Are you nervous about having your writing critiqued? Welcome to the club.
Just like reading reviews of your work, critiques are one of those things that most writers get nervous about. In my experience, though, critique, both positive and negative, is a powerful tool for improving one’s skills.
A friend who is just starting out recently joined our writer’s group. She was asking about how we approached critiques, and confessed to being a bit nervous about submitting her work. We assured her our goal was to be helpful and considerate at the same time, an approach we have refined over the years. Then a discussion ensued on the differences between helpful and potentially hurtful criticism.
Several of us have been on the receiving end of criticism by our peers which we found less than helpful. We’ve also had feedback that was inspiring and constructive. My friend asked for more specific advice, so I mentioned my previous blog post on the subject, How To Survive A Negative Critique. Her question called to mind some other things I have learned in the past five years I have been attending my critique group, and I thought it might be helpful to new writers to share some things to consider before they submit their work:
-Just Do It. Writing without feedback is writing in a vacuum. Being nervous is normal, but you won’t overcome it unless you put your precious words in front of some eyeballs. When you finally do become published, you will be judged by the entire world, so starting out with a few writers you know is a relatively safe way to begin. You may actually waste more time by writing without ever getting feedback, and end up having much more to correct and edit in the long run.
-Start small. Start by submitting something short─a scene you are working on, or a first chapter. First chapters are actually great to start with, since the opening of a story is considered to be the most important part, and also the most difficult thing to do properly. New writers have a tendency to start the story in the wrong place as well, so don’t be surprised if someone points that out. Writing great openings takes practice, and feedback can help you to learn how to do that more efficiently and sooner.
-Baby Steps. By starting with something small, you are not facing judgement of the entire project. Learning to take criticism and use it wisely takes practice. Separating your emotions from the feedback takes practice, too, as we tend to identify closely with our work when just starting out. The more you write, your perspective changes and you realize you can always fix what you wrote, or write some more. You will learn over time how to discern which feedback is structural (plot issues, grammar problems, etc) and which is subjective (the person giving the feedback is filtering through their own tastes).
-Submit Clean. Always clean up your work before submitting! Go over it multiple times, use a grammar guide, run a spell check. No, it does not have to be perfect, but clean it up to the best of your ability. I’ve had to critique some work where the premise was exciting and interesting, but the grammar, spelling and general writing was so bad that it was difficult to understand what was happening. Some folks think, “I’ll clean it up after they critique so I don’t have to do it twice”. No. Just don’t do that. It is a disservice to others who are taking the time to provide feedback when there are a billion other things they could be doing. Have courtesy for your readers, even when your work is in a “raw” stage.
-Alpha Readers. If you have cleaned up your work and edited it to the best of your ability, but you feel you still need major help with grammar and structural issues, consider submitting it to only one or two trusted writer friends. Family and non-writer friends may not give you the kind of feedback you need at this stage. They might be overly kind or overly harsh, depending on the relationship, or they may give neutral feedback to avoid saying anything. One or two trusted writer friends may be able to point out what needs to be done to prepare your work sample so you can submit it to a larger group for feedback.
-Fair Balance. Be willing to provide feedback to others. Yes, this means taking the time to read their work and give thoughtful feedback. This process provides tremendous insight as to what to look for in your own work, and helps you to realize others are being brave and putting their work out there. Even though it sometimes made me uncomfortable, I submitted my writing to my critique groups and beta readers as often as I could. I also reviewed the work of others as often as I could. A successful critique group requires this balance. If certain members only review others, and never submit their own work, or keep submitting but never offer critique to others, it can cause discomfort among the group. Besides, those who only do one or the other are missing out on half of the purpose of critiquing─to become a better writer.
-Be Specific. When asking for feedback, indicate what you are looking for. If it is just a general impression, say so, but it will help you to consider what you are looking for specifically. Examples might be: Does this opening hook you? Does the dialogue in this scene sound natural? How much work do I need to do to clean up my grammar? Is there too much backstory?
Taking it step by step will help you to build your confidence so that when you do get that first truly negative critique you’ve been fearing, it won’t hurt as much. You’ll be better equipped to take it for what it is worth, and learn from it.
I hope this helps those of you who are new to writing. I still have a long way to go, and I will soon be facing the next level of critique of my work─the general public. I am sure to learn from that experience as well. Wish me luck! I wish luck and great learning for all of you.