Critiquing: Take it like a writer!

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So you finish the first draft of your (obviously) brilliant manuscript. Maybe you let it sit for a while, or maybe you’re like me and you can’t resist reading it immediately.

I’ve completed two manuscripts, and in each first draft, I’ve found passages that made me smile and squeal with delight at their perfection, and others that had me covering my eyes so as not to be humiliated by the idiocy of my own words. I had to completely re-write my first novel because the voice was all wrong, and I cut over 30,000 words from the first draft of my second novel because I realized I’d started it in the wrong place.

If you’re a writer, I know you know how much this hurts. Those words took me months to write. Months in which I lost sleep, gained weight, and, let’s face it, probably changed the structure of my brain (still not sure if this was an improvement or not). Those words were a part of my soul. And I killed them. (This book better be good, or it’s not getting anything else from me! OK, that’s not true. I’m a sucker.)

But it doesn’t end there. Once I re-wrote and chopped and tweaked every word I could possibly tweak, I still need something else. Other. People’s. Opinions.

Man, I thought I was brutal to my book. My beta-readers said some things that make Simon Cowell look like Pollyanna. (Fortunately, I also got a lot of positive critiques, so I didn’t have to burn myself in a pyre of my own manuscripts.)

But look, even though it’s painful, you need those critiques. Every writer does. It’s simply not possible to improve without them. So, for what it’s worth, here’s my advice on getting critiqued and taking it like a writer.

  1. Get critiques from a lot of people, but make it the right people. I highly recommend joining critique groups. I’ve been part of several, and I’ve gotten some incredible advice on my writing out of each. Go to your local public library and see if they have a writer’s group (mine does), or join up on-line (check out www.internetwritingworkshop.org). But don’t rule out your family and friends. People say you can’t trust the people who love you to be honest in their critiques, but my sister has given me the best advice and insight into improving my writing that I’ve ever received. My mom pretty much just blew rainbows up my skirt, though. (Sorry Mom. I know you’re probably reading this, but you’re the same person who brought me an embarrassing bouquet of flowers to my college campus because I got a letter stating that I might be eligible to apply for membership in an honor’s society if I kept my grades up.) That’s OK. I need cheerleaders too. 🙂
  2. Consider that the person critiquing your work might not be a moron. When I subbed my most recent novel, Women Like Us, to my critique groups, a number of people thought my opening scene sounded contrived and way too convenient. I thought the opening scene was one of the best parts of the book. Naturally, my first reaction was to scoff at their misunderstanding of my art. But seriously, when that many people make the same observation, they can’t all be wrong. I realized I needed to clarify some things in that scene, because it wasn’t coming across as I intended.
  3. Critique other writers’ work. Some of the best learning I have done has been from other peoples’ mistakes. Besides, it feels good to be able to give back to the community of writers that has helped me so much.
  4. Know when to leave it. Everything I’ve said so far about taking your lumps and improving your work is true. But it’s also true that some people just give really bad advice. I once had a face-to-face critique session from a professional in the industry. A critique that I paid money for. I’m pretty sure this person did not read past the first page of my book because, well, she wasn’t familiar with any of the plot points that occurred after the first page of my book. She also didn’t write any notes past that page. But she said she’d read it. And she also said a lot of other things about it that just didn’t make sense. It’s difficult to know when a critiquer is actually wrong versus when you, the writer, are just being defensive, so I recommend double-checking with other beta-readers who you trust before dismissing someone’s advice.
  5. Know that you don’t have to take everyone’s advice. In the end, it’s your book. Only you can decide what to do with it.

How do you all handle criticism of your work?

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4 comments

  1. Finding the right reader to review your work is, indeed, a wise decision to make.

    I had to deal with plenty of people on the net who kind of sneak up on you and involve you in some funny chats, thinking they would actually “know you” after a while. No, they don’t. As a matter of fact, we never met in person, and joking a bit on the net to waste some time is really not enough proof of trust to hand out my scripts to.

    The question “Can I read any of your work?” gives me goosebumps everytime, when being asked by such a “freak” of a special kind. A real “No-go”. That does not mean, I recoil from every person I do not know in person, but the internet is full of them.

    Not only is there a 99% chance they won’t read it from start to finish, and you hopelessly wait for their review beginning to wonder “Why is he not answering anymore? What is he doing with it at the moment?” but you end up being completely paranoid, as you have lost control over your baby.

    Sometimes, you receive a review of the first few pages that is not even really constructive. Or, and that is my personal favorite of all, an absolute wannabe, who is overly convinced about his skills, as he has just finished his first script, tries to give you advice, while his own work, that you get to read in return, is lacking in all of his own remarks on your work.

    Like

    1. Thanks for your comment, Sarah! Yes, there are plenty of people on the web who write bad critiques. I’ve gotten some too. The thing I like about critique groups is that you submit a chapter at a time, and anybody in the group can respond, but obviously you can discard the critiques you get that seem uninformed. Over time, you begin to learn whose advice you can trust.

      Keep writing! Your blog looks great!

      Like

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