Strictly Come Writing – Why we need critics like Craig.
If you’re not familiar with the popular BBC TV show Strictly Come Dancing, it’s a show where celebrities team up with a professional dance partner and perform different ballroom and latin dances each week. At the end of each routine they receive points out of ten and comments from the four judges.
Fans of the show will know that of all the four judges Craig Revel Horward has the reputation of being a very tough and curmudgeonly judge. His comments are often accompanied with boos from the audience as they take offense with his feedback. His comments pull no punches and can be cutting: ‘Dreadful’ he will report, deadpan, ‘Ghastly,’ ‘Stonehenge would have more hip action,” he will say, or phrases of the like.
Horward has become, like Simon Cowell of the X Factor, the judges the public loves to hate but I think they are getting him wrong. While demanding a high standard and picking out various problems with hips, hands, the way the foot is pointed etc Craig Revel Horward’s aim is to help the dancers improve rather than bring them down. His push is for excellence. Dancers know this and a ten from Craig is high praise indeed.
What I enjoy most about Strictly Come Dancing is to see how many celebrities who have never danced such dances before take to the challenge, learn to love dancing, improve beyond recognition as the weeks go on and begin to shine with confidence as they succeed. In the early stages the judges praise effort rather than technique and aim to encourage the dancers rather than pick holes in their efforts, Revel Horward included. However if Revel Horward believes that a celebrity has the potential to improve and do well, he will point out areas of improvement rather than go through the niceties.
As writer’s finding critics in a similar vein to Revel Horward is invaluable. As a beginner criticism is very hard to take. We want to know we can do writing. We’re not yet so keen on facing our faults. But as we progress and become more experienced, as we put in the hours and gain competence it’s vital to have feedback as to where our strengths and weaknesses lie, especially from someone who knows what they are talking about.
We should not fear criticism. Criticism is about finding where we are failing and working on it. In his fascinating book, science writer Joshua Foer looks at mastery, what keeps us on a plateau and prevents us from improving, The famous 10,000 hours of practice (to become an expert) rule is not as straightforward as first thought. Studies have found that people who practice AND FAIL improve significantly more that those who practice (mostly easier pieces) and succeed at those.
There is no gaining of competence without challenge, there is no learning without failure. Surely this is the most significant message we can take on board for ourselves and to pass on to young people in the education system. To get it wrong means we need to work harder and learn more to get it right. It requires focus and motivation to get better and better rather than coasting or resting on our laurels.
Where can we find the criticism and guidance we need? From peers, from mentors, from courses that we do, from writing groups with experienced members who are not afraid to both praise and say where things are not working. These sources of criticism from those who love writing but are standing objectively from the piece can tell you things you might never have noticed yourself. More importantly they can rubberstamp your commitment to writing, they can validate your talent, even as they suggest improvements.
People may boo Craig Revel Horward but he gives the best technical advice to dancers who are willing to listen and improve. Choose your critics well – which is not always easy when starting out. Check credentials and get recommendations, see what they have written and how it is received by others. See if several people are coming back with similar feedback. These are all fail-safes to finding critical feedback that will help you move upwards in ability rather than tear your confidence apart. And if you find the writing critic equivalent of Craig Revel Horward, listen carefully and learn, apply the knowledge and know that you are being taken seriously.
Alison Wells runs the Random Acts of Optimism blog and lives in Bray, Co. Wicklow with her husband and four children. Her short fiction been published in many magazines and online and print anthologies and she has been featured on Sunday Miscellany. Shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, Bridport and Fish Prize's she has just completed a themed short story collection Random Acts of Optimism and a literary novel The Book of Remembered Possibilities. To read Alison's full blog, visit Head Above Water. Find out in her Random Acts of Optimism how she manages to juggle writing, children and life.