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Monday, May 14, 2012

Criticism—Constructive or Otherwise


      Have you ever finished a project—like painting a room—and been so full of pride with what you accomplished that you showed it off? Then, after you say "What do you think?" the person tells you all the mistakes? The line along the ceiling is crooked; you didn't scrape the paint off the window; you should have done another coat there because the former color bleeds through. There went your pride in your work. Like a balloon losing air, your pride (and confidence) went pfft. Well, you did ask what they thought.

     The same thing happens when you ask someone to critique your writing or you submit your work in a contest. Now, I'm not talking a first draft. It's the best work you've done. And the critiquer (or judge) tells you all your mistakes. Well, you asked.

     After nearly twenty years of writing and being critiqued, it's never easy. Last week, I got a double whammy. First, my in-person critiquer told me the first chapter of my new work-in-progress is crap. To be honest, she put it more politely. She told me what she always says—cut all this (highlighted), too much backstory or too much explaining. Then, my on-line critiquer told me to ramp up the emotion in my YA novel. Ramp it up? I thought it was. Oh, and, cut this (highlighted) too much explaining. Gee, ya think I have a problem being too wordy? The upshot is by the end of the week I felt a little bruised and battered. No, make that a lot bruised and battered. Was I being too sensitive? Probably. More like my ego was stomped on. By friends, no less. And my confidence went south.

     Now, I know better. Theoretically, I know they want me to succeed. Experienced writers repeatedly tell newbies (I've done it myself) if you want to be published develop a thick skin. If you can't take well-meaning criticism from a friend (critiquer) who has your best interests at heart, who wants your story to be better, how are you going to take editorial comments or reviews? Still, it hurts. When told my work needs more work, I get all defensive and start explaining why those parts are necessary. At least, that's what I did at the in-person critique. When the online critique came two days later, I didn't answer right away. I took the time to think about what she wrote before thanking her and saying I would work on it. Of course, the last was what I should have done in person, too.

     When I was a member of a writing chapter in Chicago, they held critique night once a month. One of the rules for the critiquee was to listen, take notes, and not talk unless asked a question. Good rule. Don't talk. Listen. The people who took time to read the work and offer advice did so to help make the writing better, stronger. So, it is with each critique. Usually. There are a couple of caveats to be aware of. If you really feel a person is being critical just to be mean, ignore them and drop them as a critique partner. It's worth bearing in mind that everyone writes their stories differently. You have to be true to your voice. Sometimes a critiquer wants your story to sound the way s/he would write it. You have to sort out all the comments and decide what works and what doesn't. The same holds true for comments from judges in writing contests. Take what works.

     While the above sounds like advice to anyone who lets another read their WIP, writing this post has also been a reminder to me. Listen, take notes, and keep my mouth shut. Next time, I promise. Now that several days have passed, I'll get back to those WIPs and see what happens when I delete the unnecessary parts (or cut and save for later in the story) and ramp up the emotions of the teens in the YA. I'll see if the stories read better. In the end, though, I have to keep another caveat in mind. It is my story.

13 comments:

  1. Good post and good advice. I'm looking for a critique group (I'll be blogging about that on Wednesday) because you're right, we sometimes need someone to point out the flaws. But it's never painless. No pain, no gain. That might apply to more than exercise.

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  2. Thanks for the reminder, Diane. And the "shut mouth, open ears" advice is great. Words to live by!

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  3. Very good advice, Diane. It's not easy to listen to critiques of your work and not defend what you believe is your best work. However, writing to please each adviser can land you in a mess if you're not careful. Finding the best advice to take for your particular voice and story is like trying to separate the grain from the the chafe. It takes a lot of shaking out before the good stuff is finally uncovered. Trial and error is a daily event in my own writing.

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  4. I love that advice, Loralee! And Diane, I know criticism is a hard pill to swallow regardless how well gentle it's given. First and foremost write to please You! Let everything else simmer, especially if the story is still in the creative mode. Later, if you've a mind to, make whatever changes you agree with and file the rest.

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  5. Your comments, ladies, are so helpful. I like the simmer & sift out analogies. So true.

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  6. Great post and advice, Diane! I am blessed with a wonderful critique group. It's an online group I found where I have found the best friends in the world, a critique partner I can't live without and absolutely adore, and more support, laughs, tears, joy, pain, sorrow, and comraderie than I ever thought possible in one group.

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    1. You are blessed. So glad it's working out for you.

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  7. It's sometimes so hard to take criticism, no matter how well it's meant. As writers we do have to develop thick skin, but it's not insensitive skin! Really enjoyed your post and pleased to know I'm not the only one out there!!

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    1. Hey, Laura. Thanks for stopping by. I like what you said abt developing thick but not insensitive skin. Very important differentiation.

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  8. great post, diane. i hate it when my critique group want to cut something i love, but i can't imagine sending out a piece without having run it through their eagle eyes. they are a marvellous way to find out if my words actually convey my thoughts

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  9. Absolutely. We can be way too close to our "brilliant" work. Always helps to get a reality check. We may not like what they tell us even when we know they're right. Thanks for stopping by.

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  10. Good points, Diane. I believe I am now publishable because of my critique groups, but you're right I've felt crushed from contest feedback. I lose faith for a day or two and then I take another look and a deep breath and figure out how to make changes that will improve that manuscript. It's hard because it means more work, but when I think about it, I've never not been happy with revisions.

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