Facing the Pain of Honest Critiques
By Evan Braun
When writers finish their first drafts, they often face one of two kinds of temptation. The first temptation is that they want to immediately show it to everyone—their spouse, their children, their parents, their friends, their friends’ friends, their acquaintances at work, etc. In other words, everyone they know. They’re proud of their work and they want to show it off.
The second possible temptation, and I find this is more common, is that they don’t want anyone to see it—not now, not ever.
As I’ve said in recent blog posts, first drafts aren’t for mass consumption. First drafts, by definition, are often terrible and flawed. They’re not necessarily even coherent.
So indeed, after a first draft, the best course of action is probably to keep your work to yourself. For the time being.
But after the second draft, when all the elements of your story are coming together and finally working, then it’s advisable to get the word out. Writers create in a vacuum most of the time—it’s a really solitary activity, for better or worse—so when you’ve got your story hammered together into working order, it’s time to get some feedback.
And when I say “feedback,” what I mean is “criticism.”
Gosh, receiving criticism in any area of life can be really tough. But getting critiqued about your writing is especially difficult. Why? Because writing is intense, an artistic expression of the soul. A writer pours all of their time and energy into their work, including the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears. And finding out that your book isn’t very good, maybe even a little bit bad? Well, that hurts.
When it comes to your art, criticism hits a nerve. It often feels personal.
I assure you, it’s not personal. And we need to all remember this.
The truth is that criticism is an absolutely crucial part of the process. If a writer does not seek out criticism of their work, they will not grow and change and improve. And growth and change and improvement is what building a writing career is all about.
Take it from me, a professional editor: working alongside writers to help bring out the most in their books, to help their prose reach its maximum potential, is incredibly fulfilling. It’s also like walking a tightrope.
I’ve been on both sides of the editorial relationship. Some people might think that because I’m an editor, I might already have all the skills I need to produce really strong writing. Well, that may be true in theory, but in practice it almost never turns out that way. As a writer, I don’t really have the ability to see my work clearly for what it is. Which is why editors need editors. It can be almost impossible to take off your writer’s hat and put on the one belonging to your editor. What you really need is that second, or third or fourth, pair of eyes. It’s essential.
So you’ve written your first draft, and then your second draft, and now you’re showing it to an editor, or even a close friend…
(Brief aside: when choosing who to share your manuscript with at this early stage, try to pick someone whose opinion you don’t just trust, but whose opinion carries a little bit of professional weight. If you wanted to know if a certain cup of coffee was good, you wouldn’t ask someone who had never drank a coffee in her life, would you? So when picking your critiquer, if you’re not working with an actual editor, choose someone with a wealth of reading experience… and not only that, but a wealth of reading experience in the same genre or target audience you’re going for. A fantasy reader won’t know anything about that great new romance novel you just finished.)
So you’ve turned your manuscript over to someone you trust, someone who is going to give you an honest appraisal of this literary masterpiece you’ve just concocted. And you wait with bated breath, imagining all the florid compliments they’re about to share with you…
But, of course, that’s not the point of a good critique. You don’t need your critiquer to remind you of everything you’ve done well, the things you’re already good at. You need to listen when they say, “Hey John, so this scene where Margory and David express their love for each other really isn’t working for me” or “Steph, the last half of Chapter Two, where you’re trying to explain the nuances of Jesus’s teaching at the Sermon of the Mount, doesn’t quite connect.”
You need them to be objective, to tell you what you don’t want to hear, to point out all of your deficiencies as a writer, often in nauseating detail.
This is going to be feel personal. It may very well make you mad.
You know what? Get mad! But try to at least be polite about it. We’re Christians, after all. Smile, thank them for their time, then go home and stew in rage for a few days. If that’s what you need to do.
Once you’ve calmed down, you’ll remember that they weren’t critiquing you. They were critiquing the work. And they did it because you asked them to. And you asked them to do this because you are committed to getting better.
Personally, I still go through this process, even though I’ve gone through the critiquing process hundreds of times either as the writer or the critiquer. I hand off a piece of work, I wait for the report, I get the report, I take offence, I remember why I’m doing this in the first place, I feel gratitude, I go back to work, and I steadily improve.
That’s the cycle, right there. Is it painful? Sure.
But you know what they say, that old annoying platitude: “No pain, no gain.”
It’s true—and there’s no getting around it.
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. Braun is an experienced professional editor, and has worked with Word Alive Press authors since 2006. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.