Good Critiques can be Valuable Instruments in Our Writing Toolbox.
We become much too close to our own work to be able to see the flaws. Plus we have the entire world and story in our head. We cannot possibly see it the way our readers (who do not know the story) will read it. Getting feedback from other writers can help us discover holes in the plot, inconsistencies in the story, typos, and structural issues. In the same way, praise from writers can reassure us that the dialogue is clear, the characters are believable and resonate with the reader. Good critique gives us the confidence to keep forging ahead.
How We React to and Use Critique of Our Writing will be as Varied as Our Writing Styles and Individual Personalities.
I can only offer some of my own observations here, and share with you how I make use of the critique process as experienced in a Read ‘n Critique group setting. Hopefully something from here will help you as well, or guide you to find your own process.
It’s almost impossible to listen to critique and not take it personal, because—well, it IS personal. But learning to step back and look at it from an outsider’s point of view is imperative if we are to learn from this experience. Sometimes that means keeping our opinions to ourselves until we can get back home and evaluate the feedback in a less emotional state. Most of the time when we can achieve this we begin to understand why the points were made and that we can improve our writing by listening to what advice others may be giving us. Think of it as a gift. Writers are willing to share their knowledge and experience with you to hopefully help you jump over obstacles they themselves suffered through. Writers, on a whole, are extremely giving and supportive of other writers.
A word of caution: My personal opinion is that as an inexperienced writer, sharing your work too soon can be a debilitating handicap. Why, you may ask—I thought new writers need lots of advise and guidance?
Reading every how to book and listening to other writers cannot make you a writer. Remember—the only way to learn to write is—to write. So in the beginning we are writing so as to learn our craft. We are in the crawling and toddler stage—not yet up and running with confidence.
When you share your work while in this beginning stage of learning (especially if this is your first novel) you may find yourself facing sensory overload with so many opinions coming at your from a variety of viewpoints. The problem is you haven’t yet developed your filter by which to tune out critique that doesn’t apply to what you are writing, or runs counter to your style—because frankly, you haven’t figured out your writing yet. The real danger here is that in trying to please everyone, you end up “writing a novel by committee”. You struggle to find your own writing voice and style, characters become cartoon people as you work to please everyone—except yourself.
My own solution to this scenario is to write that very first puke-it-out-on-the-page draft in total isolation. In other words—finish it first. Once you’ve completed that first rough draft, you’ll better know your characters. You’ll know what didn’t work for the plot and what did work. You’ll begin to see your own style coming forward and find your own voice.
Now, as you revise and share your work, you’ll have a better idea of what you want to accomplish. You’ll be able to filter out the critique that doesn’t pertain to where you want to go with the story. And you’ll embrace the suggestions that help you move your story forward or clarify your vision.
So What do I Mean by the Term Filter? Let Me Show You with an Example:
In my most current novel, one of the five readers giving me feedback mentioned that she wanted to see more evil from my antagonist. While I understand that more evil may be a way to add suspense and tension to a story, the problem is, I don’t want my antagonist to be evil. The point of my story is that any ordinary person can become so obsessed with an idea (even if it’s not true) that they reach a tipping point that pushes them into unreasonable behavior—acting on impulses they would normally never consider. The person is certainly flawed—like most of us—but not evil incarnate. So, after careful consideration, I decided to filter out this comment and move on. On the other hand, if the majority of readers had had this same issue it would have been a warning flag that I hadn’t gotten my point across clearly to the reader! In this particular case it helped to know the other four readers did not have this issue, but that doesn’t mean I won’t take another look at the writing. In most cases there is always room for improvement.
You may occasionally run into another writer who desperately wants you to write your story the way they would write the story, including their style and voice. Resist the temptation to try and please this person. Simply thank them for their feedback and continue to stay true to your style and story. You will get suggestions for changing out a word you used, for a word the person likes better. Sometimes you’ve used the wrong word and the correction is good. Sometimes it’s simply one person’s preference. Make sure you are making a change because it truly is an improvement on the writing and achieves what you want to convey to the reader.
At Times it’s Best to Ask for a Specific Type of Critique.
There are situations when I will be quite specific about what I am looking for in a critique. If I’m sharing a first draft I may only need to know if the concept works. Is it believable? I don’t need a line edit of my work at this point. A revised chapter may make me ask if the pacing works. Is the dialogue clear? When readers know what you are looking for, they can better hone-in on giving you helpful critique.
Once in a great while a topic gets picked up by the group and spins out of control, going into places that are no longer helpful to you or even viable. A good moderator should step in at this point and redirect the conversation back to the real issue. But it doesn’t always happen. In my experience the best way to deal with this, if it happens to you, is to not get defensive or repeatedly explain your point–which tends to increase the resistance from others. It’s much better to smile and nod and say, “thank you for the input, I’ll consider it.” Then simply file it away to review later, when emotions aren’t running so high and you can better evaluate the comments. If you aren’t busy defending your writing, you may discover the comments did make a point you need to consider.
Which brings up another issue you might face in the Read ‘n Critique process. Sometimes everyone in the group may consistently give you a particular form of feedback that just doesn’t fit with your vision of that particular chapter or scene. It can be frustrating. In these times you have to figure out what it is that is really bothering the group. Example: I had a chapter that took place in a chapel, for a memorial. Everyone in my group kept saying they wanted more details of the chapel. I didn’t want the focus to be on the chapel. On my third revision, I added in more emotion to the chapter. Afterwards, everyone in our group raved about how good it was—that they had a much clearer picture of the chapel. They were all stunned to learn that I hadn’t added more details at all. I had only added more emotion. They all knew something was missing—they just didn’t realize it was the emotion!
So, when you receive a critique that confuses you, take a moment to get outside of your first emotional reaction of defense, and look at all the aspects. The fact that a reader wants something more may be the only way they know how to articulate it to you. It is up to you to figure out what that something might be and how to fix it.
Being able to instinctively know what resonates as helpful information vs. what is not relevant to our story is a muscle we learn to flex over time. It comes with experience and confidence in our own writing skills. As you learn to understand it in yourself, you’ll become better at giving critiques as well.