Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Writing Critique: Survival Tips for Taking the Hits

by Cindy Jones

On the first day of my first writing class 16 people sat around a big table.  The second day there were 8.  By the end of the semester, four people occupied a much smaller table, and the next fall I returned to a completely new group of writers.  Writers who were not scared away by the first actual writing assignment were eliminated in the feedback sessions.  Lord Byron said,   
"In this world of bustle and broil, and especially in the career of writing, a man should calculate upon his powers of resistance before he goes into the arena."     
Even if your critique partners are sensitive and well intentioned, negative feedback can defeat a new writer. Here are a few survival tips to help you weather harsh criticism in the arena:

  1. Be a good listener.  Take notes and ask questions for clarification; don't argue or defend your work.  Delivering criticism is a delicate operation and if you become defensive your critique partner may shut down before delivering all the goods.  Getting a good reading is a gift, so listen to every word. 
  2. Be aware that some feedback will be obvious (why didn't I see that?), some will be helpful (I'll think about that), and some will be difficult (I never thought about it that way).  Sift through comments and be willing to consider things from a new perspective.    
  3. If the feedback is too overwhelming to process, put it on a back burner and let it sit for a while.  Everything looks different from a distance. 
  4. Consider the source.  Criticism sometimes says more about the criticizer than the manuscript.  
  5. Don't take it personally--even if it comes across personally.
  6. If you are afraid to make suggested revisions, save your old document and make revisions on a fresh copy.  Or paste your cuts to a new document so you can visit them whenever you like.  Change doesn't have to be permanent and good material can be recycled elsewhere.  
  7. Don't ignore criticism that you think is unjustified.  The fact that your reader missed the point may be a red flag that your work is not communicating as you intended.  Determine what they aren't getting and fix the disconnect in your own way.  
  8. Writers are complex individuals and groups have dynamics so if you leave each session feeling defeated, don't give up on writing.  Find a new group.  

The goal is to write the best book you can, and sifting through feedback to use the advice that gets you there is important.  Ignore insecurities that gravitate towards failure and keep your mind on the goal.  A writer submits to bruising critique sessions because writing is about communicating.  And critique partners allow us to test the waters before sending our precious work into the world.  The good news is that if you learn to handle the heat in writing group, your powers of resistance may be sufficiently conditioned to move onto the published authors' far nastier arena:  reader reviews.

Cindy Jones is the author of My Jane Austen Summer, the story of a young woman who thinks she may have realized her dream of living in a novel when she is invited to participate in a Jane Austen Literary Festival.  Her problems follow her to England where she must change her ways or face the fate of so many of Jane Austen’s secondary characters, destined to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.


  1. #5 is one that I would always tell my students, but is as difficult for me as well. So, #3 always helps!

    1. Same here! We put so much of ourselves into our characters that it is hard not to take things personally.

  2. Great tips, Cindy! It can be so hard to listen to a critique!!

  3. I don't have anything published,I'm still in manuscript mode.But,I like to read anything that helps.Thanks!

    1. Thanks for reading! Good luck and keep going!

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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