Critiques – Part One – Getting Them

It can be hard and hurtful to get a critique. Almost as hurtful as those little impersonal form rejections every writer–every single writer–gets in the mail. If your feelings are delicate, even tactful and constructive criticism can hurt. But critiques are the road to improving your work, and the road to feeling confident about it, sure of developing voice. And sometimes the road to that feeling of power and pleasure when people respond to your piece just the way you meant them to.

The best way to defuse the hurt is to remember that your work is not you. The criticism your piece has received is not a personal attack against you. If you can’t get your emotions out of the process to some degree, then sleep on the critique before you respond. I sometimes have to do that.

Another thing to do is to educate your own critiquers. If someone says something like “You suck! Don’t give up your day job! Just put down your pencil altogether!” then they may not be worth educating at all–certainly don’t have another critique from them. But if people are honestly trying to give you criticism, then help them understand what you need from them. The next critique may be better, and you will be enormously aiding them as well as yourself. Teach by example, too: be tactful in, if you will, critiquing the critique.

And what do you need from them?

Above all, honesty. You need to hear the whole story about your piece: what worked for them, what didn’t. And why, if possible, although sometimes people can give you their impressions but don’t know why they did or didn’t like something. I like to get both first immediate impressions, where the reader laughed or winced, and a reasoned, after-the-read discussion of what worked and did not.

Also, diversity. One person’s opinion is not enough. The more the merrier. If only one person thought that word choice didn’t work out very well, and the other six people who read it thought it was great, then you can probably leave it. If all seven of them hated the ending, you might consider a rewrite.

Don’t underestimate your own strength of will. If all seven people hated the ending, but you really, really think it works, you don’t have to rewrite it if you don’t want to. You are the ultimate arbiter of what happens in your story. The reader is half the equation, half the connection you’re trying to make, but don’t forget that you are the other half.

We’ll talk more tomorrow about how to do a good critique. Now let’s talk about fears.

A beginning writer–or even not-so-beginning–is often afraid to throw open his or her work to general reading, and even more afraid to let people critique it. Here are some common fears that people have.

Someone will steal my ideas! Human beings have been telling each other stories, and then writing each other stories, for thousands of years. There aren’t any really new ideas. Moreover, even if someone did steal your idea, their presentation of it would be totally different. The characters you come up with, their interactions, your settings, your whole story is what you’re selling–not just the basic idea. It can, in fact, be very instructive to read two different stories by two different writers, based on the same premise. Nobody’s going to successfully steal your ideas.

Someone will steal my actual story! You are protected by international copyright law. When you have committed the story to electrons or to paper, it is already protected. You don’t have to formally copyright it. If ever you see your work somewhere else under someone else’s name, point it out to your lawyer. It rarely, rarely happens, in the first place, and in the second place, you will have two satisfactions: the certain knowledge that your work really IS good enough to publish, and the ability to legally whack the thief in the head.

My stuff isn’t good enough for someone else to read! (or) I don’t want other people to read my work, it’s just for myself! You will definitely have to get over this one if you want to be a published writer. Why not now? If your goal is to hug your stories to yourself and gloat, or to feel like you’re accomplishing something without ever getting close enough to publishability to have to do any work, like sending it out (I did this for years), then carry on thinking this way. If your goal is to get published and have adoring fans send you letters, and have actual money come out of your work, then you need to improve your work to the point of publishability. You will have a hard time doing that without readers, and good critiques (giving and receiving) will be a profoundly important step along the way.

I’m sending my work by email to friends, or to a critique group. Don’t publishers consider that legally published already and refuse to buy first rights? You have to be a little careful. If you post your story on a website that’s open to anyone, or to a public free story compendium somewhere on the web, then yes, publishers sometimes consider that it has been already published. However, if the critique group requires a password to read the stories, even for a really big critique group like, or if you’re sending it via email to a circle of friends, it has NOT been published. The difference is whether only some people can see it, or whether anyone can see it. So if you put your work on, or livejournal, or your wordpress journal (we’re talking about full stories here, not excerpts) it has been published. If you send it to 1200 people in a large critique group, but only to them, it has not been published.

I’m going to get my feelings hurt! Oh yes, you are. Risk is part of living; if you aren’t taking any emotional risks, then you are never going to get any emotional prizes, like the lightning strike of joy that comes when you get a piece accepted for publication. But philosophy aside, if you aspire to be a published writer, you will eventually be getting rejection notices. Oh yes, you will. If you have experience in dealing with critiques, the rejections will not hurt so much. In addition, getting critique after critique will give you practice in dealing with the hurt, and putting it in the proper perspective, and learning to make use of constructive criticism to improve your work. The practice will make successive critiques hurt less. Really!

Anyone have any worries that I’ve missed? Please post them if so, and I’ll see whether I know anything about them.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. leafless
    Jun 14, 2008 @ 11:47:36

    “Moreover, even if someone did steal your idea, their presentation of it would be totally different…..Nobody’s going to successfully steal your ideas.”

    I strongly disagree with this notion. It is always more difficult to come up with an original idea than to present that idea. Sometimes, it would take months for me to come up with a novel idea. I wouldn’t want anyone to just steal it and modify or enhance it to his or her liking. That’s just unacceptable.

  2. Asherose
    Jun 14, 2008 @ 14:01:47

    Yay, a person who disagreed with me! You’re the first one. Thanks very much!

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