I was terrified. It was the first time I had received regular feedback from someone other than the teacher. More importantly, it was the first time I had ever been required to give constructive feedback and have somebody listen to me. What if I got it wrong? What if I told them their story didn't have enough suspense, only to have the teacher tell them that they spent too long on the build up and not enough on the climax? What if I corrected a grammatical error that they'd included deliberately to reveal something about their character? What if it wasn't a grammatical error at all - what was an Oxford Comma again? What if I just didn't get what they were trying to say? Would I be the one who looked stupid?
As it turns out, this was great practice for me as a teacher. I had always known that marking student work came with the territory, but I think I'd expected it to be easy, somehow. That because I was older, more experienced and more educated, I'd have more confidence in offering them feedback. A year or so later, I started doing education subjects that went in to the specifics of assessment and reporting: "sandwiching" criticism between slices of encouragement, pointing out a repeated mistake the first two or three times only, suggesting a possible solution to the problem you've found, using different coloured pens because red is "negative" (someone should tell the new iTunes logo). And I started thinking "why didn't I learn this stuff before I took creative writing"?
In the classroom, students spend a lot of time reading good writing - the classics, "literary" novels, award winning books. And when they do, they're being taught to notice what makes the work good. But rarely are students given the opportunity to point out what doesn't work in a story, or to engage with a first draft other than their own. They don't have a clear idea of the work that went in to making those great texts shine. A question for the teachers out there: when reading contemporary texts with your class, how often do you talk about the acknowledgements page?
I remember my Extension II English class in high school. I shared my work with other students once in the entire year, otherwise trusting my teacher to give me all the feedback I might need. She was a great teacher and helped me to improve my work, but this practice led to a false belief. I saw "feedback" and "criticism" as the job of the one in authority, the expert. In the writing community, that means professional editors and agents. But the harsh truth for a 21st century writer is that publishers and agents don't have the time or resources to work with everybody who has a skerrick of potential. And even if your work does get published, you're still going to be met with readers who have a variety of opinions.
Critiquing other people isn't just about getting good critiques in return; it also has these benefits:
- Ideas like "rhythm", "pacing" and "flow" are intuitive concepts that are difficult to make rules for. When you stumble over the words in someone else's writing, it's useful to zoom in on that sentence and think about what the writer has done that pulled you out of the narrative.
- You practice looking for simple errors, which in turn hones your grammar and punctuation skills for all forms of writing.
- You are given a space to own your opinion and to compare with different opinions of the same work. This helps you to realise which kinds of comments are based more on the preferred style of person giving it than the work itself - useful knowledge when it comes to reading your own reviews.
- The things you notice in other people's work (inconsistent characters, an unclear message, unbelievable plot points, changes in setting) may not be things you notice in your own work, because you are too familiar with it. Having a critical eye helps you to transition out of "writer mode" and into "editor mode" to improve your own drafts.
- If nothing else, critique commitments mean that you are consistently immersed in written language - after all, you are reading every piece you critique.
I know there are English teachers out there who make peer-to-peer editing a much more regular part of their teaching practice than I experienced. For the most part, the emphasis seems to be on what some of us refer to as "SPaG" (spelling, punctuation and grammar). But the benefits of critiquing are not limited to fine line edits, nor are they only for creative work. It's a simple way to boost literacy across the whole school and to see collaborative learning mean something other than group work. More than that, it creates a change in attitude. Students who believe that their classmates are their competitors will miss out on the opportunity to improve themselves and lift the overall grades of their school.
I love the idea that one of the books I'm beta reading might be published. I'd like to be able to see, first hand, how far it has come. I'd find it encouraging to know that the writers who pushed me so hard are out there reaping the rewards of their own hard work. You never know, I might even make it on to an acknowledgments page!