I’ve heard some authors say (okay, read it online in the author groups I’m a member of) that they don’t want their work critiqued because it’s their voice and they don’t want it changed. That’s great if you don’t ever want anyone to read your work. I’ve even heard someone say that she didn’t want an editor because it would ruin her vision. I thought my eyes were going to roll out of my head. Critiquers and editors are not there to change your voice! They are there to help you hone your craft.
Why Critiques are Good
Fresh eyes are a must. Have you ever set a story aside for while and waited a few weeks before picking it back up? I guaranty that when you reread it with fresh eyes, there will be things you’ve written that will make you cringe. We all get to close to our own work, so deep down into our concepts, themes, plot ideas, and all the million other things involved with a book, and we miss things. It happens to everyone.
What if you were able to use five or six sets of eyes that had never seen your chapter? I’m telling you, it’s amazing, informative, exhilarating… and in almost every case, humbling.
Yeah, that last word–that’s why people don’t like critiques. You may be the greatest writer in the history of the planet. Your first drafts and initial plot ideas may be so incredible that they should be coated in gold and inshrined in a temple somewhere. I congratulate you, because I have absolutely no idea how that feels. Even after I shine something up by running it through grammar checkers, critique partners, reading and fixing the text, having my computer read it aloud while I fix the text, and beta readers, I refuse to read it after it’s published because I know I will see things I don’t like. There is no gold coating in my future. But, critiques cut down on the errors and will help make your writing better.
So, when you do find a critique group, either in your city or online, here’s how to make it through a critique.
It’s Not Personal
You are not your writing. A critique of your writing is not a criticism against you, not as a person or as a writer. It is about the work they have in front of them. You should never feel that your writing is precious and too delicate to take scrutiny. Yes, you put a piece of yourself into your writing. We all do. But once it’s in there, it is not you anymore.
If a critique does ever become personal–put a stop to it immediately. It’s about your work and they are not your shrink. But, know the difference.
Do Not Get Defensive
Sometimes, what we think are our best ideas, just don’t work. It happens to everyone.
One of the worst things that can happen to me in a critique group is not when someone tells me that my plot is crap, my protag is dull, or the action scene I sweated over for two days is mechanical and not believable–all that’s fixable. The worst thing is when a joke I love falls flat.
I sit, waiting to hear, “Oh, this line… it was hilarious,” and instead, I hear, “Oh, this line… I know what you were trying to do, but… meh.” That’s my weakness. My brain fights to rationalize. Maybe they were reading it in the wrong light, the wind was blowing the wrong direction, they were holding their tongue wrong. No.
That’s also why it’s important to have a group of critique partners. If most of the people thought it was funny, it can stay in. Not everyone is going to have the same sense of humor as you, so they’re probably not your target audience anyway. But, if most of the group (and, sometimes all of the group. Ouch) thinks it doesn’t work, it’s time to break out the tiny word-casket, mourn all you need to, and cut it out of your story.
Don’t every try to defend your work. You want as much feedback as you can get, and people aren’t going to want to help you if they know their honesty is going to cause an argument. They are there, taking their time to read your work and give you their honest opinion. That’s pretty nice of them–and arguing and defensiveness are disrespectful of that.
If you don’t agree with what they are saying, that’s perfectly fine too. Make a note of what they said. Then openly and sincerely say, “Thank you. I’ll certainly give that some thought.” And, then actually give it some thought. Getting hit with something you don’t want to hear can be jarring. Give it time to settle in.
I’ve had people tell me things that actually made me angry. I said the words I quoted above, and every now and then, something clicks in my brain a couple of days later and I realize they were right, or partially right.
That won’t always happen. Sometimes people are dead wrong, but they still have given you their time and energy and deserve your thanks.
Keep Your Audience in Mind
Sometimes when people are dead wrong, it’s because they are far outside your target audience. There’s nothing wrong with that and they can still contribute a lot to your story. A plot is a plot is a plot.
One of the critique groups I belong to is online. (I’ll link to it at the bottom of the post. I don’t want the link too close to this anecdote.) It can get a little rough. Sometimes I feel like I’m throwing my story to sharks and watching them rip it to shreds. Unlike the group I go to in Boston, online we don’t all live in the same city, aren’t exposed to the same diversity, and don’t all have the million other things in common that just living in the same area can cause. A wicked sense of humor is one of the things the majority of people here have.
One of the guys in the online group has no sense of humor–like none. The story I was working on is in first person POV and he didn’t get my character at all. This is kind of out of context, but one of the lines was:
The only Sergeant Flynn in the Boston Police Department was Liam Flynn, and it was unlikely he’d recommend my services. Not after our last conversation. Or as he called it, an intervention.
His response was, “I just don’t get this. How can a conversation be called an intervention?” He said stuff like like that about every single joke.
Everyone else wrote, “haha” or something similar in the notes. Sometimes the person just isn’t your target audience. But, he had other things to say on a plot level that made me rethink some things. So, even if you don’t agree and they aren’t the kind of person who would ever (in a kazillion years) buy your book, they will still have other things to contribute.
So, keep in mind who your target audience is and know that’s not everyone. But, don’t limit your critique group to people who are just like you. Outside opinions come in handy.
Bad is Good
I absolutely hate getting a round of good critiques, doubly so in the early stages of a story. Nothing productive comes out of that. There are ALWAYS things that could be better–ALWAYS. I don’t want to hear, “Oh, no, that’s all great. If I had to get nitpicky, there’s a comma on page ten that might not need to be there.” How am I going to use that to improve?
Everyone’s writing can be improved. Period. There’s not a writer alive who can’t get better at what they do. I am in critique groups to hone my craft. You can’t hone anything against a pillow. I do NOT like soft critiques.
The sessions I’ve walked out of where I felt my story had been shredded? Those are the most incredible learning experiences I’ve ever had as a writer.
You Need to Critique other People’s Work
Watching someone else’s process is a great way to learn. Honing your skills by helping other people improve their work will make your work so much better. Do they make settings feel more real than you do? They’re sitting right there! Ask them about it. If you see someone doing something you like that you could fold into your storytelling… talk to them. Learning from someone else’s process is not stealing, it’s not copying, it’s learning.
On the flip-side, it also helps you find things that you hate. You may find things in other people’s writing that grates on your nerves. That will help you cull it from your own writing. This is why I love watching B scifi movies. The dialogue that used to make me grind my teeth is fun now, because I try to figure out what I hated about the bad parts. It’s a game, and it’s improved my dialogue.
So, critiques are good. Bad critiques are better. And you might be scared at first. Putting work out to strangers and asking them to rip it apart is immobilizing at first. You get used to it and definitely come to appreciate it.
The great online critique site I mentioned earlier is Inked Voices.