Learning to embrace the obvious questions
Updated: Jan 25
By Christina Scheuer
I’ve been designing a class called Giving and Receiving Feedback on Novels with my friend and critique partner, the amazing YA and MG author Diana Ma. In the process of talking to her about the course, I’ve realized how much of my current editing process consists of unlearning – specifically, unlearning a habit I learned in graduate school of trying to perform and prove myself rather than asking questions and listening.
In graduate school, one of my colleagues dubbed me “Master of the Obvious.” It was not a compliment.
I had applied for a Ph.D. in literature because I loved sitting around with my friends and chatting about books, riffing on our favorite passages. But in graduate school, I started to worry that my enthusiasm, my chattiness, my general excitement about writing, just came across as silly – that is revealed that I wasn't smart or serious enough. So I decided to tamp it down.
I was determined to out-theory the critical theory heads, cloaking all my comments in a reference to Derrida or Foucault, analyzing absolutely everything through a lens.
It was exhausting. My determination to prove I was smart enough to be in the room made it difficult to read or write.
Now, I have learned to actively fight against the desire to use jargon or name-dropping. I’ve learned that the simplest questions are often the most important. Writers need an editor who is willing to say, “I don’t feel like I fully understand this yet” or “Can you tell me what happened to Character X? Is she actually dead?” or “Who do you envision as your primary audience?”
So I’m reclaiming the title of Master of the Obvious.
My job is not to decode the text or do verbal acrobatics to prove that I’m a Good Reader. My job is to ask the obvious questions so that you, as a writer, can make sure that your best ideas and passions and all your connective tissue have made it onto the page.
And, as an upshot, asking the obvious questions has also transformed the process of giving feedback into the best kind of conversation and collaboration. It makes me feel responsive and excited and eager for writers to tell me more about the world they are building and their vision for their work. It makes me feel like I’m back in college, laughing with my roommates in the living room, absolutely delighted to be sitting around and talking about books.
It makes me feel like I have the best job in the world.