The First Writing Critique

Marilyn Brant--author photo~ By Marilyn Brant 

Note: This post originally appeared here.

In the past 13 years, ever since I started writing fiction with the intent to publish, I’ve had a lot of critiquing experiences. Some inspiring and encouraging, even while being instructive in regards to narrative flaws. Others intentionally cruel and providing very little of value, even in supposedly “educational” settings.

It can be heartbreaking to a new writer to finally work up the courage to share a draft of a story only to have this offering met with scorn… And, yet, I don’t know if there’s a more effective way to learn to differentiate genuinely constructive feedback from the toxic variety until we’ve personally witnessed both in action.

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the annual conference for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English, which I was invited to this fall because they’d selected me as their 2013 Author of the Year. It was a huge honor for me (understatement!!), and I had the opportunity to be their speaker on Friday at the Awards Luncheon in Bloomington-Normal. In preparing for my talk, I couldn’t stop thinking about my first and most memorable experience with getting my writing critiqued. It was during the only undergraduate composition class I ever took, which also happened to be the first time I remember making a conscious decision about whether or not to follow my (sort of secret) writing dream.

I was 19 that year and, as a direct result of taking this particular class, I chose not to pursue writing seriously then. It wasn’t, however, for the reason you might think…

As an education major, I was surprised and a little disappointed when I discovered I only had to take ONE writing course to get my degree. I’d always liked writing. I’d been on the yearbook staff in high school, and I was one of the head editors of our school newspaper. Nothing about the sound of this puny college English requirement scared me one bit. So what if I’d been warned about the teacher? Told he was a real nutcase, a tough grader and someone to avoid like a bad virus, if at all possible?

But it wasn’t possible. His class was the only one that fit well enough into my schedule that spring, so I took it. I didn’t expect problems.

Can you hear the hubris gods laughing with demonic glee?!

At first acquaintance, Dr. Raymond Schoen seemed almost as terrifying in person as I’d been led to believe. He was a big, gruff, older man with a beard and a pipe, and he spent the entire first class period (75 minutes!) droning on and on about the proper use of a semicolon. Seriously. That’s all he talked about for a full hour and a quarter, as if it might be the freakin’ cornerstone of literacy or something. I was simultaneously mesmerized and horrified by his lecture, and I kept exchanging sideways glances with a guy friend who was in the room with me. We agreed afterward that, indeed, we should have held out for a professor who was a little more sane. Someone who might actually talk about, you know, writing in our college class. Not just one weird little punctuation mark.

pexels-photo-largeBut I was in for a surprise that semester. Dr. Schoen turned out to be not nearly as crazy as I’d initially thought. In fact, he started to scare me for another reason entirely: He was really logical and not easily fooled. He wasn’t a professor you could snow with half-formed, ill-considered arguments. He was genuinely reading our papers. Making careful comments. Pointing out every single fallacy in our statements and every single cliché in our descriptions. I actually got a B+ on my first assignment…and again on my second one. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d gotten a B of any kind on an English paper (sometime in junior high, maybe?), so this was not, in my opinion, an auspicious start. And I desperately wanted to hate him for this…but I couldn’t. I couldn’t because everything he said was right.

Furthermore, one option we had as students in his class was an open invitation to go to his office to discuss our writing during a short, individual conference — particularly if we were concerned about our grades, and I was starting to be. My curiosity was at war with my resentment over this — I was sure it was going to be a soul-crushing experience — but curiosity eventually won out and I made an appointment to see him.

You’ve probably already guessed that Dr. Schoen became one of my favorite teachers ever. The man possessed an amazing gift — both as a writer himself and as a professor. He was incredibly clear-minded, but he was also fair and kind. He knew what good writing looked like, and he knew when he wasn’t seeing it. He was the first person in years to hold me accountable for what I wrote, to not let me get away with lazy thinking and to make sure I really conveyed on paper what I was trying to express. He demanded honesty and clarity. Most amazingly, he inspired in me a powerful desire to prove to him that I was not illogical, unoriginal or remotely lazy. That his faith in my ability to live up to his expectations was somehow justified.

It was so emotionally honest of him. So open. So real. And I knew that I wasn’t ready to do that then — to be that kind of writer. Certainly not at 19 or 20. Not at 25 either. Or, for that matter, at 29. But, a few years after that, when I wasready, I recognized it; I knew the qualities I needed to look for in myself. (I’d also never forgotten how to properly use a semicolon, LOL.) And when, inevitably, I encountered a critiquing situation where there was derision and a lack of constructive feedback, I had a better model to emulate. To hold out for critique partners who were closer to Dr. Schoen’s style…because I knew what an exceptional writing critique should feel like. That it should inspire us to want to work harder. To revise with intent and hopefulness. To reach deeper and consider the significance of every phrase, every punctuation mark. To, above all, be more ourselves on the page, not less. Never less.

(Thanks, Dr. Schoen. RIP.)

* Do you have a favorite teacher? One who inspired you and made you strive to work harder at something? I’d love to know!

Marilyn Brant is a New York Times & USA Today bestselling author of contemporary women’s fiction, romantic comedy & mystery. She was named the Author of the Year (2013) by the Illinois Association of Teachers of English. She loves all things Jane Austen, has a passion for Sherlock Holmes, is a travel addict and a music junkie, and lives on chocolate and gelato. 

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