Saturday, September 12, 2009

I will not read your effing script!

Josh Olson, writing in the Village Blog, has produced a wonderful rant called "I will not read your effing script".

He tells the story of a friend whose boyfriend has written a screenplay. This friend, who is clearly female, persuaded him to agree to review it. Worse still, he was persuaded to be honest, the dreadful things women persuade us to do.

Apparently, it was dire.

Olsen sat down and wrote three pages of critique of the first few paragraphs. He tossed that away as he rightly felt that it would not help. Instead he composed a tactful over view pointing out that the story was incoherent, badly paced, and was badly written in a technical sense (grammar, spelling etc).

He received one line back from the would-be writer "Thanks for your opinion." Later he discovered that the couple were rubbishing him to anyone who would listen.

I have been extremely fortunate in having a truly successful professional author give an honest critique of my work. Without this person, and others like him, I would be nowhere.

My friend says that the reason he is willing to squander his valuable time reading my work is because (i) I listen to his comments AND ACCEPT THEM, (ii) I go away and think about them carefully and (iii) I do my incompetent best to follow his advice.

What really puzzles me is that this response should be considered unusual. I am a professional academic and I have published more than seventy five papers through the peer review system. Taking criticism constructively is an essential component of the academic's tool box if one proposes to have a career. Most would-be writers have not benefited from this discipline.

So, here are my pointers from my own experience.

1. A professional writer's professional time is valuable. When you ask one to criticise your draft you are asking him or her to work at his craft for you for nothing. If by some miracle, a professional agrees to advise you then for God's sake be very grateful. You are entitled to nothing.
2. Learn to write a decent sentence. You do not to need to be an engineer to drive a car but you had better bloody well have engineering skills if you intend to design one. Your creative teacher at school was talking bollocks when she said that technical writing skills were irrelevant to art.
3. Have you a story to tell? No, be honest.
4. Do the very best job on the manuscript you can before you send it anywhere near a professional. Anything less is an insult.
5. Do not bother to tell the professional why his criticism is invalid. If he does not understand why your draft is near perfect then neither will anyone else. Don’t waste his time with your amateur ideas about story construction, writing styles or characterisation. If you want encouragement and praise then show it to your mates who can be guaranteed to tell you sweet little lies.

And I wish you good luck because you will need it.


PS The pic is from a production of Romeo & Juliet acted on a mat on the dockside outside HMS Gannet at Chatham. Minimal props, no special effects, just a fine bunch of actors and a bloody good script.


C Kelsey said...

Too many people ask for criticism in all walks of life and then take it very poorly. I'm no Shakespeare when it come to writing, but in order to improve I need that constructive and possibly harsh criticism. Both Amanda and Dave have been exceedingly kind in giving me feeback on my feeble attempts at the art. It boggles my mind that someone would for some reason feel insulted by folks trying to help you in a very harsh (and hard to get to anything well in) world.

P.S. My coauthors and I just received our review feedback from an article submitted for publication. That feedback really tackled the article with some insightful comments. Sometimes I disagreed, but the upshot is - it's going to be published. ;)

Anonymous said...

Why is it that the worst writers seem to take criticism so badly? Or is the life long non-refusal to accept criticism the cause of the poor work?

Every month I send out fifty to a hundred rejection letters. Every few months one of the authors just has to argue with me. And they tend toward angry abuse in their letters. I hope it makes them feel better, because that the only possible positive result.

Kate said...


This is actually a recognized paradox of incompetence. People who really stink at something don't have the skill set to recognize that they really stink at it, especially when "it" is not something that has built in markers of competence (like sports where if you can't make bat and ball connect, well, it's pretty obvious you stink at it). Writing is one of those things where the more you learn, the more you realize how bad you were back when you thought you were wonderful.

If you refuse to learn, you spend your whole life wondering why no-one appreciates your genius.

Incidentally John, you nailed - damn near word for word - why Sarah keeps on reading my stuff :). I'm not offering her anything for it other than the occasional gift of vegemite and tim tams.

Anonymous said...

C Kelsey, matapam, and Kate: I think the heart of the matter is that, when it comes down to it, the folks that take criticism badly are not looking for the criticism necessary to improve their craft by correcting their mistakes. No, they're looking for validation, so they can go right on making those very same mistakes, except now with the stamp of official approval.

I think the problem is that that most of them want to be a "Writer," but very few of them want to be "a writer." At least that's the best way I can explain it.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Great Post, John.

RJ Cruze, I think you have it in a nut shell.

They want to 'be a writer', rather than they want to write.

Writing is its own reward!

Anonymous said...

Though, sometimes that reward is having the little voices finally shut up and go bug some other poor sod for a couple hours! :-D

Amanda Green said...

I have to agree with you, Bob. Those who rail against the critiques they've been given don't really want them. They are there to be told how good they are and how wonderful their prose it. Very often, these people will respond to what they see as a negative critique by claiming the person giving the critique is jealous of their talent. Another response is often the revenge crit. In both cases, ego overrides the desire -- if it exists -- to improve their craft.

Chris commented that I'd been "exceedingly kind" to give him feedback. Not really. I knew Chris well enough from Baen's Bar, Sarah's Diner in particular, to know he's serious about wanting to whatever is necessary to improve his craft. So, it was easy to offer to read his work -- which is quite good, btw. Besides, I've had good examples set for me. Sarah, Dave and Kate have all read and critiqued my writing and I hope they understand how grateful I am for their help.

Anonymous said...

I think what separates the wannabe *writers* from the *wannabe* writers is the way they react to criticism. Those who want to "play writers" wilt at it. Those who want to actually "be writers" embrace it... which shows you that, in order to be a writer, one has to be a glutton for punishment at heart :-D

John Lambshead said...

Kate raises an interesting point - The Paradox of Incompetence.

Competent people have anxieties and doubts. They check their own work and lie awake at night worrying about it. They have self doubt and redouble their efforts.

The incompetent breeze through life in a fog of total confidence based on faith, faith in their own infallibility. Evidence never shakes faith so they never respond to feedback or ever improve.

The mix of confidence and incompetence is arguably one of the most dangerous personality types to occupy positions of authority.

An English sitcom, the Brittas Empire, was written around such a person.


Dave Freer said...

hmm. While you are all correct about criticism from professionals, let's insert a few words of caution here. Firstly, one man's meat is another man's poison. The market out there is huge and complex. A professional gets it wrong too, and sometimes their criticism may mess with the very thing that someone finds irresistable. The successful writer is a combination between having self-faith and self-doubt. I've done it myself: read and critiqued for critters, something I thought so bad I wouldn't wipe my butt on it. Um. Turns out the author is not only published, but nominated for several awards. And then we need look no further than the professionals that edit professionals. There are myriad stories - I've got a few about myself - of successful authors having been rejected. Don't take this up wrongly, but as acquiring editors are buying what they think will have a future - and yet only 1:4 make it past the 4th book hurdle. That's how hard it is to judge, and (cough) that means the best professionals to judge, with the most experience, are getting it wrong 75% of the time. So: um, maybe the guy who writes back to argue with you (or me) ain't actually the one who is wrong. It's a lesson I've tried to absorb. At the end, it is the writer's choice, and sometimes you should trust yourself.
That said - the worst for me as writer who does read and comment sometimes are the people I see as agonisingly close to true brilliance - who just won't listen. I once critiqued a story which was six hours hour's line edit from the most brilliant YA I'd ever read. I put maybe 20 hours work into the line edit of 10or so pages, explaining every change I suggested, and trying my incompetant best to be tactful. The writer had enormous talent, and I wanted to see her on the bestseller list. I got back the one one line reply which ran something to the effect of maybe if you were TP I'd listen (but you're a minor author in subtext). I am. But I'm a minor author who could see brilliance, even if not produce it. The person in question won't change her prose (hates even minor line-edit), and eventually got a small press sale and sold a few hundred books. She should be selling hundred of thousands IMO.

Anonymous said...

John, ever notice that this particular personality type seems to be drawn to positions of authority like flies to a honey bucket? And often with the same accompanying stench?

Dave, you bring up a very good point: while you may agree or disagree with a critique, the important thing is to respect your critiquers and give their advice the weight it deserves. Never give someone who's honestly trying to help you the brush off -- especially if you asked them for help in the first place! Like Wil Wheaton says: "Don't be a dick."


Anonymous said...

Dave, I agree that the writers who argue aren't all bad. It's the ones who are rude about criticism of truly poor writing mechanics that come first to mind.

Writers with confidence in what they've written, and able to argue with, instead of insult, a critic are something different. I've several time gone back to a rejected manuscript and read more, based on a well presented argument.

Because gung-ho fired up writers sometimes write fantastic books. ::Ahem:: By the time they find their footing, about halfway through the book. They generally still get a rejection, but more often with a serious critique, and occasionally with an invite to resubmit.

John Lambshead said...

Dear RB
Oh yes.
Who do you think are are the most senior grades in a Government Research Institute? The senior scientists or the chap who runs the 'marketing' department?