“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready’.” –David Mitchell, Black Swan Green
I’d like to share a secret with you: I hate receiving critique. I hate it so much, when I first start writing, I refused to even participate in critique. In workshops, I sat silent while disdainfully making excuses for each person’s opinion in my mind: She writes young adult books and this is an experimental piece, so she won’t get it. His writing is not that great, how can he give me any feedback that’s helpful?
Many writers are never taught how to receive critique. We should be.
My behavior makes me sound like a total jerk, but the truth was, the idea of changing a story terrified me. I was fine with giving feedback, sure, but when it came time for me to receive, I froze. I said nothing. I took my fellow writer’s comments on my printed manuscripts home and shoved them in a drawer. At one point I left a workshop in tears. I remember walking to my snow-dusted car, sitting in the freezing cold without turning the heater on, and telling myself how wrong I was to try to become a writer.
When I first started out writing, stories were not living, breathing things. They were SET IN STONE, unchangeable facts. “But this is what happened,” I told myself. That’s how the story ends. I wrote it that way on purpose.
But all writing starts with intent, right? We want to tell a certain story, a specific image pops into our minds and we need to describe it, even if we don’t know where the story will end when we start writing. Even if we’re just practicing, we’re still being intentional. Read a Flannery O’Conner story and try to tell me that every word, every action, every moment isn’t crafted by a steady hand. Inspiration often feels like we’ve been struck by lightning, but true craft holds meaning beyond the first moment of idea to paper. So no matter how much I told myself that this was my creative process and revision wasn’t necessary for me, dear reader, it was a lie.
Many writers are never taught how to receive critique, and even worse, how to ask for the critique we need. We should be. We’re taught, by fellow writers and teachers, that giving critique means the sandwich method: good, bad, good. Start with praise, end with praise. And often this is good advice.
The writer, on the other hand, is told they must sit, silent, while their story is put through the sandwich grinder by each person in the room.
When we ask the writer not to interact with their critic, we limit that writer severely. First, we should acknowledge the damage this can do to writers of marginalized backgrounds, who are often writing fundamentally different stories than we’ve seen in canon. While I’m not advocating for those writers to have to explain their work to a white audience, I do think there’s a value in that writer being allowed to speak up and give cultural context in a critique setting.
On a more basic level, this practice diminishes the voices of writers who simply respond better to dialogue. Asking questions, probing the critic’s comments deeper, and pointing out differences in culture, genre, voice, and style, are benefits lost during this style of critique. We’ve forgotten what critic is meant to be: an exchange of ideas.
This is why, at some point in the past few years, I decided the standard workshop format wasn’t for me. I changed my process to one where I only send work to a few critique partners, writers I admire instead of strangers. I started asking questions of my readers, like, “What confuses you? Which parts of the story are boring or slow?” If you’ve beta read frequently, you’ll recognize that these are part of a standard beta reading form. The beauty of these questions is they get to the heart of what needs fixing, and set aside the reader’s prejudices in many cases. “What do you think about character X’s motivations?” “Did this plot device feel contrived?” I allowed myself to ask for pure praise in some cases — on the stories close to my heart. If a critique partner seemed preoccupied with something I didn’t ask for — such as grammar, typos, or their own idea of how a story should work, then I allowed myself to find other partners. I allowed myself to dismiss parts of critiques that didn’t apply to my own vision — without feeling angry or frustrated.
A beautiful thing happened. I realized I no longer dreaded my critique partner’s emails. Instead, I felt eager to open them and learn what they thought of my work. My perspective opened. Instead of thinking bitterly of how one writer’s feedback wasn’t for me, I began to work on seeing the story from their eyes.
In turn, I began to think about who my ideal reader might be, shaping them in my mind’s eye. Seeing the reader as a real, living person, allows our stories to feel real and living, especially during revision. This is where the creative lies — in uncertainty, unpredictability, chaos.
Oscar Wilde once commented that to critic a work of art means creating a new work of one’s own. Critique, in itself, is a form of artwork. We wouldn’t demean another person’s writing like we do their critique of our own work. Why should we receive it with any less openness than we would a Van Gogh painting?
Originally published at www.theartistunleashed.com.
Holly Lyn Walrath is a freelance editor based out of Houston, Texas. She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She provides editing services for writers and organizations of all genres, experiences, and backgrounds, but enjoys working with new writers best. Find her on Twitter or visit her website.