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.
I also love watching Ramsey walk in. These people want help– like those who sign up for courses or critiques. Yet, in my experience, 95% are really looking for validation. They have no idea what is wrong and, really, don’t want to know. My writing career has been peppered by many crashes into the ‘harsh rocks of reality’. Each time I gather myself up and try to figure out what I can do better. What I have to change.
Warrior Writer is designed to help writers overcome those psychological blocks– mainly fear– that keep writers from finding their true potential as artists AND learn to have a sound business plan as an author.
Great topic. Great insight. I think it’s important to find other writers simply to be understood, accepted, and share what only another writer can understand. Critique isn’t about stroking each other’s egos (although, compliments are always welcome and are a part of the process), it’s about making our work the best that it can be. I consider myself very lucky. I have some great published author friends who are always there for me to discuss and brainstrom my ideas. I also have found a great CP after a fews years of searching. Thanks Kristen!
My favorite line: all feedback is useful, but not all feedback is valuable. How freaking true is that? I’ll have one person say, “That wasn’t believable.” and the next person “That was totally on the money.” But, as Stephen King says: the tie goes to the writer.
There are many people out there, unfortunately, like the first group you mention. Bitter, lonely people who never want to grow. Too bad. They have ample opportunities to learn and grow if they get with the right group.
Kristen, you always seem to nail it on the head with your posts. You have a good eye for what ails the unwashed mass of humanity known as writers–and whenever you critique my work, it’s always for the better. Usually MUCH better.
Oh, and I have met Mr. Ramsey…his other name is BOB MAYER!
I couldn’t agree more that honesty is invaluable to the professional writer. I’ve received incredibly helpful feedback that has stung at times, but I’ve been able to take it and improve my work. In addition, tact is equally valuable, in my opinion. The same information can be conveyed in a respectful way. I don’t believe anyone is doing the profession a favor by slaughtering another writer’s dreams with a brutal critique. Great topic.
Great post. And timely for me. A beta reader just gave me back my manuscript with lots of suggestions. Some of them are totally on the money and others I’m not quite sure of. My first beta reader didn’t find those things as a problem. Before I go changing things that may not need to be changed, how many beta readers do you suggest should read the manuscript? Should I get a third opinion? Thanks for any advice you can give.
Like any statistical analysis, the more data you have the more accurate the picture. And remember that all critique is useful, but not all critique is valuable. It is common sense that you pay heed to the commonalities. If three people are confused in a certain section…then rework. If one is confused? Take a look but that person could just be having a bad day. I recommend you read an earlier blog in this series, “Kill the Little Darlings, They’re Rigged!” It will help you weed through your feedback. And get as many beta readers as you can. There is no set number I am aware of, but the more information, the better. Happy writing, and thanks for the feedback!
This is a great post. I’ll be linking back to it from my blog soon, I can tell. Thank you!
I highly enjoyed reading this article, keep on posting such interesting articles!
“Are we brutal? Absolutely. It is like Chef Ramsay gutting you every single Saturday, thus is not the right group for every writer.” I don’t think getting utility from being gutted — or doing the gutting — is necessarily the metier of every pro. Is there praise to balance the other response? Gotta have both. If we don’t know what we’re good at, what business do we have seeking what we need to improve? Who moderates? I run response groups in Austin. No gutting, but honest response. Several books published among members. Me, I gut when I go fishing. But Boot Camp is what some writers seek. Lots of good advice here, but the debate over professional writing and the need to slash continues.
This is an old post, but I NEVER give any critique that I don’t also 1) give a way to reap and make better or 2) be cognizant to point out what a writer did well. I left the group because frankly, they were too thin-skinned. Every time it wasn’t fluff and glitter, it was regarded as a machete. We can’t grow in a place that just wants pats on the back.
Sorry, I was confused. (I got to this five-year-old post via a WordPress “related posts” link.) I thought you were leading a group where gutting was important. Are you in a group now that’s moderated? I was in a writing group once that was group-moderated, that’s to say, none to speak of. It got a little Lord of the Flies in there. I just want to leave a writing workshop group session feeling like I know more about my story, both sides of it — and I’ve seen some gutted writers who produce less after a meeting. Learning >< gutting.
I led and moderated the group and “gutting” is a relative term. Some writers believe they have been filleted if you don’t tell them every word is unicorn glitter, LOL. No worries. Great to meet you. I quit attending writing groups namely due to having a baby and when I became published my workload increased.
Thank you so much for the plug. And you are so correct. It is absolutely vital that writers learn to take critique well (even the bad critique). We have to remember that everyone has an opinion…including readers. We don’t always agree, but is wise to at least listen. Thank you, Andy, again!