I just published my second novel, and before it came to print, I ran it through the gauntlet that is my writing group. Yes, they liked some pages, didn’t like others. But at some point, if you are going to be an author – you have to let someone else read your writing and it’s best if that first person isn’t your intended reader with the final printed book in hand. Let the first readers be compassionate, honest people who will give you constructive critiques, that you can take back to that rough draft and make it better. My preference is my writing group and I recommend a good group for other writers, as well.
I listed some tips on how to give constructive criticism in a previous post. When done right, this should be helpful to both the writer and reader providing comments.
Accepting critique is the other side of that coin. It has to be done gracefully, for your fellow writers to want to continue to work with you. I know it’s hard. You’ve poured gallons of coffee and Pepsi, spent hours and hours, put in all your heart and soul into these pages, and now you’re going to hand it over to people to tear it apart. It’s like making the perfect chocolate mousse and giving it to a kindergarten class—you don’t even want to look. But trust that your writing group members feel exactly the same way about giving their pages to you. With constructive, honest and respectful dialogue, it will not be as much of a mess as you anticipate.
Here’s a few tips to keep in mind as you receive feedback from your fellow writing group members.
Don’t get defensive. Trust that you all are working together to improve each other’s writing. Don’t take comments as personal attacks (and they shouldn’t be given in that manner, either.) You are in the group for critique, remember?
Know that everyone will not agree. Each member of your group, including you, may have an entirely different opinion on your opening paragraph, the closing line and everything in between. Listen to everyone’s comments, take it all in, sift it together and make a decision that works for what you want to do.
Don’t try to explain. It’s natural. As soon as someone says that they don’t really think a little girl will follow a rabbit down a hole, you will want to explain why she would. Or how big the hole is. Or how convincing the rabbit is. But what the critique demonstrates is the crucial point: you didn’t prove it in your writing. If you have to explain to the writing group why, how, what, who, where, when, then you didn’t do it well enough in the story so it needs to be fixed. Your reader won’t have you sitting there filling in the blanks. Wherever you have to explain to your writing group, make a note in bright red Sharpie for more.
Learn from your writing group. You learn and improve not only by having people critique your work, but by being thoughtful about others’. I’ve had plenty of times where I’ve read something in someone else’s pages, didn’t think it worked well and realized I was making the same mistake in my own pages. Yes, the old log in your own eye thing. Or I thought “ahh – I see how they did that” and could apply it to my writing. Note – this is not about stealing ideas; if your writing group member’s heroine is being whisked away on a white pony, don’t stick a white pony in your urban legend. Its more about mechanics. Maybe you like how they end each chapter with song lyrics or effectively use multiple points of view. (Which is also the reason that writers must also be readers, too, but you probably are already doing that.)
Note the repeated comments. After several reads, you will start to notice a pattern in the comments on your writing. Your group members will ask for more details, tell you to cut long passages, use less technical terms, use less commas. We are creatures of habit, particularly our writing style, and tend to make many of the same mistakes over and over. Keep the comments in mind as you write and edit, before you give to your writing group. You’ll start to internalize their comments and write better, in earlier drafts.
Change your writing. Or not. You don’t have to change it. Perhaps you have decided that your character is going to jump mud puddles in her wedding gown as she runs away from the church and that man she didn’t want to marry in the first place. Your group members think she’d more likely hop back in the waiting limo or that it is impossible to jump in that dress you put her in. You have the choice to:
- Change something else so that you don’t have to change this part. Perhaps, she’ll wear a different dress better suited for puddle jumping.
- Change everything. Maybe once you heard other’s opinions, it was obvious that it didn’t come off the way your wanted, so it really needs to be reworked.
- Leave everything as is, it is your story afterall.
Write better. Yes, you love your story. You think its perfect. But the whole point of the writing group and critiquing process is to make your writing better. Listen to your writing group members and learn from it.