The power and importance of constructive criticism

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When I finished writing my second novel in seventh grade, I was appalled at the idea of an editor suggesting changes to my masterpiece.

“I’m never going to let an editor change my work,” I vowed back then.

Erm … ahem. That’s a vow I’ve broken in the years since.

Even though most writers go through the mood swings of “My latest work is great!” and “This is the most garbage piece of writing in existence,” by the time we hand off a work-in-progress to a beta reader, critique partner, or editor, there’s that voice in the back of our minds uttering a hopeful chant of, “Please like this. Please think it’s brilliant. Please don’t slaughter the page with a red ink pen. Please say it’s beautiful and perfect.”

That’s the fear of rejection talking. Sometimes it takes some effort to push past that fear and bring reason to the forefront. Because reason will tell you, “I’m handing my work off to these people to polish it up. I want it to be its shiny best before I share it with the world. I hope they find it to be a worthy draft, but I also hope they come back with a lot of feedback.”

No draft is perfect in its first form. Not even that book I wrote in seventh grade that I vowed would never see an editor’s touch. (Although, to be honest, it hasn’t seen an editor’s touch. Mostly because it’s such a rambling, random, aimless mess that there’s very little worth salvaging.)

A tale of two critiques

When I attended the 2017 Prairie Writers and Illustrators Day in November, I signed up for a Chapter One critique from a professional editor. A couple months before the day-long conference, I sealed my first ten pages in an envelope and sent it off with a stamp and a prayer. (My prayer mostly being, “Please don’t hate this and tell me I’m a talentless hack.”)

On the morning of the conference, I picked up my critique at check-in. I carried it around in its folder for quite a while before I opened it. After many deep breaths, I delved into the feedback I received on the opening pages of The Mountain of Dempsey Molehill.

There was a healthy dose of positive feedback … and a healthier dose of constructive criticism.

My heart sank slightly when I first saw the list of items that needed work. But as I read each bulleted item, I felt as though someone had cleared a path through the dark, murky writer’s forest for me. When I’m in the thick of writing or self-editing, its easy to miss things hidden behind the trees. There are flaws I don’t see. But when a fresh set of eyes takes a look at the story, they can clear out some of the trees and help me see a better path through the story.

In Mt. Dempsey, one of the most crucial bits of feedback I received is that the story is told through Dempsey’s point of view, but the earliest drafts had Dempsey positioned as a bystander. He was simply telling the story and reporting what he saw. Readers weren’t getting to know him on a personal level. They weren’t getting his thoughts or reactions. In a first-person narrative, it’s important to filter the story through the narrator.

I couldn’t see that missing detail. I was bogged down with plot and overlooked a piece of characterization.

That’s the importance of handing writing over to a qualified critical eye. They’ll spot the weaknesses (and no matter how much we don’t want there to be weaknesses, they’re unavoidable). Once those flaws are spotted, we can patch them up with edits.

At the aforementioned Prairie Writers conference, I crossed paths with a local teacher and fellow writer who has since become my critique partner for Mt. Dempsey. Once again, handing pages over to a new set of eyes was nerve-wracking at first. However, having a teacher who works with my target audience on a daily basis brings an invaluable expertise to the table. The devil is in the details, and she’s able to spot little lurking devils such as word choice that doesn’t fit the age group’s vocabulary, falling into the trap of  cliches or stereotypes (such as one scene that falls into the “big dumb bully” trope), and content that isn’t PC for the target market.

There’s also value in learning a reader’s reaction versus writer’s intention. In our most recent critique session, my partner mentioned how she finds Dempsey’s mother unlikable. That’s not the intention (Mama Molehill is meant to be strict, but not cruel). But hearing a reader’s reasons for why she isn’t a likable character helps me to go back and soften the character’s rough edges.

The value of outside eyes & opinions

A critical reading is part of the process for any traditionally published author, who frequently goes through an agent as well as publishing house editors. For independent authors (like me), critiques are just as vital to seek out. Even though independent authors are able to sidestep publishing industry gatekeepers who might otherwise reject a novel, that’s no reason to dodge the type of service they provide. After all, most novels get rejected for a reason. Self-published books deserve the same polishing as traditionally published works, even if that means extra work on the writer to revise, revise, revise.

Authors can be too close to their own story. Impartial readers can spot things like:

  • Inconsistencies. One time I had an extremely minor character whose name I decided to change midway through the draft. A reader spotted a few places where I forgot to replace the name. Whenever I skimmed the pages, I knew who it was, but the name change threw the reader for a loop. If you’re a slower writer like me, it may be weeks or months between writing a scene and then referencing it later in the book. Readers are going to consume the pages must faster than you write them, and they’re likely to catch when story elements don’t balance.
  • Confusion. Just because a passage makes sense to me doesn’t mean it will come across to the reader. I know all of the backstory as well as the intent of everything that happens in the book. Having someone indicate places that need clarification is helpful.
  • Bor-ing. It wasn’t until after I released “Sarah & Katy and the Imagination Blankets” that I discovered the opening of Chapter 16 got bogged down in description and the action screeched to a halt. How did I discover this error? When reading aloud to my nieces, one of them rolled her eyes and drawled, “Bor-ring.” Ouch. As much as the criticism stung, it’s good to have someone point out (before publication, ideally) which spots lose the reader’s interest. As much as I enjoyed describing the scene of the safari, the book would have been much better served if it were whittled down.
  • “This just doesn’t work.” Chances are we’ve all heard the phrase “kill your darlings” by now. But it’s hard to make that decision yourself. Maybe you love a character, but they just don’t fit in that particular book. In your heart of hearts you may even know it, but you keep trying to force it to work. Sometimes you need another person to hand you the knife and guide your hand at slashing away passages, scenes, chapters, or full characters and story arcs.
  • Unintentional messages. Remember my aforementioned Mama Molehill example? How a character or plot thread come across in print may not be how the writer intended it.
  • Accidental harm. For certain writers, it may help to seek the aid of a sensitivity reader. For example, a heterosexual writer incorporating LGBTQ+ characters may want to run the book by a reader from the appropriate community to flag any offensive elements. It’s unfortunately easy to accidentally include a line or scene that misrepresents or hurts readers from backgrounds outside our own experience. I once used a simile in a scene featuring a black character that a beta reader fortunately flagged before publication because the phrase could have been received as racially disparaging. I would never intend to represent another race, culture, or community in a derogatory manner, but intent doesn’t matter once the words are in ink and the damage is done. Another set of eyes can save readers from being wounded by misused words and can save authors from losing trust and respect.
  • The nuts and bolts. Critiques from fellow genre writers can dig into the nitty-gritty elements specific to your genre. Is this plot thread falling into an overused trope? Is the language not age-appropriate? Plus, there’s the obvious little elements such as grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Another set of eyes improves chances of cleaning up the writing. I have a bad habit of omitting words when I’m having an inspired writing session, and when I reread the chapter, my brain tends to insert the word I know should be there even when it’s not in front of my eyes. A different reader is more likely to stumble over my missing words and make a note to add it.

If you’re critiquing for another writer

The University of North Carolina’s Writing Center provides an excellent list of guidelines to assist writers and beta readers in critiquing someone else’s work. The full set of suggestions can be found here. Below, I’ve quoted several passages I find especially helpful.

For each type of critique, it’s important to state your praise, criticism, and suggestions politely, but with the appropriate level of strength. The following language structures should help you achieve this challenging task.

A strategy called “hedging” will help you express praise or criticism with varying levels of strength. It will also help you express varying levels of certainty in your own assertions. Grammatical structures used for hedging include:

Modal verbs
Using modal verbs (could, can, may, might, etc.) allows you to soften an absolute statement. […]

Qualifying adjectives and adverbs
Using qualifying adjectives and adverbs (possible, likely, possibly, somewhat, etc.) allows you to introduce a level of probability into your comments. […]

Tentative verbs
Using tentative verbs (seems, indicates, suggests, etc.) also allows you to soften an absolute statement. […]

Whether you are critiquing a published or unpublished text, you are expected to point out problems and suggest solutions. If you are critiquing an unpublished manuscript, the author can use your suggestions to revise. Your suggestions have the potential to become real actions.

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6 Responses to The power and importance of constructive criticism

  1. Great list! I find outside help is so valuable that we really do have to get over our fear, over our desire to be “good enough without it.” I doubt any story worth telling has ever been told well without help from others.

    By the way, you might be interested in a Writers Club, https://ryanlanz.com/writers-club/. It networks with publishing professionals to help authors, and it offers free editing and blurb coaching as a perk.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. trinitygrau says:

    Thank you for this interesting view on critiquing! I too suffer from this fear of being critiqued. I want to learn how to stand it; I guess we all just have to suffer from experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In college, I took a creative writing workshopping class. Every time we met, we workshopped one person’s writing. (So basically, the student of the week would print 20+ copies of their work, distribute it, and everyone would read and evaluate.) Our professor had two rules: (1) The readers had to be constructive in their criticism and try to find a balance between sharing both what is good and what needs work in the sample. (2) During the workshop, the writer can’t speak. At all.

      For the writers, this could be an agonizing setup, because of course we wanted to be able to explain, clarify, defend, etc. But it was also a perfect practice of thickening our skins and, most importantly, making us focus on *listening* to the feedback instead of focusing on defending or explaining our writing.

      The large size of the class also illustrated a deeper point: When one person would say, “I dislike this character because of XYZ and you should remove them,” another person would interject, “No, this is my favorite character because of ABC and you should keep them.” This reinforced that much of literary critique is subjective, and the preference of one critical reader isn’t going to represent them all. In the end, it was up to each writer what feedback to keep and what to reject.

      Eventually it got easier to hear the criticism, and it got easier to discern what suggestions to keep and what to reject. I don’t know if I’ll ever be 100 percent *happy* to get negative feedback, but these days I’m definitely 100 percent *grateful* for it.

      If you can build a writers group using my professor’s two rules, I think you’ll learn to stand it quickly. It’s a model I think works well to break a writer into the process.

      Liked by 1 person

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