Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Praise and blame, those two impostors

Happy valentine’s day! As I sit here awaiting delivery of my dozen red roses (not a big ask as they’re only six quid from Tesco, hint hint) I feel it would be topical to touch upon matters of the heart. More specifically, the emotional aspects of getting feedback from our readership.

I do a lot of non-academic writing. Some of it is private writing, but much of it is intended for a wider audience. Although I’ve been writing for a long time, it is only recently that I have managed to use feedback really constructively.

Part of the block in my feedback loop has been to do with the difficulty of the writing process. Yes, writing is pretty difficult, even for those who are much garlanded. It’s not something that one can ever nail definitively. For a long time, I recently realized, I was unconsciously wedded to the idea that my readers should somehow recognize this and praise me for it. Of course, unless my reader happened to be a close friend or my mum, this usually didn’t happen. I was quite adept at dismissing critical feedback by thinking things like, “Oh, this person obviously doesn’t at all get where I’m coming from. I’m going to show it to somebody more simpatico.” When in fact it’s my job as a writer to place my readers in a position whereby it’s crystal clear where I’m coming from. And a reader is of course only interested in the quality of their reading experience.

It seems to me now that previously I wasn’t able to utilize my readers’ experience to improve things because I was too attached to the notion of praise and averse to the sting of criticism. But it gradually became clear to me that by ignoring my readers’ responses, I had become a pointless onanist among writers.

Now when I write, I try not to fall in love with any particular part of my output (I notice that self-indulgence in a writer is never a pretty spectacle). Nor do I seek to give credence to any pejorative feelings which may arise. I just sit there, scribbling, and allow those emotions to wither, ignored. Writing for me is no longer about seeking emotional peaks and avoiding troughs, but about the need to communicate what’s important. If someone criticizes me, I try to respect their experience and use their wisdom. My writing doesn’t come any more easily as a result of this change in perspective, but its quality has improved a lot.

As a final note, I have found university tutors to be generally benign and helpful readers whose feedback is easy to use.


Anonymous said...

I might be tempted to send flowers if I knew what you looked like!

Lynn said...

Mum, is that you?

Josie said...

Hi Lynn,

I think your pretty brave exposing yourself to this whole process.......I also think it will be a fabulous acheivement once it is over, I will be logging in and reading your progress with great interest.

I am a mature student at Edinburgh Uni and in my final throws of a Psy MA, roll on May !!

I have found my experiences of essay writing a real rollercoaster and I find you need a great understanding of exactly what each "individual" lecturer is looking for........which has been taxing at times. Do you agree with this and is this perhaps a symptom of being mature?

Lynn said...

Thanks Josie. My biggest fear was that nobody would read it, but that was unfounded. It's great to be in company.

I'd never really realised it, but yes, I guess I have been trying to write for particular lecturers (although we don't know in advance who will mark our work. Sometimes it's people we've never seen). I know this because I have a habit of using their notes or slides to structure my writing.

I think this is probably a characteristic of students who are motivated by external things such as the pressing desire to get a good class of degree, so yes, in my view this would definitely correlate with being a mature student. I think also that individuals who have workplace experience or who have been caring for a family before coming to university will be more results-oriented and concerned with efficiency than will school-leavers. Oooh, this is quite a complex one, isn't it? Maybe it warrants its own blog post.

Anyway, the best of luck with your MA and beyond.

Kathy said...

@>------ @>------ @>------
@>------ @>------ @>------
@>------ @>------ @>------
@>------ @>------ @>------

You did ask for 12, didn't you? Just lean your head to the left, think red and pretend it's still yesterday!

I'm really enjoying the development of this project. Your reflections and others' comments are are enlightening and prompt me to many new thoughts of my own ... which I will contribute now and then, I promise!

Anonymous said...

First point: not enjoying negative criticism... I would always try to assure my students that 'correction is not rejection' but of course it FEELS like it! It feels like it when I write and people don't think it's all wonderful and brilliant - and I have been teaching for 27 years now!

Second point - I do think that many of us misunderstand the writing PROCESS itself. I think that I had internalised a vision of writing that hogtied me. I had somehow got the sense that I would listen to the tutor, read something and then fully formed, polished 'final drafts' would pour out of my pen.
If new ideas popped into my head as I wrote that felt like CHEATING and I was somehow ashamed that I had not known that thought before. If I had to cross things out because they nolonger fit - I was ashamed because it was not perfect before...
I think you can see that this model was more than a strait jacket!
It does not acknowledge that wrting is a thinking procees - that we write TO learn - not just write what we have learned.
It fails to acknowledge that drafting and re-drafting are positives not negatives - and that even the material on the cutting room floor is a vital part of getting to the final draft - and not a waste of time or an embarassment to be regretted.
I do try to get this across to other writers (I work in Learning Development) but it is harder now than ever to get this message across - because students have less time than ever to engage...
Best- Sandra

Lynn said...

Thank you, Sandra. I feel that your comments here are extremely perceptive and very important. It's unfortunate that, faced with a choice between being straitjacketed and buffeted by creative chaos, we can prefer the apparent security of the straitjacket. We need to realise what we are really doing - it helps a lot if wise teachers come into our lives and we can make the time to fully engage with them.

Kathy - thank you for the flowers. Just had a chance to stop and smell 'em.

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