by Terri J. Huck
We all like to think our prose is perfect. When we turn in a story or novel for critique, what we really want to hear is that it’s perfect. Our prose sings! The characters are fascinating, their motivations clear, their goals tangible. The pacing is dead-on. Don’t change a thing!
Of course, we all know that isn’t the reality. More often than not, the feedback we receive can be frustrating or even disheartening. But skipping this step is not an option. Even well-established writers rely on a trusted group of readers to critique their writing at various stages.
So whether you are participating in a workshop or asking for feedback from your own trusted group of readers, here are some tips for making the most of a critique:
• Take your emotions out of the equation. This is easier said than done, but it’s why many workshop leaders don’t let the writer who’s being critiqued say anything until everyone else has had their say. Writers naturally want to jump in and defend their work, which can make it hard to hear what people are saying. Pretend they’re talking about someone else’s work and take lots of notes. Some writers even make an audio recording of the comment session—with permission, of course—so they can listen again later when they’re calmer and more receptive.
• Pay attention to the criticisms that most readers voice. In general, if everyone in a workshop is saying your plot isn’t working, they’re probably right. On the flip side, if most say your protagonist is worth rooting for and one guy disagrees, don’t let that guy cloud your judgment.
• Zero in on the reader or readers who really get what you’re trying to do. If you have even one reader who enthusiastically supports your story, pay close attention to what he or she says. You might want to schedule some one-on-one time with that person to kick around ideas or get more feedback on certain aspects of your work. He or she could become a valuable writing ally, and of course, you will reciprocate by helping with his or her writing.
• Keep an open mind. Some suggestions will make perfect sense and be easily incorporated. But often when we have a strong emotional reaction to a critique it’s because deep down we know the criticism is right but the fix is overwhelmingly difficult. There’s nothing worse than hearing that your characters aren’t believable or that your novel needs to be completely rethought and restructured. But on the other hand, it’s better to hear that now because few agents or publishers would take the time to tell you that. They would simply reject your manuscript.
• Give yourself a chance to digest what you’ve heard. If you leave your critique session with a stack of marked-up copies, jot down some notes about what you’d like to change or maybe just consider reworking before diving into the written comments. Give yourself a chance to feel in control again because ultimately it is up to you what you do with the feedback.
• Take credit for the things you did well. It’s easy to lose perspective and only hear the negative comments so be sure to revel in the praise you get.
It can be tough to listen to criticism, but learning to turn a critical eye on our work is the only way to transform all that beautiful chaos into something that readers can appreciate.
Terri J. Huck is an editor and managing partner at Possibilities Publishing Company. She blogs about researching and writing historical fiction at TheSmellOfGunsmoke.com.