Taming the beast we all must face

lion 2
Intimidating at first, but eventually, just a big ol’ pussycat

When I was part of a writing group last year, each week we would read and critique a few members’ sets of pages. Some were just starting out, some had a few scripts under their belt, and some had been doing this a while. You can probably figure out which category I fell into.

Simply put, some of the writing just sucked. Really sucked. Like painful-to-listen-to sucked. To my credit, tempted as I was, I never actually expressed my thoughts that way.

I fully understood that not everybody had a firm grasp on the basics, and I, along with a few others, made a sincere effort to explain what would help improve their work. While a majority were appreciative of our comments, a select handful got defensive, some even to the point of flat-out dismissive, of any kind of comment that didn’t reinforce their belief that their writing was fine just the way it was.

This was one of the things that helped me decide to leave the group.

One of the universal truths about being a writer is that not everybody’s going to like what you’ve written, and just about everybody will have a suggestion as to how it could be better.

While there’s nothing you can do about the first part, the great thing about the second is that it gives you options. A lot of them. You like what this person said? Use it. Don’t like what that other person said? Ignore it.

Some people will make suggestions based on how they would do it, which is all well and good, but what’s more important is how you would do it. Do you agree or disagree with what they’re saying?

You’ll be bombarded with a wide variety of opinions, but don’t feel like you have to incorporate every single one. And while you may be the final word on what works and what doesn’t for your story, you shouldn’t dismiss every suggestion either. Some of them may be more helpful than you realize. There are a lot of  writers out there with more experience than you, so their opinions should be at least taken into consideration. But it’s okay to disagree with them, too.

Speaking from experience, it takes time to learn not to take criticism of your material personally. The comments you receive may sting at first, but you have to remember they’re about the material, not you. Read them with a “How can I use these to get better?” frame of mind. That’s the only way you’re going to improve.

One last thing – make sure to thank the person for giving you notes, even if you totally disagree with everything they’ve said. Doesn’t matter if you asked them to do it or they offered. They took the time to help you out, and the least you can do is acknowledge that and express your appreciation for it. And it’s the polite thing to do. Manners still count.

3 thoughts on “Taming the beast we all must face

  1. I have been putting on attending a local writers group that starts with poetry and ends up later with fiction screenwriters meet in the middle. As I was saying I’ve put off going because I want to go and see who is attending. Maybe not take anything I’ve written or just the first page. I had a book stolen from me before and I a little gun shy. (Long story) what do you think?

    • It doesn’t hurt to give it a try. Take into account the experience level(s) of the other members. See if their comments have any weight to them.

  2. To grow in skill, it’s necessary to learn how to accept criticism. As rank beginners, we tend to conflate our writing with ourselves. Get over it! Don’t argue! Write down every comment, even if you disagree. Then wait a few days before addressing the input.

    The art of critique is deeper than the craft it attempts to assist, so not everyone who can write passably can criticize effectively. When it’s your turn to analyze, start with positives. Stress what worked, and ask for more of it. Don’t feel you have to mention every fault, especially with new writers; you’re not going to create any Tolstoys with a single story. Be honest. Be clear. Give specific suggestions re how to improve, or alternative plot directions, or books to read.

    Never criticize poetry; it’s a waste of time. Just smile, nod, and say, “Very evocative.”

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