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The importance of criticism

June 10, 2013

Earlier today, I finally – finally – sent one of my short stories off for critique, having agreed to do so around a fortnight ago.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, parasitic creatures are involved with the story in question.

Honestly, I’m feeling rather nervous about the whole business.  I was intending to send the story a lot sooner, but upon re-reading it I decided that I just wasn’t happy with it.  I then spent ages holding off on showing the story, hoping that I could somehow make it “right” before showing it.  Even now, having finally sent it, I’m not particularly pleased with it; but then again, I would probably continue to think like this no matter how many times a re-wrote it.

And this, I believe is precisely the reason why I need to hear someone’s opinions on it.

I won’t deny it: people’s opinions are scary.  I can’t think of anything worse than pouring your heart and soul into a single piece of work, only for it savaged afterwards.  But then again, isn’t this precisely what happens to every published work ever? If you can’t bare to have your work read by even one other person, then how on Earth will you cope if your work has been released to the public?

I would also argue that criticism is necessary for us to learn as writers.  When it comes their own work, I reckon that just about everyone is a little bit biased  No-one can be expected to be completely objective about their own writing, which is why we to show our words to those who can be.

That said, if you do hope to get published then I can understand why showing your WIP might not seem ideal.  There is, however, a way around this: namely, write something specifically for the purpose of getting it critiqued.  That way, you can work out how you can improve your writing without having to reveal your precious WIP before it is done.  Plus, if your WIP hasn’t been going so well, then trying something different may provide you with the break that you need.

This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why I decided to start writing an online serial.  It was also originally the reasoning behind the story that I’ve just sent off.  Said story is now the basis for the novel I’ll be starting in July.  Go figure.

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From → Writing

20 Comments
  1. I agree with everything you’ve said here. I find that if I keep re-reading my work then each time I find things that can be changed which is why it’s useful to get someone else to read it. I definately agree that you can become too close to your own work and that obvious problems with it don’t stand out. I think you’re going about things the right way and having someone else read your story is the only way of finding out if it’s any good.

    I actively seek feedback for my writing. It always makes me nervous but I know it’s the only way.

    Good luck with getting your feedback for your story.

    • Thanks :). I’m kinda hoping that the process will become less scary as I do it more, but I doubt that’ll be the case.

      Becoming too close to our own work is certainly a major issue. I imagine that just about every writer runs afoul of that trap at some point.

  2. Feedback can be painful – Here I am, seeing my writing from the inside in all the shiny colours of what I am trying to convey, and, bang, I’m told how it looks from the outside, with some of the colours missing or muddy or plain wrong. I fret a bit, fix the small, easy things I agree with, put it aside, try to think of other stuff, not how I can’t write for toffee… and then… after 24 – 48 hours I get excited, begin to see how to fix it to put the shine back on it, an even better shine… until the next dollop of feedback!!
    Hope they like your story, Nick 🙂
    (I stumbled across a really mean little review of one of mine today online. Still smarting. It never ends.)

    • Thanks, Bobbie! It’s actually a heavily edited version of the one I sent to you ages ago; thanks again for providing such thorough feedback back then.

      Sorry to hear about the bad review. I suppose it’s impossible for a book to please absolutely everyone.

  3. Yes, getting feedback can be nerve racking (And I agree with you Bobbie Darbyshire– even after you are published it never ends.) As for pre-publication feedback, I am going through that again right now with the next novel. It is just so amazing what someone outside the project will pick up or be knowledgeable about. Once you get that feedback how it can lead you into an entirely new place for the book.

    Just remember, feedback (and reviews for that matter) are just someone’s opinions. You are the author and must make the decisions which work in your world you have created. I don’t know how many beta readers you have, but I find at least three is helpful. Five is even better.

    For example: From my three beta readers for the opening chapter of The Light Side of the Moon (Other Systems #2) I got three very different responses.

    1) one said “I love that you opened the book with a student dissecting pig organs. You totally drew me into the character.”
    2) ) one said: “ewwww. I have a weak stomach!”
    3) and the final one said, “You need to remove the pig organs faster so not to taint the meat.” Yes the main character is doing a science experiment, but I made it clear the family also must eat the pig.

    So obviously I had to rewrite to protect the families food source, but I also am most definitely keeping in the dissection because one of the themes of the entire series is scientific discoveries and pushing the boundaries of human knowledge, but if I only had #2’s opinion, I might have decided to pull it the scene and try something else.

    I hope you get lots of good feedback!

    • Very good point concerning the number of beta readers. I’ve actually shown the story to a fair few people over time, but only two have seen the most recent version. I’ve had comments from one person already, but am going to wait and see what the other says before I do anything drastic. I’ll almost certainly try to find more people willing to beta-read if and when I find myself editing a full book.

      Best of luck with your new novel; I’ll be sure to get it when it’s out.

  4. It is an unfortunate part of the process when you put your work up for analysis and feedback. You just need to be sure the reader will be constructively critical and give supportive feedback =)

    • Thanks for stopping over! So far, the feedback I’ve been getting has been really helpful, and I see no reason why it won’t continue to be so 🙂

  5. I’m late to this party, but I wanted to add that I love this part of the process. I need an audience, need someone to read what I’ve written and enjoy it or hate it. I can’t write for myself and sit in a vacuum with it. I don’t love every word I write, in fact I hate some of them, but I love the sensation of setting it free. I love the idea that someone else out there wants to read what I wrote. It’s a high. When the reviews come back, the anxiety is equally high but I can’t wait to see what they say: for good or ill. When I find myself frowning and doing the angry-cat face, that’s when I know I probably screwed up. I thought it was good but it wasn’t. Especially if every reader says that.

    You also get a good idea of how it reads; what people are taking away from the story. Sometimes you find out your story means something you didn’t even intend. Sometimes that’s cool. Sometimes you want to swan dive off a building. Just remember, if people are asking to read your stuff, that’s pretty awesome already.

    • I certainly find myself wanting to dive off a building whenever I know I’m about to receive feedback, but said feedback has usually turned out pretty positive up until now. I probably just haven’t received enough of it yet.

      But yeah, having an audience is pretty crucial in my view: there’s no point in writing something if you’re just going to keep it locked away indefinitely.

      Thanks very much for stopping over 🙂

  6. Excellent post. Yes, criticism is necessary to grow as a writer. Don’t get caught in the sand trap of re-writing and editing. You were smart to move on and expose it the editing process. It is there you will learn how to better edit yourself down the line. My first chapter, first page, came back covered in comments from my editor the first time. Blow to the ego, education for the soul. I’m less wary about exposing my work now. Find someone you trust who can teach as well and critique you. May I suggest http://page99test.com/. This is where I go to get toughened up and expose my work before the editor even sees it. She suggested it to me. Blind reviews, good system.

    Looking forward to reading more of your posts!

    • Hi Robynn

      First of all, thank you very much for stopping over here. I learned not to fall into the rewriting trap quite early on, but it’s taken me far too long to become willing to show my work to others. Better late than never, I guess :).

      Also, thank you for the link; I must admit that I’ve never heard of that website before. I’ve just set up an account on it.

      • Wow, someone took my advice! LOL Just joking. That’s awesome you checked out Page99. I hope it helps you as much as it has me.

  7. I have some clichés for you: “You can’t please everybody;” “Just be true to yourself.”

    They may be cliché, but I believe them to be true. 😉

    That said, I do love criticisms because they’re the only way you get to know what others think of your work, as well as perspectives and interpretations you might never have thought of during the writing process.

    • Well, they sound true enough to me 🙂

      Alternative perspectives are always good to have. They keep us from getting completely trapped in our own little writing bubbles, for starters.

  8. I agree, criticism is useful. WHEN it’s useful, that’s another question. I mean, if someone said ‘Look, you can’t write well, you’d be better doing something else with your time’ that would be hard to take. But could be true. Short of that, you can use criticism to improve, and the more you get, the more used to it you get.

    • Very good point. I guess that separating out the “good” criticism from the bad is another skill that we have to learn as possible. Telling someone to give up writing is one of the most hurtful things that one can say to a writer; I’d immediately file such criticism under “bad”, personally.

  9. magicandwriting583 permalink

    Funny thing being a writer… You’re both your (sometimes) worst critic, and yet you don’t see some of the obvious problems because, well, it’s your precious! I’ve found, though, that sometimes taking an extended break from my work and then coming back later helps me look it over with a fresh eye.

    Not that that excuses getting it critiqued. As of yet, the only person who’s read my work is a friend, who only says, “It’s great!” which isn’t really good criticism. At first it was a nice compliment but now it gets on my nerves because it doesn’t help me improve anything. I know my work isn’t that brilliant or anything, but how can I fix it?

    Thanks for stopping by my blog! 🙂

    • The idea of extended breaks is something I’ve heard before. I’m pretty sure Stephen King said at one point that he leaves any given story for three months before he begins redrafting. I could be wrong, mind.

      From my (very limited) experience, friends and family and rarely good for serious feedback unless they themselves are writers. Are there any local writing groups in your area? If so, maybe you could get some better critique there. There’s also a blogger I know who put out an open request for beta-readers not so longer ago, though I’m not sure how common that is.

      • magicandwriting583 permalink

        Three months? Wow. The most I’ve ever made was, currently, a month and a half, before going back to edit.

        I have a cousin who’s a writer, but she lives quite far away and she’s really busy, so she can’t help me much. Aside from that, I really don’t know anyone else. Granted, I haven’t actively searched for critique groups in my area. Perhaps I should try that…

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