What’s to Enjoy?

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, July 14, 2006

The first time I thought it was a joke, one of those self-deprecating, self-aware comments that college students sometimes toss off — the kind of remark that makes it so much fun to teach first-year composition, where you get to see students being smart and silly and funny and insightful, all at once. Then it happened again. And again. And from students who didn’t have that kind of sense of humor. There was, I realized, something else going on.

“Enjoy!” Usually with the exclamation point, sometimes not, my students send me their assigned essays as electronic attachments and, in the accompanying e-mail messages, with an alarming frequency, they tell me to “enjoy” their work. It’s as if they were giving me a box of exquisite chocolates or presenting me with tickets to a Dave Matthews concert. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t like reading their essays. I love seeing my students make progress in both their writing and thinking, finding better ways to express themselves, making stronger and more interesting connections among their ideas.

But the reality is that most of us don’t write things that couldn’t benefit from the cold, clear gaze of someone else. Some of us know better, when we show off our work, than to tell the reader to enjoy, even if that’s what we’re hoping for.

Self-satisfaction is the enemy of good writing. Revision, as we teach, over and over, is the essence of good poetry and prose. Being able to read one’s own work critically is a skill that is as important as being able to construct a beautiful sentence or put together a cogent argument.

Getting out a first draft is nothing to sneeze at. I have my students read Anne Lamott’s chapter on bad first drafts from her book Bird by Bird. “I know some very great writers,” Lamott says, “writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.” Writing is hard for everyone, I tell my students. This is not news to them.

But what they don’t realize — or what takes a while to sink in — is that reading your own writing should be just as hard. When you think you’ve hit it, when you think something’s really good, sirens should sound, and flashing lights should whirl. It’s time to put it away — close the document, slam down the lid of the laptop — and get some distance. Go to sleep. Hang out with friends. Until you can come back to it, read it, and ask: “Who wrote this piece of crap?”

Undergraduates aren’t the only ones who send off their prose expecting praise. Too frequently in the graduate seminars I’ve taken, someone will submit an essay or story, only to follow a few days before we’re scheduled to discuss it — after everyone’s already read it and written up their critiques — with an “Oops, I changed it” memo. In the press and excitement of initially finishing, people seem to be sure that others will, well, enjoy their work. But when the sweat of the brow has dried, they see all those things others will see. It’s the rare writer who will sit on a proudly laid egg until it’s ready to hatch.

Publishers know this. They send authors back edited manuscripts (or at least they used to). Literary agents know it. My own will not submit a proposal to potential publishers until she’s sure it’s “right.” Even if that process takes longer than I, or her other impatient authors, would like.

Academe has another kind of safety net. You get the luxury of knowing there are those who can save you from yourself; who will not only catch silly mistakes, but also push you to think harder, to be better. It happens when we are lucky enough to have colleagues willing to read our work before it’s published, and it happens through the formal process of peer review.

But here’s the dirty little secret: No one wants criticism. Not really. Like our students who express in crude and unvarnished terms what we are too grown up and sophisticated to voice when we send off our work, we want, in our hearts, to say, “Enjoy.” We want people we trust and respect to say, “Bravo.” Because, if we’re being honest, we wouldn’t share it unless we were convinced it’s good. And we don’t always want to hear that it’s not.

I lost a friendship once. For years a good friend had shown me his works-in-progress. My response had always been enthusiastic praise, offering only minor quibbles meant to help him make what was already good even better. Then he sent me a draft of his new book. It had some problems and, after thinking hard and spending a lot of time with it, I gave him a detailed description of what I thought the problems were and the ways he might consider revising. I got back a series of vitriolic e-mail messages. He later apologized; years after the painful exchange, he said I had been right. But our friendship never recovered, and my understanding of peer criticism took a body blow.

That is, perhaps, part of the rationale for having a blind peer-review process. While authors do spend time and energy trying to figure out who the anonymous reviewers are, they can’t afford not to take their critiques seriously. Having an editor in the middle of the dynamic can make it easier for everyone. When I worked in publishing, I often told authors to wait, to simmer down before they started writing their formal responses. Sometimes I coached them on how to satisfy editorial demands while still being able to write the book they wanted to write. Usually, ultimately, they said the comments made their manuscripts better.

When dealing with students, we strive to give them constructive criticism that they can hear and that will teach them to be better writers — and better readers of their own work. We try not to batter their sense of self-worth; we point out what there is to applaud and show them where they could benefit from more work.

Most academic readers will do the same (although there are always exceptions); it’s kind of part of the social contract of being in a university community. So I am always surprised to talk with writers, especially academics, who do not show their work to anyone before it is in print. With publishers giving less feedback than ever before, I’m particularly amazed at the writers who do not ask colleagues for another pair of eyes. Is it arrogance or insecurity? With acid-free paper and the Internet, writing can hang around for a long darned time. The sense of satisfaction in one’s own work can evaporate well before the work fades from view. It can be a cringe-inducing experience to read something that was published too soon.

Me, I always claim to be in the “bring it on” school. One sentence of smart, well-placed criticism means more to me than a thousand words of praise. Bravos don’t make me a better writer. But those many times when I toiled over a chapter and sent it off to my agent, I did want her to say that I’d hit it. Not, as she often responded, “Sorry, it’s just not working. How about starting over?” I had to learn — as all writers must — to shake off the disappointment and look closely at the comments. But when I did, it was with the happy knowledge that there was someone who had my back.

Posted in The Chronicle of Higher Education