How to Accept Writing Criticism

 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.

Have fun!

How to Critique Work in Writing Groups

In reading your own work, you of course, understand everything that you meant to say, know the underlying motives of all the characters, know how the furniture is arranged, and can see the beauty of the landscape. But how does it translate to the reader?

Writing groups are a great venue to try out your writing on someone other than yourself. If you want compliments, share with the family and close friends who love you. If you want honest feedback, work with a writing group.  I’ve been with my current writing group with three other writers for four, or maybe five, years. They were instrumental in drafting my first novel, Life in Spades, and have been just as insightful for my upcoming second novel.

In a previous post, I talk about how to form a writing group: who to include, when to meet, and all those type of logistics.  Now, what happens when you all get together? Let’s first talk about how to offer critique; in a future post, I will talk about how to accept it.

Rule #1 and the most important step: read the submitted work. Allow time to read the submitted pages and make thoughtful comments. Even better if you can read it a second time. On a second read, something that you questioned the first read might make more sense or you might catch something you completely missed the first time.

The correlating rule: follow your group’s rules on submitting work. If you are supposed to share 10 pages by Tuesday at noon, don’t send 25 pages on Thursday night and expect that everyone has read your pages by the time you meet on Saturday morning.

As you read, offer useful and constructive criticism.  The purpose of a writing group is to make your writing better, not to get beat up by fellow writers.  Something like “I don’t like this paragraph” is not useful. Instead, provide more guidance, such as “this event seems out of place in the flow of the chapter.”  Consider other useful comments, such as the following.

  • The character’s motive isn’t clear or her action isn’t consistent with what she did in the previous chapters.  She walked into the coffee shop, threw a cup of water in her best friend’s face and walked out.  You want to know why.  She has never thrown water in anyone’s face before, it doesn’t seem like something she would do.
  • The meaning isn’t clear; the wording is awkward.  The syntax is off or is cumbersome.
  • This is too long of a description and I skipped over it (yes – this is useful to know!), or the inverse – This is too short and rushed, I want to know more.
  • The point-of-view switched right here and became confusing.  You want to know who is talking or how does this person know what’s going on in the other room.
  • I don’t understand what this word/phrase means. If the writer is using jargon, foreign words or technical terms, you may not understand the particular word, but the context clues should help, especially if that word seems important. If not, point that out.
  • This is not factually correct.  Did the characters go to Sunday brunch to celebrate the first day of the new millennium? You might point out that Jan 1 2000 was a Saturday.
  • This can’t actually happen.  As writers, sometimes we make characters do things we, in real life, have no idea how to do. And sometimes we get it wrong. If your writing group member has a character knitting a sweater with a crochet hook, changing a tire with a wrench, or paddling a yacht and you know better – tell them.

As well as critiquing what’s printed, look for what’s missing.  Sometimes there’s nothing essentially wrong with the writing – its clear, its grammatically correct, the story flows, but there still might be something missing. Ask the writer questions about what isn’t there.

  • What does the character look like?
  • What did she say, what was her reaction?
  • Where are they? I don’t understand the setting – are they at the beach, at the bar, in an airplane – or how they got there.

Along with things to do in critiquing, here are a couple “don’ts’.”

Don’t waste time with fine-tune editing.  Its probably an auto-response for writers to check spelling and grammar. You can’t help changing “their” to “they’re” and putting in that comma. If you must, go ahead. But don’t feel compelled or spend a lot of time on it unless it’s a glaring error.  There will be so many changes before getting to the final and there will be the time for fine tune editing later. If however, you notice that the writer makes consistent mistakes, for instance they always uses “lay” and “lie” incorrectly, offering the correction could save them time and re-writing later.

Don’t try to fix or re-write the story. As you mark areas of question and offer critiques, don’t feel like you have to fix it. If a character’s motive isn’t obvious, don’t rewrite the section to make it so. Likewise, if you don’t like Juliet falling in love with Romeo, don’t suggest she find another dude.  Allow the writer to take back your comments and figure out what she wants to do with it.

 

And lastly, one last “do” – Do provide compliments. Although most of my points have been on giving critiques, also note the things that you like in the writing. Draw smiley faces, scribble “LOL” or other inspiring notes to indicate some of the good points. We all appreciate hearing that at least one line on those 10 pages is pretty good.

 

Plan a Writing Day

When my writing group meets, we usually have sent each other our selected drafts before hand, had time to read them over, and scribble or type comments.  Face to face, we discuss our comments, ask questions, maybe even brainstorm a few ideas for someone who is stuck.  Recently, we decided to switch things up. We would write, enjoy breakfast, and talk about our writing. All of us have attended a writing retreat at some point, whether a day long or a weekend, and we planned to harness this collective writing energy to file a few more pages in our novels-to-be.  I’ve done this in the past with my scrapbooking friends, too. It’s all the creativity bouncing in the air, it spurs you to want to grab it and make something beautiful, too.

coffee

Coffee, laptop and a lot of ideas. All ready for a productive writing day.

Select a place conducive to your work.  Places like Starbucks and Panera are generally welcoming of folks hanging out for a few hours, but be mindful that they are in business to make a buck, not be your secondary office. Don’t take up more than a reasonable amount of space, do buy some coffee and food as “rent” for your space, and do be kind to the staff.  And if they give you the side-eye or keep coming by to clear up your table, that might be the gentle hint that your time is up.  We found a nice small coffee house that served breakfast and a light lunch and kept an eye out for a morning or mid-afternoon crowd. Of course, if your budget and calendar allow, you can plan for a weekend or a few days away from your regular life.  Be sure to invite me if you go this route.

Come prepared to write.  You don’t want to start off your day drumming the table trying to think of something to write. Jot down a few ideas before you come, think about where you want to jump in on an piece that’s already in progress.

Pack your supplies for writing. Are you a paper and pen kind of person or do you need your laptop? Don’t forget your cord or charger.  You may also want to bring headphones if you are one of those people who are easily distracted by conversation at the next table.  What else do you normally have? Do you need chocolate to keep you going, a special stress ball to help you think? Don’t forget your must-have writing accessories.

Prepare for writer’s block with prompts.  What happens when you get stuck?  What are your characters going to do next, where are they going to go, what’s going on? Don’t waste your time staring into the ceiling. Before our writing day, I wrote out a few writing prompts on index cards, ready for anyone to grab one if they needed a little push.  Perhaps you will stick with the idea, perhaps it will get your brains cells to think of something else, totally not even related. It’s all good. A few of the prompts to stick in your writing notebook:

  • Your character is stuck in traffic.
  • Someone offers your character something to eat or drink.
  • Describe one of your character’s flaws.
  • It starts raining.
  • Your character sees someone they think they recognize.

Watch your time. It’s easy to get carried away in the social aspect of the day. Set an agenda, allowing enough time to write (maybe 2 hour blocks), talk about your writing, enjoy a snack or meal, according to your goals for the day.

Have fun! This is what you want to do, right? Enjoy it.

Need more writing prompts? Check my Pinterest page – When Your Muse Takes a Break – for more ideas.

6 Tips for your Writing Group

For me, and I believe most other writers, writing is a solitary process. In fact, there were only a handful of people who even knew I was writing a book at all. In the very beginning, I shared the first few chapters with a couple friends and asked them what did they think of this as a premise for a book.  When they gave me the thumbs up, I worked to finish my manuscript, a very long and slow process of writing, re-writing, deleting, and re-writing some more. It was too much to ask friends to read in their spare time, but I definitely needed another set of eyes to look things over.  Why? Because what made sense in my head didn’t always translate that way on paper. Hence, I formed a writing group with like-minded and similarly goaled writers to critique each other’s work.

If you are in the same situation of writing – whether you’re working on a novel, a short story, a script, a poem, or anything in between – you may also find a writing group to be useful.  Here are my tips in forming, or joining, such a group.

Identify writers who are working in the same general genre.  For instance, the other members of my Wednesday group are all working on fiction novels, although the particular niche is slightly different. We have chic-lit/romance and fantasy, but they are all women-focused fiction. You can determine whether it matters if some are working on short story versus novel, but I think poems and novels would be a bad mix. Why? Because the writing style is different, the length of the work is different. You want to be working on similar projects.

Preview writing to make sure you like the other group members’ writing.  Call it judgmental, but you have to like the others’ writing or each meeting, you’re going to be upset that you’ve got to read something you don’t like and who has time for that? Further, be sure you like the story and genre of the others.  Erotica, sci fi, and historical fiction aren’t for everyone.  There could be a great writer in my group, but if she’s writing horror, every week I’d be walking around scared out of my wits.

Find group members you like as people.  You’re going to be meeting with these people on a regular basis for who knows how long. My Sunday group has been meeting for at least ten years; although members come in and out, there has been the same core of people since I met them. My Wednesday group has been meeting for over two years, every two weeks. You spend a lot of time with these people, baring your writing soul to them. Why spend that kind of time with people you don’t like?

Establish ground rules. Discuss when you will meet, how you will decide who will share their writing, how long a submission can be, how you will critique.  My Sunday group allows everyone to share a few pages that are presented at the meeting and read out loud.  My Wednesday group requires those who are submitting to do so a week ahead of the meeting day, a maximum of 20 pages; everyone reads and makes notes before the meeting, to be discussed in person.  Your decisions on the rules may be determined by the writing genre; for instance, the Sunday method is great for poetry, short story, and essays. The Wednesday method is a great option for novels, so you can read a chapter or two in whole.

Have specific tasks for members. Have someone responsible for various tasks so everything gets done. Like what?  Scheduling, whether reserving a room or confirming the host.  Time keeping, making sure everyone gets equal amount of time for discussion of their work.  Refreshments, determine who is bringing the coffee and the cupcakes or bringing the delivery menu.

Be respectful and be constructive. No matter what you are writing, writing is a very personal task. Beyond that, letting other people read your writing and then sitting back while they pick it apart is soul-bearing. Be respectful of each other’s work. In both of my groups, it’s common for someone to say something like “this doesn’t work for me,” “I don’t believe the character would do/say this,” “I don’t find this part is plausible.”  But something like “this is awful!” would be way off course, it’s hurtful and not helpful.  If you have an expertise in an area, offer it, whether it’s professional knowledge or from a hobby.  One of the members in my Wednesday group sails, so when another was writing about a storm, she could offer some useful advice on how a barometer works and how sailors adjust to winds and waves.

With all that, let me add this. What your group says is not gospel.  If they say “your main character running off to a desert island would be more interesting” and you want her to stay put in New York City – stick with it. Your group isn’t there to change or re-write your story, they’re there to help you strengthen the story you want to tell.

Enjoy your group and the group process.  Writing and re-writing can be painful enough, why add something to the mix that’s not enjoyable?

Are you in a writing group and have other tips? Are you considering forming a writing group and have other questions?  I would love to hear about your experience.