If you’re serious about becoming a great writer, then you need to do more than write.
Sooner or later, you have to let someone read what you’ve written and (gasp) ask them to give you an honest opinion. Now, as your heart races and your palms begin to sweat, you might find yourself playing out a couple different fantasies in your head:
What, are you in kindergarten? This is terrible. Don’t quit your day job.
Wow, this is amazing! It’s like you were born knowing how to write. I can’t believe how intelligent and creative this is.
Make no mistake. These fantasies are equally absurd. And while it is natural for us to both seek praise and fear condemnation, the real emotions behind these dueling fantasies can blind us to recognizing the quality of advice – good and bad – when we see it.
Truly bad feedback is often easy to spot.
In fact, if it mimics the above dialog on either end of the spectrum, it’s rubbish. No, the first short story you ever wrote is not great. It’s not even good. At best, it’s got promise. And if it’s a rough draft, your tenth novel isn’t perfect either. But also, no, destructive criticism serves nothing but the ego of the person giving it. You’re not hopeless. Your short story, whether or not it was the first you ever wrote, needs to undergo the normal process of writing, rewriting, revision, editing, and possibly burying in a trunk while you sharpen your skills on something new. Developing thick skin is useful, but paying attention to blatantly destructive criticism is not.
Now, for all the critiques in the middle…
The most common advice is to listen to critique if 1.) it resonates with you or 2.) many critiquers agree. This is a solid rule of thumb but, as with many rules of thumb, it lacks nuance. What do you mean by “resonate” and how many critiquers need to agree? What if they contradict one another with their feedback?
The answers to most of the follow-up questions go back to point number 1, making changes when the advice resonates. But resonance is an inherently intangible concept, one that requires a certain level of self-awareness.
Self-awareness is, in my opinion, a highly underrated writing tool. To maximize its effectiveness, I offer the following tricks:
Be careful not to share your work with anyone before you are ready to hear criticism.
(At least as ready as you can realistically be.) Many worthwhile projects die because artists (and here I’m not just talking about writers) show their work too soon to the wrong person. Don’t share a rough draft you know is bad, especially if you already know what’s wrong. Never let anyone goad you into sharing your work. Share it on your terms, or not at all.
Don’t let just anyone read work in progress.
Be picky about who gets to see it. Your mom isn’t entitled to it just because she gave birth to you, especially if she’s overly critical or likely to take it personally that the mother figure in your fiction novel is a bad person. You get to decide who sees your early work, and to that end…
When participating in critique groups, vet them first.
You don’t have to walk into a forum, throw your first chapter to the wolves, then watch twenty rabid pack members rip it to shreds. First, see if they tend to do that to other people. Reading critiques of other people’s work will help you improve as a writer with less risk, and it will help you to identify potential partners. If Sally makes some great points about Joe’s story, a story you can view more objectively than your own, then maybe Sally will have some great insights for you.
Keep an open mind.
Nailed it! is a dangerous way to feel about a story you’ve just completed, especially if you then decide to send it out for critique. Be honest with yourself. If you ask for a critique of a story you’re sure is good, then what are you expecting except validation? You won’t get it, even if it is good, because someone can always find something wrong with a story. The more people you ask, the more “mistakes” they’ll find. In this case, you’re unlikely to recognize good advice even if you get it. If you’re sure you’ve nailed something, you might put it aside to get some emotional distance before sending it out. Or just reread it yourself. Hey, maybe you’ve written enough stories that you know a good story when you write one. Experienced writers can fall prey to this one, but the point is if you’re not going to accept any negative critique of your story, then the answer is simple – skip the critique and submit it somewhere.
Don’t be too hard on yourself.
On the other hand, if you’re sure your story sucks, you might also want to table it for a while. You might be able to recognize your own mistakes if you wait a few months, but even if you can’t, you should hopefully be able to listen to both positive and negative feedback in a productive way.
On a personal level, I have broken every single one of the above. I’ve let people read partial rough drafts and promptly decided to table the project; I’ve let my mom read my stuff because her feelings sometimes get hurt when I don’t; I’ve shared with new critique groups before I had a feel for the dynamics; I’ve sought validation by sending out stories I just knew were good; and I have shared work I knew was bad, then let the feedback, which was perfectly measured and reasonable, become its death.
Wise people learn from experience. Truly wise people learn from others’ experience.
Following these steps doesn’t guarantee you’ll recognize great advice when it smacks you in the face – life comes with no guarantees – but it helps. Understanding your own strengths and weaknesses is even more helpful because every artist’s process is different. Every set of needs is different.
At some point, too, you’ll need an editor, and while editors have more authority and (hopefully) more expertise than critiquers, some of the same guidelines apply. If you’re an indie author on a budget, I hope you’ll join me for the workshop “Indie Editing on a Budget” starting February 4th.
Don’t miss Christine’s workshop: