Cruel to be Kind?


On the Writers Anon blog today, I discussed how valuable being part of a supportive writing group can be.  It’s not always possible to join a group, though.  Being one of Taunton’s most popular writing groups, there’s not always space available for newcomers at the Writers Anon meetings.  Though we’ve never actually turned anyone away, it’s come pretty close.  The same is probably true of other groups across the country, and the world.


As well as meetings, we run the blog mentioned above.  Our blog has helped new writers by providing a place people (anyone) can post up their work and have it critiqued by members of both the group and the internet populace in general. As I touched on in the other post, constructive criticism is one of the most painful yet valuable tools at a writer’s disposal, and I wanted to chat about that more.

Getting someone to read your work objectively is hard. People, on the whole, are busy.  Investing their time and attention on reading your book is a big commitment. Family and friends will do it as a favour, but for the most part they won’t critique it. They don’t want to hurt your feelings. Not that the objective of critiquing is to hurt anyone’s feelings, but if the writing falls short in any way, a loved one won’t mention it (or even necessarily see it). Their attitude is more often a patronising, ‘Oh, wow!  You’ve written all this all by yourself? How clever you are, etc and so forth.’

While it’s nice to hear it, that’s not exactly helpful when it comes to submitting your work to a professional. Agent or publisher, they won’t look at your book with your mom’s eyes and see only the fact that you’ve written something. They want you to have written something great.

Before you even think of letting an agent or publisher see it, you need to be sure your book is of a standard they want. You don’t get that without letting others see it first. Others, I mean, who are willing to tell you when it stinks.

Nobody wants to hear that.  It’s not what we’re in the writing business for. Naturally, we want to hear how brilliant our book is. Which it is, of course. But there may be aspects that need attention. Maybe the style is inconsistent. Maybe it’s too wordy for the target audience. Maybe you’re over-egging clues, or descriptions, or ideas.

Even if it does stink, it’s important to get several opinions before going back to page 1 with a red pen to start ruthlessly hacking at it. Opinions differ and personal taste plays a big part. Different people will pick out different things they had issues with, so don’t immediately rewrite your entire book based on one person’s view. That view may be wrong, or they may pick on a minor point other readers won’t even notice. However, if several people mention the same issue, then maybe you should take a look at it. It might need some improvement. If, after considering the advice you’ve had carefully and objectively, you still feel the book should stand as it is, then leave it. It’s your book, after all.

The nice thing about writing groups, whether they meet in person or (increasingly) in online forums and websites such as YouWriteOn, is that through them not only do we get our work read, we begin to learn how to listen and/or read objectively in our turn.

Taking criticism is one thing, giving it is another. Having felt that deep knife-wound of someone saying your dialogue sucks, or your characters are wooden, one might be tempted to return the favour, with interest. That misses the point. It’s not about point scoring, it’s about learning. It’s learning to hear our faults, reflect on them and correct them. Sometimes the best way to do this is learning to hear it in other people’s work. It takes time and practice, but the more you read others’ work in the raw, the easier it gets to see the good and bad in a piece of writing. By participating in this with others, such as in a group, or with access to their views via online postings, you get to see various points of view on the same material. It’s quite an interesting activity, seeing what other people make of something you yourself have read and critiqued. It can open you up to a new way of reading things, give you a deeper understanding and a more attentive attitude.

Reading objectively with a mind to finding both positives and negatives in a piece of writing transfers itself effortlessly to your own writing. Without even trying, you start practicing show not tell, reducing the number of adjectives, avoiding complex designators, improving your grammar. You start to see when a piece of writing is good or when it’s not, and discerning why.

So this whole critiquing business is a two-lane highway. You get feedback on your own work and learn stuff, and by feeding back to others, you learn stuff. How can you not win?

For those who haven’t felt the sting of rejection, or the wounds of criticism, a word of warning:  it’s a difficult, painful road. But it gets easier. Don’t look at criticism as a condemnation of everything you’ve achieved. After all, the fault someone finds in the extract they read may be a minor problem compared to the brilliance of the rest of your book. 😉

Don’t be afraid of it. Embrace it as part of the journey and thank that critic. They’ve just made you a better writer.

By Martine Lillycrop

Science fiction author. I write about worlds that could be and worlds that never were. My books are full of action, adventure and suspense along with cool heroes and likeable villains. Join me on an adventure to worlds unseen, along paths untrodden.

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