Now, bear with me here because I know that title is weird. I’ve discussed writing when you’re alone and scribbling away, but I haven’t talked about what happens when you finally hand over that draft that you’ve been working on.
It is in my humble experience that a critique of your work is never going to go the way you hoped it would. Even if the critique is a positive one. (A wholly positive critique doesn’t really allow us to grow our writing, so I’m not a big fan of gushing critiques without suggestions about ways to improve on what is already working.)
So, you give your work to someone else, preferably someone who also knows writing. It is all well and good to give your work to someone who you are close with (i.e. friend, family, that person who you admire at work), but if they don’t know a great deal about the craft of writing they might not be able to expand beyond “oh, it was good” or “this part was a bit confusing”.
It isn’t to say that this isn’t helpful because it still lets you get a feel for how your work appeals to a larger audience, but I really suggest that you find a group of writers that you can trust with your work.
They’ll be able to look at your work and back up their claims with suggestions on improving your character development, sentence structure, or overall theme. They might have the same instinctual feelings as other readers, but the difference is in understanding the language of writing and being able to critique work using those skills.
Now, what do you do when you’ve found a group of writers that you trust with your work? And let me be clear, you don’t have to be best friends with these people. I’ve had people that I wouldn’t necessarily spend free time with take a look at my work. I don’t need to be their friend. I don’t need them to like me, or vice versa. What I need from them is their professional opinion on how my work is progressing.
I’m a relatively quiet person, and one of the best critiques I’ve had was from an author who seemed louder than life. His voice boomed, and he was very willing to talk with his hands. That intimidated the hell out of me, but I wanted his professional opinion. You have your friends and your family who love you and like to spend time with you. Your editor does not have to be one of those people. Work and home. Church and state. That kind of thing.
So, you’ve given your writing to someone, and they’ve come back to you with a response. Great! Now here is where you can’t be a cactus. Let me explain: let’s say you get told something you don’t want to hear. It’s almost always a part you’re emotionally attached to because of irony. What do you do? Do you take a step back and process the advice they are giving you, or do you immediately hide your vulnerability behind a thick skin and barbed responses? Do you become a crabby cactus because someone took the time to look at your work and give you suggestions on how to make it better?
I tend to process critiques in two parts. I read what they’ve written, what suggestions they’ve given me, and then I leave it alone for a day or two if time permits. I let whatever emotions I’m feeling run their course, and when I have a clear head I return to the work. If you need to be emotional about a critique, you can only be a crabby cactus about a review for a short time. After that, it’s time to return to work.
I focus on why I had the responses that I did because whether or not it was a good response to the critique, it was a response nonetheless. I take note of whether I was upset because I felt that the response was wrong, or if I got upset because I didn’t like that my vulnerabilities were being called out.
I remind myself that I’ve asked for this help. It would be a waste of my time and an insult to whoever took the time to look at my work by being rash.
When you get a critique that sits funny with you give it some time to breathe. It might be just what you needed to hear.
Side note: some matchups don’t work. If you and the person simply aren’t working well together then don’t stick with it. There’s a difference between growing pains and flat out misery.
Now, once you’ve looked over the critiques it’s time to see if you have any questions for the person who read your work. If something didn’t make sense to you then you need to let the other person know. Ask them what they meant. Don’t be shy about asking a question about your work. Be respectful, and explain why you’re unsure about what they meant by X critique. We’re all human they might have left a comment in that they meant to take out. They might have been thinking about another part in your work when they made that comment.
Bottom line: the lines of communication need to be open, and there needs to be a willingness to communicate on both ends.
Bottom line #2: We improve by pushing ourselves. We improve by asking for help when we feel ourselves start to stagnate. Sometimes growth is uncomfortable, but I’ve never met a writer who was a cactus before 😉