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Critiques – the Good, Bad and the Overly Critical

Mother kissing child

In my last blog, you may have read about my dilemma after I showed the first twenty pages of my Work in Progress to my sister, Bossy. Although I resented her attitude and resisted her suggestion, she did help to improve my work. (shh, don’t tell her!) On the other hand, initially her critique left me feeling uncertain, confused and discouraged.

Even with years of writing experience, tough critiques can devastate writers, leaving them blocked or stuck on how to correct their work. Most writers (even the highly successful ones who I envy and admire) are susceptible. Yet any writers I know, at some point, have their manuscripts critiqued.

So, when and how and who?

Baby staring at camera
Photo: Helena Lopes · Pexels

When to Present your Baby?

Over twenty-five years ago (yes, I’m THAT old), I joined an authors’ association. At one of the first meetings, we divided into groups to have our WiPs critiqued. Little did I know that I was placed in a group with the two harshest critics in the organization – let’s call them Steamroller and Slammer.

I presented what I thought was a lovely little short story. Because I was nervous, I had toiled over it for hours and hours, and I was ready to submit it to a contest. Steamroller had nothing good to say about it and Slammer found one sentence that he labelled as “sensual”, but he trashed the rest.

I was an inexperienced writer who hadn’t ever put herself ‘out there’. I came home from the meeting, called a close writing friend, and sobbed “I’m no good! I’ll never write again!”

“Don’t let them do that to you!” she said. “You can write. Don’t listen to them.”

It took a few days (or weeks!) before I started another story. When I presented again, I was with a much gentler group. They praised certain sections of my story and gave me constructive suggestions for other sections.

Ironically, I met Steamroller months later and she said, “Did you do anything with that story that I critiqued?” I said, “No, I deleted it.” Her reaction was, “Why? It had so much potential.”

There was nothing in her critique to hint that my story had potential! I figured that she was either kind (although there was no indication of that) or forgetful or she had me mixed up with someone else.

So when, in the writing process, should I have presented my story? I have found that it’s best to get opinions early on. Critiques are easier to accept and apply when I’m not yet emotionally attached to the work, when I haven’t edited it to, what I deem to be, perfection.

There are various opinions on this. Some writers won’t present before the story is 100% ready and polished until it glows. For me, though, I prefer to present a Work in Progress.

mother holding child's hand
Photo: Ron Lach · Pexels

How to Present your Toddler?

Since that first critiquing fiasco, I have found a safe critiquing group. By “safe”, I mean that the other writers in the group are there to help each other. We’re all presenting our stories every month and we’re all aware that we not only offer advice, we also offer support.

I present my WiP with the knowledge that someone may not like the way I’ve dressed my child, or the cute little ponytail in her hair, or the colourful hat on her head. But all of these things can be changed – I’m not yet committed to my choices.

So I start off with the idea that I will take some of the comments and leave the rest. As writers, we know our characters, we know what we’re hoping to achieve, and we know the direction that we want the plot to take. Critiquers, as helpful as they may be, don’t have the same insight so they’re not always right.

woman leaving with picnic basket
Photo: Anna Kanifatova · Pexels

Who Should See your Child?

As I said, find people who are supportive and honest. For me, it’s been other writers who understand the writing process but are also aware of how much we need support and positive feedback. I have been fortunate to find two critiquing groups who tell me what needs to be revised, but do so with empathy and respect for my work.

If you can’t find a group, I would suggest that you contact one person who also writes. If you can’t find that person, then perhaps you can find someone who’s an avid reader. Above all, I recommend that you only show your work to someone who you know will support you but won’t lie to you. Support and honesty – for me, that’s the combination that writers need.

A word of caution: avoid critiques from close friends who might be afraid to criticize you, or else they love everything you write, no matter how off-the-mark it might be. I call those ‘throw-away critiques’, simply because they do nothing to improve my writing. Once in a while though, it’s nice to bask in the praise and soak up those rays. Then it’s back to work.

And if you happen to run into a Steamroller or a Slammer, don’t worry: we all have. Afterward, choose the option of calling a friend (preferably one who writes). The most effective critiquers will tell you that either a) they don’t read/write your genre but some of their comments may still be valid or b) their comments are just opinions and others may see the story differently.

Ironically, I found out later that Steamroller and Slammer hadn’t ever published anything.

I wish someone had told me this before I packed up my blanket and picnic basket, put my baby back in the stroller and left the park.