to my evolution! – somehow, don’t see him bothering with Facebook and Twitter – but I could well be wrong…..

  3. Rouillie Wilkerson permalink
    January 31, 2011 8:18 am

    I enjoyed this, and am sure that every writer has some tale to tell involving constructive criticism; but as you’ve made clear, it does serve a purpose!

  4. January 31, 2011 10:36 am

    Ah yes, I remember Owen Dudley Edward’s lectures from my undergrad days at Edinburgh – ODE looked as though he was fishing for a round of applause when he finished a lecture, but I’ll admit he was certainly the only lecturer who came close to deserving one 🙂

    I don’t know if constructive criticism is on the wane, but I would agree that empty praise is unhelpful for writers of any age/stage.

  5. jesswords10 permalink
    January 31, 2011 11:48 am

    I like your plucky attitude regarding your paper. Very good advice though about taking constructive criticism. I’m currently working on cracking out the first draft of a story, but already am finding places where I may edit things out and improve the flow of the story.

  6. January 31, 2011 1:44 pm

    When I was in college, students were required to complete peer reviews which, basically, consisted of constructive criticism. This taught students how to provide constructive criticism and, perhaps more importantly, taught writers how to receive it. Over time, criticism is something we simply cannot avoid. If it’s constructive at all, we should feel fortunate. After all, who couldn’t use some free advice? It’s like getting feedback from test readers without having to seek out test readers.

    Encouragement is definitely important- we’d suffer if all we received was one critique after another, but in a situation where writing is submitted to be reviewed, graded, accepted, rejected, etc… we deserve to know what influenced the outcome. If our reviewers are timid or non-confrontational, we lose the opportunity to improve our work.

  7. January 31, 2011 5:43 pm

    Thanks for this post – constructive criticism can be a tough pill to swallow, but after it sinks into our bloodstream, it usually makes us feel better!

  8. February 1, 2011 4:22 am

    Thanks everyone for this great range of responses! Hamishmf, I wondered whether my piece would flush a fellow Owen Dudley Edwards fan out of the woodwork – greetings! Yes, I agree he was and probably is a bit of an applause junkie – but what an inspiring and entertaining teacher……I may be going to Edinburgh University this autumn to do a Masters – if so, I shall certainly look him up.

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