Wednesday, July 25, 2012


I have been embroiled in on-line discussions lately about the ticklish business of literary quality control. The chatter ranged around such matters as how emerging writers know if what they are working on is any good, and how to fix problems when they are encountered.  If it's any help (and it probably won't be if I know writers, and I do) it is not only emerging writers who have such concerns. Almost all writers, at any stage of their careers, lack a critical layer of protective skin, are deeply insecure and crave praise and encouragement.

Christopher Hampton, British writer and dramatist, remarked that asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post how it feels about dogs. Well, just ask me. I'm a working writer and a critic, both roles of long-standing. So sometimes I'm the lamp-post and sometimes I'm the dog. Here's my take on the question of quality control.

It can be helpful for writers to consult others when problems arise – not just other writers but people who can be trusted to have sensible, thoughtful opinions. Other people are, ultimately, the reading public, they must be seduced, and writers have to learn how to do that. Given enough opinions from enough people, a struggling writer can arrive at a kind of consensus and carry on writing with some confidence. Even opposing opinions can be helpful: your BFF Kerri loves it – that's great! but so does your cousin Garfield, which is a bit of a worry, but then Dad said it was a load of cobblers, so maybe it's okay after all. That is feedback, and valuable in its own way.

At a later stage of the writing process, when the story or novel is finished, and written as well as it can be, the writer needs to know if it passes a more critical evaluation before sending the precious work out into the real world. He or she needs to find someone, or a small group, to cast a fresh, critical and knowledgeable eye over the work, to examine it for inconsistencies, to identify weaknesses and suggest improvements. This is critiquing and requires certain skills and experience.  

Speaking as the dog, it is not possible to critique a half-baked work in progress. Speaking as the lamp-post, please be honest, but also considerate of my feelings and my ego!

P.S. 27 July: A reader couldn't resist and has contributed the following:

Said the lamp post to the dog
“My poor nerves are fraught today.”
Said the dog in quick reply
“Just get tough and look away!”

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