Critique–"If You Can't Stand the Heat, then Get Out of the Kitchen"
Critique is a vital part of writing. The ability to take critique well is the mark of a professional author, regardless whether one has been published yet or not.
Do not take critique personally, but DO take it seriously.
Writing may be a solitary business, but it is never a solitary endeavor. The purpose of writing should hopefully be to connect with others and to evoke a desired emotional response. Anything other than that is verbal self-gratification. Critique is the litmus test by which we writers can be assured of this vital connection to the readership. It’s nothing personal. If readers don’t understand, or are confused, or left to feel like they want to cut their wrists with a plastic lunchroom fork…the writer needs to know it. That is important information, because odds are an agent or editor (or book critic) will have the same reaction.
I love to watch Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, and have used his show as a parallel for the world of writing in numerous blogs. Every episode begins the same. A new restaurateur sits eagerly awaiting the great Chef Ramsay. Keep in mind that this restaurateur is only on the show in the first place because he sits on the verge of losing everything—business, house, car, kidneys, etc. Most restaurant owners who participate have waited until the situation is so dire that Vinnie the Crowbar is only kept at bay because of the presence of Gordon’s camera crew. Yet every last one of these entrepreneurs has the exact same first interview.
I think Chef Ramsay is really going to like the food. Well, I hope he does.
We have a really unique menu. The customers love it.
The restaurant’s design is truly innovative. I know Gordon will be impressed.
All of them boast about the menu, the food, the location, the theme, etc. And the first third of the show is almost always some pissed off restaurant owner trying to toss Chef Ramsay and his camera crew out on their collective ears because Ramsay has insulted them with—GASP—the truth. Yet, it never seems to occur to any of these folk what they are saying they want. They have a stack of bills and are afraid to answer the phone. The business is FAILING. Yet none of them seem to appreciate that if Chef Ramsay walks in and loves the food, thinks everything is perfect—location, theme, staff—they are DOOMED! Chef Ramsay is giving them the greatest gift of all…honest feedback. And, like anyone who is skilled at critique, he follows up with ways to cure the problems.
Yet how many writers behave the same way as these business owners when faced with critique? All of us, on a gut level, react emotionally to criticism. Unless you are a masochist, no one likes hearing the bad news. We love compliments and kudos, but are they enough to make us into the best writers we can be? I believe this is where one can see the defining line between the Wanna-Be Writer and the Professional Author.
The Wanna-Be Writer
- Holds people hostage to listen to latest writing
- Only joins writing critique groups because of the following:
- Family no longer returning calls
- Loves to hear the sound of her own voice
- Is looking for acceptance, accolades, and adoration
- Will only turn over work for critique after others fill out a signed affidavit promising not to plagiarize
- Is the first to learn how to make the nifty little copyright symbol ©
- Becomes hostile at any authentic criticism
- Can be counted on to never return to a professional writing group—often will quickly form her own writing group at a nearby Denny’s in response to the “mean, nasty, cutthroat group”
- Is always looking to master the query letter or the pitch—never occurs to him to change the writing (even after countless rejections)
- Brings the same writing with the exact same errors week…after week… after God-awful week
- Argues and defends
- Never reads other published authors. Believes other writers are published due to luck and therefore offer nothing valuable
- Wants something for nothing. The Wanna-Be is always hounding for “critique” but never has time for others. Only shows up to the writing group when she has something to read
- Unwilling to pay for edit, workshops, books or other means of growing in the craft
- Brings only the strongest, most refined sections of writing for critique
- Blames others for failures
- Generally negative and will backbite and stir strife (this is a person who has the power to poison even a good critique group)
- Makes excuses
The Professional Author
- Is always searching for ways to improve
- Genuinely desires to know the weak points in her writing
- Actively places himself in situations guaranteed to elicit feedback (both positive and negative)
- Possesses discernment (all feedback is useful, but not all feedback is valuable)
- Respects others’ time by listening to criticism and then fixing the problems
- Faces the weakest aspects of her character with grace, then seeks ways to grow
- Is often generous with his time when others request critique
- Is a voracious reader of all kinds of books, whether in genre or not. She values the successes and failures of her fellow authors, and also understands that one day she will want others to read her books. Quid pro quo.
- Knows sometimes it is necessary to pay for good edit, workshops, and other means of improving in the craft—sees this as a business investment.
- Returns to critique sessions even when it stings
- Brings the weakest sections of writing to critique
- Takes responsibility for setbacks and failures
- Keeps a positive attitude
Lately, there have been several blogs written about the value of critique. My 3 Favorites:
I think the problem with too many critique groups is they have a tendency to devolve into social coffee klatches that do anything but critique. In fact, that was a major impetus for my creating Warrior Writer Boot Camp in Fort Worth, TX. I wanted a place where a writer’s characters, outlines, ideas, everything could be tried and tested in the fires of hell before a single query letter was ever drafted. Are we mean? No. Are we brutal? Absolutely. It is like Chef Ramsay gutting you every single Saturday, thus is not the right group for every writer.
Social groups have a place. Writing is a lonely business. But whenever you are shopping for a critique group or partner, keep in mind the above lists. That will help steer you toward a group of motivated professionals who are dedicated to your success. The ability to take criticism is probably the quickest marker of a professional. The Warrior Writer understands that time is valuable. Pay attention and use knowledge to your advantage so you are spending your precious time in a way that will eventually reap dividends.
Likewise, pay constant attention to your own response to critique. Make sure to keep the attitude of a professional and remember that writing is fun, but it is also a multi-billion dollar business. So, when it comes to critique, the professional author knows that to survive and thrive, if you can’t take the heat, then get out of the kitchen. Best of luck and happy writing!
Until next time….
Go to www.bobmayer.org to sign up for a Warrior Writer Workshop near you.