Constructive criticism: can we do without it?

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.

Burning the midnight oil….

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?

What do YOU think?

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600 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2013
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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4 responses to “Constructive criticism: can we do without it?

  1. Indiscriminate praise and affirmation is the death of excellence. Period. The practice in this country of handing out “participation trophies” was the beginning of it. Since “everyone is a winner” and some poor child’s ego might be deflated by losing, the entire enterprise has been degraded.

    Beyond that, acceptance of diversity has morphed into a terrible relativism that is eating away at the educational establishment. From ethics to grammar to historical events, we seem to be afraid of both truth and excellence. Since there’s no external criteria by which to judge grammar or thought or competence, anything goes.

    You might get a kick out of an article that was making the rounds recently. It’s title? “We’re raising a generation of deluded narcissists” ! And we may well be.

    The sense of entitlement that today’s youth exhibit was taught to them. The rage that some of them exhibit when they discover the world doesn’t intend to coddle them as their parents and teachers did can be wondrous to behold.

    • I agree with every word you say here, Linda, and will check out the link later when I have some reflective time. Our post-WW2 generation was not brought up to think that life owed us – or that facing reasonable risk and danger was anything other than character-forming. I do not know how a coddled risk-averse pampered generation is going to cope with the realisation when they “grow up” that life is tough a lot of the time and owes us nothing whatsoever……

  2. Anne – back then in the sixties we were used to the teachers(and the counselors) telling us “a spade is a spade.” No mercy back then (take it or leave it).

    • Hi Inger Lise

      many thanks to you, my visitor from Norway! I rather like the ‘take it or leave it’ approach for many things myself. BUt things could be unpleasantly tough in those days too – I was bullied from first year in Secondary school by a maths teacher who had hated my father and decided decades later to hate a small girl with the same name(me)sitting in his classroom. That’s probably why I became a writer instead of a mathematician!

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