One of the best ways to improve your writing in general and your work in particular is to apply the criticism of others. But where do you go to get such a critique? And how do you take it? Having your work critiqued can be occasionally painful; how do you deal with negative reactions?
If all you want to hear is praise about your work, then you should turn to friends and family who never say a bad word to your face. This will prevent your ego from being damaged. However, if you want to improve your writing, you have to find people who are both willing to look at your work and who are competent at writing, or at least at analyzing what they read.
Where do you find such people? If they are not in your close circle of acquaintance, then you will have to step outside that circle. In many ways, it is good to step outside your normal circle of friends for literary criticism, because relationships can be strained by writing critiques. Your friends may provide you with great, right-to-the-heart-of-the-matter comments that help you improve your story by tall bounds. But you may write so terribly that your friends don't know what to say and feel imposed upon by the request. Or you may write so well that you make your friends jealous. Finally, some of your friends may be willing to critique your work, but simply lack the expertise and experience. Over the years I have encountered all four reactions.
These are all reasons for turning to relative strangers for critique. There are many ways to do this. Some of them are free; others cost money. There may be writing groups that meet in your area. These can be great; face-to-face meetings with other writers can inspire you and give you a shot of creative-laden energy. They can also be timewasters, spiraling down into social meetings -- pleasant, perhaps, but not useful. The problem with these meetings is that they are constrained by time and space: whoever in the surrounding area can get to the library every other Tuesday, for example.
Another possibility is an online critique group. If you search on the internet you may find one that suits your specialty.
Some alternatives involve money but should not be dismissed because of this. You may take a class or a seminar, either in person or on-line. Another possibility is to hire someone to look at your work individually. Some people may scorn the idea of going to "book doctors," because they feel that they should not have to pay in order to learn to write. Perhaps these people can't afford the money, but I don't see why a service, if it offers you value and insight, should not be paid for. Another reason people are leery of paying for help is because they are afraid of getting ripped off, which of course is always a possibility. So if you are considering this, you should always check references.
People who give you criticism are often known as "critters." I'll be using this word occasionally in the rest of the article.
Say you have found someone or some people you want to look at your writing. What should you give them? Unless you already have a working relationship with these people, please consider the following two suggestions:
1. Start With a Sample. Unless you are paying someone to read thousands of your words, then don't begin by saying, "Could you give me a critique of my 80,000-word novel?" This sort of request strikes terror into a busy person. Instead, ask your potential critter to read and comment on a few paragraphs or pages. In fact, this is a pretty good thing to do with a book doctor, too -- this way you can test your potential hire.
2. Give Them Your Very Best. Don't think that poor grammar and typos are excusable, simply because you are not sending your work to an agent or an editor. Wait until you have finished your piece and re-read it several times before passing it along. Not giving critters your best is actually insulting because you're wasting their time; you are telling them that they do not merit your very best. If you give critters a piece full of obvious mistakes, then you may ruin your chances with getting a good critique of the story. In addition, they may be reluctant to look at anything else.
Not giving critters your very best wastes your time, too. How? Well, good critters should be used to help you find the problems that you can't find on your own. If all they do is point out the problems that you already knew were there, then how have they helped you?
Receiving praise is easy. All you have to do is smile and say thank you. But what should you do when the response is less than flattering?
You may not be able to smile, but you should still say thank you. Someone has taken the trouble to offer you an opinion. Unless you have half-a-dozen qualified opinions to the contrary, you should listen.
Still, what if it hurts? You may be offering your masterpiece, your child, your very soul in this story -- the slightest criticism can sting. What do you do?
I'll start by saying what you should not do: do not reply hastily and negatively, especially with insults. Tell them that you appreciate their taking the time to tell you what they think. Even if you know they have made a mistake -- for example, if they have claimed that Benjamin Franklin never went to France, when you know that the opposite is true -- point out this difference of opinion politely.
The most difficult chore is dealing with the possibility that what you wrote has genuine flaws. What do you do? Here are some suggestions:
1. Take Pride in the Fact That You Wrote Something. Many people dream of being writers; far fewer get around to actually writing their stories. So by writing anything -- even if it is not great -- you have done a lot. The first big step is simply writing. The second big step is learning to write well.
2. Distance Yourself From Your Writing. One reason criticism of your writing can hurt so much is because you see it as an extension of yourself. Recognize that your writing is not you; try putting your ego away and concentrate on making your work better.
3. Remind Yourself That Others Have Taken a Long Time To Learn How To Write. Why it should be any different for you? Many people seem to believe that because they know how to read, they also know how to write. Perhaps you enjoy watching professional baseball -- you understand all the rules, you know the statistics, and so on. Do you think that just because you know how to watch baseball, you could hit a homerun out of Yankee Stadium? Or consider professional figure skating: when it's well done, it looks easy. But we all know that these things are not easy. Why should writing be any different? You have to do your exercises and learn the craft.
4. Take the Criticism and Apply It. When you accept the criticism, and apply it to your story, your work will get better. You will also start gaining that necessary distance from your work so that you can see -- and fix -- the flaws before others do.
If you join a critique group, make sure you give critiques at least as often as you receive them. There are several reasons for doing so. First, it's simple courtesy. Second, when you give a thoughtful critique of someone else's writing, you are much more likely to receive a thoughtful critique in return. Third, as you give another person a thoughtful critique, explaining what you did or did not like about a particular paragraph, you will be simultaneously be laying down the foundation for improving your own writing, as you notice what does and does not work.
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Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at
Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such
publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her
hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring
mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or
contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.
Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.