Hearing a group of teenagers critique my unpublished YA novel was fantastic, but it was also an exercise in self-censorship (something I am historically inept at doing).
Don’t get me wrong: I am grateful to all twenty-five of the high school freshmen who elected to read my manuscript and thrilled by the degree to which they have helped me. Many of their insights have been rewarding and their questions have helped guide my future revision. While I was nervous about this “experiment,” I am very pleased with the results. It is clear that my book has some strong elements going for it though it still needs work (some scenes were unclear, some questions left unanswered, and several of my students’ suggestions were good ones!). My students have given me the insight I need to improve the novel in a variety of ways. As a result, I feel rejuvenated and am excited to work on the new draft!
Of course, not every nugget of criticism was golden. Smiling and keeping quiet when students missed details that I know where there was a challenge. As an English teacher, I’m used to students overlooking or not remembering details from their reading. However, it is a bit different when they are overlooking or perhaps speed-reading your own work and then criticizing your writing for being confusing. I wanted to say, “Look right here! It’s right there! And look! It is mentioned again over here!” but I am happy to say that I refrained at all times. Instead, I just smiled and said, “Oh. Huh. Thanks for telling me.” More often than not, when they were confused or had questions, the fault was indeed mine because I didn’t explain something well enough, but when the answer to the question was right there in the text I had to bite my tongue. When they had major questions about the story, a scene, or character, I would stop and explain those things and turn the conversation into a lesson on storytelling and the kinds of decisions authors have to make, but if the question or comment was unimportant to understanding the overall story, I just let it go.
I learned a great deal about the strengths and weakness of my writing from this experience and the positives certainly outweigh any possible negatives by about 100 to 1. Several students seemed to legitimately enjoy the novel and many were able to identify the very themes I wanted to incorporate. No one thought the novel was terrible (though several had trouble with it and were drowning in questions). As an added bonus, I don’t think any of the students thought I was a bad sport about hearing their criticism. After all, I asked them to rip the book to shreds, so THANK YOU to “The Schmidty Committee” for all of your hard work. You guys are great! Should the novel ever get published, I’ll have to put you all on my “acknowledgements” page.
Now go and have a great summer!