blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Teaching is a learning experience

dahlia orange_Oldiefan
Oldiefan via pixabay

We all have chances to teach, but sometimes the opportunity is unwelcome.

Has anyone ever asked you an apparently simple question, and you found yourself unable to answer? Parents of small children are very familiar with this. It’s very tempting to fall back on platitudes or distraction to cover up the lack of an adequate response.

Examinations are formidable, even to the best prepared; for the greatest fool can ask more than the wisest man can answer.
Charles Caleb Colton  

This week, I received a question about my writing process related to a story I posted on another website. It made me stop and examine my writing in a way I haven’t done before. Which lead me to remember this.

Before you can teach something, you have to understand it yourself.

Although watching an expert helps you to improve your own game, asking them to explain how they do it might not yield useful results. Because their skill is unconscious, they don’t have to think about how they hit the ball. They’re thinking about where the ball is going and where they need to be for the next shot.

Four stages to reaching the expert level

  1. You are unaware of the skill and the need for it – unconscious incompetence
  2.        You are aware of the skill and have none – conscious incompetence
  3.        You are aware of the skill and have some – conscious competence
  4.        Your have high levels of skill and no longer think about how to achieve it – unconscious competence.

Think of playing a guitar. First, you don’t know that a guitar exists or what it’s used for. Then you see a guitar but don’t know anything about it. You start learning, slowly, and making many mistakes. You practice.

You know what you want to do, but you can’t do it. Yet.

Eventually, after enough practice, your fingers know what to do to make notes. You can play new songs that only exist in your head, or sight read a song you never heard before. You are focused on outcome, not process.

A good teacher is one who can help you move from one stage to the next. Not necessarily the most gifted in their field, they still have a priceless skill. They can analyse skills and transmit that knowledge to others. And the skill of effective critique is one we could all benefit from.

As writers especially, we crave the feedback that comes from objective analysis with specific advice on moving forward. I wrote here about giving and receiving critique gracefully.

We all have opportunities to teach, and thereby to learn more about ourselves. I’m not sure if my answer helped my enquirer, but it made me think critically about my own practice. That’s the most important lesson of all.

Therefore the old trope of “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” needs to be reframed. Who you speak to depends on what you’re trying to achieve. Inspiration and improvement are different activities.

And what about those who can’t do or teach? Lacking skill and insight but with plenty of envy, they become energetic armchair critics.

I bet even Michelangelo had someone saying, “Look, you missed a bit.”

blog, writing process

Taking it on the chin

6 steps to deal with constructive criticism

boxing girl_xusenru
xusenru via pixabay

It’s never easy to accept criticism gracefully. After you’ve poured sweat and tears into a creation, getting negative comments can be at best bruising and at worst devastating. But, like taking knocks from a sparring partner, good constructive criticism can spur you on to be better.

Constructive vs. destructive

Constructive critique is aimed at the work.
Destructive critique is aimed at the creator.

If the comments are based solely on what the commenter liked or didn’t like about the piece, without any objective elements, beware. You’ll find nothing useful there. Family and friends often say they love your work (if they say anything at all). Or they might say they hate it. Neither is helpful, though they can still elicit an emotional response.

Unrelieved negativity, especially if spiced with personal vitriol, says more about the commenter than their target.

Put up your guard

Whether or not you sought it out, critique can help. But assess it first as above. Critique does not consist of insults and slurs. Don’t stoop to that level. Walk away from trolls and don’t engage in a flame war that will hurt your brand and your soul.

Defence not attack

Don’t hit back immediately. You’re here to learn something, so first listen to the comments. Take extra time to process the message if you need it.

Probing for weaknesses

A sparring partner exposes your weaker areas without attacking them. The idea is to improve and strengthen those areas. Nobody’s perfect and if you think you are above criticism, here’s one: that idea needs to change if you want to improve. Critique of your work does not lessen your worth as a person.  You are not your creation, though part of you may be in it. Breathe and listen.

Engage in rational discussion

You wouldn’t spar when angry; it could turn into an ugly fight. It might take time for the emotional hit to lessen. Take that time and come back to it cold.

  • Look for the kernel of truth, no matter how small or hard to accept.
  • Consider the alternatives presented.
  • If you maintain your present position, be prepared to justify it.
  • You don’t have to accept all parts of the critique. You, the creator, are in charge.
  • Be open to trying another way, even if you reject it in the end.
  • Thank your critique partner for their time and attention.

Round two

Having considered the critique and decided what lessons you have drawn from it, put them into action. Good critique is focussed and objective, with examples, and offers specific remedies.

Poor critique says “I didn’t like that piece but I can’t explain why. You’re useless.”
Good critique says “I found that piece hard to read because the sentences and paragraphs were very long. You could try having just one idea in each sentence and two or three sentences per paragraph. That will give more white space on the page, which is easier to read on a screen.”

Now you have something to work with. You might cut down your sentences and play with them until you see that it does look better. Or you might find that short sentences don’t suit your writing style. Either way, you know more than before. You can make informed choices in future.

The student becomes the teacher

Everyone’s a critic and dishing out negative reviews is easy. Giving out useful critique though: that’s hard. I invite you to try it, and learn the other side of the challenge. A writers’ group IRL or online will give opportunities to try it out. Being respectful is the first and golden rule. Producing insightful analysis and actionable suggestions, like all good teaching, is harder than it looks.

Sharpening your own critical faculties makes it easier to read and watch like a writer. Deconstructing the magic trick helps you understand how to do it yourself.

Your writing relationships and your own work can only benefit when you learn how to give and take criticism like a pro.