Critiquing: #1 – Getting Punched in the Gut

In past years I’ve written a few posts on the topic of critiquing which generated several comments. Now that I’m back in another critique group, I am reminded of how difficult it can be to adjust to the critiquing styles of a new group of writers. It takes time to get to know and trust each other… time to understand what kind of feedback each one needs and desires… time to determine how best to provide individualized and constructive criticism that’s truly helpful.

In an April post five years ago I said, “Good critiquing is as much an art as good writing. Anyone with a modicum of editorial ability should be able to go through a manuscript and highlight problems with its plot, characterization, structure and grammar. I believe it takes someone who has also experienced a writer’s journey — who has survived through the creation of her own fictitious world and thus understands the exhilaration and desperation that is a part of the process – to be able to offer advice in a way that is both helpful and welcome.”

During this next week I’m going to dig into the archives and re-issue two posts on the topic of critiquing, Here’s the first…

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How do you feel when you offer your writing for examination and it gets torn apart? For me, it would depend on the motivation of the person who is doing the criticizing. Does he/she sincerely care about me and want to help me improve my writing, or is he/she using the opportunity to dish out personal opinions and humiliate? Since I would be looking for an honest evaluation I would expect to hear not only about my manuscript strengths, but also its weaknesses. What I wouldn’t appreciate is to be told that large chunks of the story should be deleted or rewritten because “it will sound much better than the way you wrote it,” or to be told the work is unredeemably bad. That would feel like a punch in the stomach.

It’s painful to get negative critiques on one’s writing but how do you deal with them? I’ve discovered several recent posts on the topic and would like to offer a few excerpts for your consideration.

In mid-September (2010) Phoebe Kitanidis blogged about “The jerk in your critique group,” but with an unexpected twist – she referred to herself as the jerk! In an effort to avoid any negative feedback from her fellow writers she found she wasn’t submitting anything for critiquing that hadn’t first been polished to perfection. Having others not find anything negative to say about her work felt good. It made her feel superior, and in turn she offered arrogant opinions on the work of the other members.  She ended up discouraging others and not learning very much herself at the critique sessions.

In retrospect she saw herself and others like her as “people invested in the idea of themselves as writers—but not especially invested in the craft of writing itself.”

On the Writer Unboxed website Anna Elliott says, “There comes a point for every writer, published or not, when you have to let others read your book.  It’s a scary moment, because however hard you’ve worked, however much you love your beloved manuscript, there are never any guarantees that your reader will love it, too. … When I’m still in the writing/revision stage, I try to remember that my first loyalty is to the story I’m telling, not to my own feelings.”

So if we steel ourselves to turn in less than stellar writing for peer critiques, how do we handle the emotions that erupt at the inevitable criticisms and suggestions?

Kristen Lamb on the Warrior Writers site  says, “I would like to point out that a good critique might very well make you angry. But, before casting judgment, take a break, calm down, then ask yourself why this person’s comments so upset you.

“A really good critic is highly skilled at finding your greatest weaknesses. That is a good thing. Better to find and fix the flaws while a work is in progress and changes can be made. But, it is normal to react. Thus, the best advice is to breathe deeply. Listen. Calm down by breathing deeply some more. Ask questions. Check your ego. And then grow. Trust me. One day you will thank these people for having the courage to be honest.”

One reaction on the Writer Unboxed post: “I’ve heard so much about rejection in the industry, but I wasn’t expecting it from my friends. I know this is going to sound bitter, but when you get your manuscript back, you’re going to find out who your true friends are. They’re the ones who will give you the bad news with a soft touch, and the good news with a big smile.” [Tamara]

There are always tactless people who feel superior and need to prove it by tearing down others, but Kristen says,“they were born little creeps who just grew into larger creeps.” Perhaps we have to accept that, and, if we truly want to grow, put aside the hurt and carry on.

It’s good advice if you can follow it. Have you ever had to deal with tough or unfair critiques? How did you cope?

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3 thoughts on “Critiquing: #1 – Getting Punched in the Gut

  1. Hi Carol –

    I’ve got to follow some of these links. Your post touches a sensitive area for every writer.

    Over the years, I’ve learned to choose my critique partners carefully – people who know my heart, yet who will be honest in their evaluation. I steer clear of mean-spirited people.

    As far as critiquing others, I try to determine whether they really want a critique or just a pat on the back. Some writers out and out say they’re happy with their work and don’t want to learn the fine points of writing.

    Thanks,
    Susan :)

  2. Darlene says:

    I have been very fortunate to be part of a small but effective critique group for the past three years. Everyone is honest but gentle, respecting each others style. My writing has improved tremendously and I have learned so much. I like to think that I have added to the others writing as well. It is amazing what others see that you miss. We get too close to our own work and “can’t see the forest for the trees” (sorry for the cliché).

  3. Helga Bolleter says:

    Well said, Carol. Being a critique group member can be extremely satisfying and a positive influence on our writing career. But, just as a marriage, not all work out. It can be tricky to find the right partners, and there is a risk it might go sideways – or outright damaging – but if a group of sensitive and like-minded writers join together, it’s a gift and a blessing. There is one useful ground rule: leave your weapons at the door. It sounds weird, but serves as a reminder that the whole purpose of being there is to help others. No ego tripping. I have been lucky to belong to a fantastic critique group whose members have become some of my best friends. We have learned and grown together over time, with some initial growing pains. But we trust each other and that’s key for a well-functioning group.

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