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Thinking about Critiquing

jrlewis's picture

At one time or another, every writer turns into a teenager.  They fold their arms across their chest and lean back against their chair silent.  They are sullen.  Finally, the frustrated writer exclaims, “you don’t understand me at all!” 

What is a writing teacher to do with a teenager?  This is what I would call a teachable moment.  It is the place where the writer’s technique has failed.  Their craft is insufficient to convey their intentions.  Every student writer needs to learn how to realize their intentions in their writing.  This is true from anthropology papers to poems. 

I would like to make a place for student intent within the teaching of writing. The student writer must to be able to talk about their intent and figure out what technique they should use to realize it.  Sometimes talking about intent in another form is freeing for the writer.  Changes in form and genre can be freeing.   It is essential for the teacher to experience the gap between the student’s intentions and their work.  The teacher should try to help the student bridge the gap by means of better technique.  The potential for revision is what makes teacher’s critiques different from those of literary scholars. 

For me, the intent-interpretation gap is the single most important reason to have my work read.  I find it fascinating to learn how others interpret my writing.  Frequently, interpretations of my own work diverge sharply from my intentions for the work.  A significant part of my revision process is realigning my writing to better convey my intentions based on the reader’s (mis)interpretations.  Sometimes misinterpretations are even inspiration for new works. 


jrlewis's picture

There Is a Peril Too

There is a peril to the emerging author of having their intent understood too well.  Writing groups do not occur in a vacuum, even the largest and most impersonal groups.  There is frequently repeated intellectual, specifically written, exchange between group members.  Through such exchange, the group members become familiar with both their writing and their lives.  All this extra information comes to shape the group's interpretation of a member's writing.  The group has enough knowledge about the writer to read their intent into a piece whether or not it is clearly written or thought out.  That is the peril.  Readers that are too close to the writer may assume some of the writer's own blindspots with respect to their work.  The readers see the intent not the text.  This is the reason to constantly seek new readers and new comments.  The public nature of internet and writing groups and blogs is ideal for this. 

interloper's picture


I agree. As a new and inexperienced writer, I have felt unsure about my technique, style, choice of words…I guess my writing ability in general. So I welcome and even have craved feedback. But...

What really matters to me is if I am being understood. If my writing is expressing what I had intended it to. If I find that my point is being made then I will feel like I've been successful, and that will tell me if my technique is working, much more than any criticism of the actual technique ever would without considering the content. Tell me if you know what i am saying.

I feel like that teenager, I want to be understood, but so far I don't really know if I am or not. I suppose I will probably have that tantrum at some point when I find I'm not expressing what I want to. So far I can't say. I know that getting my feelings into words has been beneficial to me. Knowing that I am getting across would make me feel like a writer. But I don't know. Am I being heard? I just don't know.