Criticism as crime scene

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Photo: Tony Webster

Even when criticism comes from someone you trust and respect, someone who has your best interests as a writer at heart, and who’s guided you well in the past, it’s hard not to have an immediate, emotional reaction.

You’ve worked hard on creating something, and now it’s been trashed and trampled.  The dismay and ‘Oh God, what now?!’ is reminiscent of discovering a burglary.

Of course, the critic is not a criminal. She’s doing her job, she’s helping you make the book better.

But still.

I’ve recently been reading The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin.

The Organized Mind Daniel Levitin

Levitin, a neuroscientist, explains the human brain is hardwired to organise information – the world around us – into categories.

By harnessing our innate powers of categorisation, and externalising the complex contents of our brains (into systems, lists, notebooks, spreadsheets) we free ourselves up to do the important work of creative thinking: making connections, generating ideas, and problem solving.

Levitin is particularly fond of index cards, which offer a means of externalising information, and breaking it down into small manageable chunks.  Unlike a list scribbled into a notebook, or an audio recording you might make on your phone, cards can be easily reordered, re-prioritised.

This sort of thinking appeals strongly to my nerdy tendencies, not to mention my pathological stationery fetish.

My friend, crime writer Neil McIntosh, with his interest in forensic psychology, recommends taking a dispassionate, scientific, response to the crime scene that is criticism.  He suggests organising comments into four groups: (a) the things that are sensible, and doable (b) those that are doable but not sensible (c) those that are sensible, but not doable and finally (d) those that are neither sensible, nor doable.

So, taking Neil’s categories as a starting point and adding Levitin’s index cards, I worked through my latest round of edits.  First I noted each point of criticism on an index card, then I went back to the manuscript to record the chapter and the page (or range of pages) where the change needs to be made.

The categories that emerged are:

  • changes that can be made quickly and easily
  • changes that can be made easily but not so quickly
  • changes that will require some unravelling of the plot and impact on, say, more than one chapter
  • changes that I’m going to have to think about some more, (because I need to come up with a new idea, or I’m not sure I agree, or just feel uneasy)

All this scribbling onto index cards, sorting and shuffling, might seem to create additional work.  But somehow, the activity seems to take the pressure off my brain.  I can convince myself I’m doing ‘admin’, which is relaxing and virtually mindless, rather than ‘writing’ or ‘editing’, which are mentally and emotionally taxing.

Weirdly, in the space that is created, I seem more able to be positive and solution-focussed.

I catch myself thinking, ‘now if I just moved this over here…’ and ‘that’s not so bad, maybe I could just cut…’

And although I hardly notice I’m thinking about the work itself, thinking gets done.

Muddled Manuscript

12 thoughts on “Criticism as crime scene

  1. Iona@Redpeffer

    It’s interesting reading this-I do a lot of the points your friend Neil mentions, just subconsciously. I’m currently working through criticism right now and working through these points as I go. Whether I actually manage to achieve the changes I need and want remains to be seen though as this is the first time I’ve committed it to such a large piece of fiction!
    I completely identify with your feelings too.

    Reply
  2. mummy tries

    Very interesting read Becky, sounds like the combination worked well for your edit. The four streams of advice could pretty much be applied to anything. I’ll definitely try and remember that one 🙂

    Reply
    1. Becky Post author

      Yes, I think you’re right. When you find a good method it often works in more than one area of life.

      Reply
  3. Maddy@writingbubble

    This is an interesting method. I like the idea of index cards – much as I love to write on a computer there comes a time when a real, hard copy is the only thing that can move things forwards. I bet you can achieve things this way more than you ever could just cutting and sticking on a computer screen. Glad the method is working for you. And I love the criticism as a creme scene idea – it can feel like one! Thanks for linking to #WhatImwriting xx

    Reply
  4. Sophie Lovett

    Love this post! Sounds like a brilliantly methodical way of working through the emotional minefield of feedback and criticism. I’ll have to see if Leigh has any index cards left over from his revision… And should check out that book too by the sound of it! X

    Reply
  5. Nicola Young

    Yes I can see that when you work through this process it helps your brain work out a logical order for doing things. I’m a visual person so I like to present things to my brain that way. If you told me all those things verbally I would probably have a meltdown due to the overload of information!

    Reply
    1. Becky Post author

      Thanks Nicola. I’d love to know more about how you use visual methods for working through writing problems.

      Reply

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