05 July 2012

You are not alone

A piece I've been working on about ham radio was critiqued in our workshop today at the writing conference. It's a piece I'm pretty proud of, and justifiably so I think. I've put a lot of work into both the reporting and the writing craft, so although I knew the piece could be improved and the structure needed some work, it was absolutely to the best point I could get it on my own without external feedback, and external eyes.

My fellow science-medical writers liked all the things I expected them to like -- as in, the positive feedback I received aligned with what I felt the strengths were of the piece. The characters of the ham radio operators were good -- they're vibrant, enthusiastic people, so it wasn't what I would call challenging -- and the various aspects of being a ham radio operator that I chose to focus on seems to have resonated pretty well.

The aspects that my fellow writers didn't like or had trouble understanding somewhat surprised me. They seemed to really like the characters more than the science, although they had some fantastic suggestions for how to weave the science into the narrative better.

Hearing actual criticism is both difficult and exciting to me -- on the one hand, you want to defend your writing decisions or explain why what they think is wrong; on the other hand, you're getting feedback from people who are better than you in a key area: they have no experience with the topic. That is the kind of feedback you absolutely cannot get anywhere except from someone who isn't you. And that's why I'm always pretty excited about workshops -- high quality feedback from readers who know nothing about the subject (even if they're science-medical writers, there are so many aspects of science that most other sci-med writers won't have knowledge in the particular area you're writing about) and high quality feedback from these other writers, who will have suggestions of how to improve or resolve the perceived weaknesses in ways you likely would not have considered on your own.

That, in a nutshell, is why I am a huge convert to the idea of critiques. Note I am not saying criticism, but a workshop-style critique in which both strengths and weaknesses of a submitted piece of writing are identified and discussed. To me, the conversation about the piece is as valuable as the individual critiquers' written critiques -- both give me new ideas for a piece that I've taken as far as I can take it on my own, and give me a variety of things to think about for my next step.

So yes, although writing is largely an individual project -- it is my decision and my writing and my craft that ultimately emerges -- I don't think I could ever write a really great work in complete solitude. Even if I were to sequester myself in a cabin in the mountains*, eventually I'd have to come out with something and ask someone Is this any good? Am I succeeding in what I am trying to do? Does this work for you? And then I'd have to listen to their response, and go and revise whatever I needed to do to fine-tune the reader's response to my goal.
*So tempting. Anybody have a cabin they want to give me?

I'd like to share an excerpt of my ham radio piece, but it's still in revisions obviously, and I don't know if I still might be able to get it published somewhere and whether I'd get in trouble for self-plagiarizing if I use writing I've previously published on my blog. So instead I'll tell you that several people compared my piece to Susan Orlean's "Lifelike" which is about taxidermy. I dare you to read that piece and not come away thinking "Wow, taxidermy is actually kind of cool." Although I don't think my piece is half as elegant, I was incredibly flattered by the comparison. Susan Orlean is an incredibly artful writer whose talent and skill level I can only aspire to someday attain.

Well, I'm going to have more reporting to do on this piece, but thanks to feedback from my critiquing buddies, I have some very solid ideas of what I need to focus on.

Now You!

Is there truly any human endeavor that is achieved in complete solitude?