I’m going to be straight up, I’m terrified of critiques. Not because I think my work is just so perfect that it’s completely incapable of containing serious flaws, or anything. What’s more terrifying is people really delving into something that I’ve put sweat, blood, and tears into. Whether it’s well received or not is less important to me, but the vulnerability that entails when submitting work for critiques is terrifying.
That being said, it’s a pill all writers should learn to swallow. It can be hard, but a fresh set of eyes is absolutely necessary in improving your work and making it the best it can be. Here’s some advice on what to do, what not to do, and how to quiet personal biases.
Getting Over Fear and Sensitivities
- No one wants to see you fail. When I studied theatre, there were times when my peers were deeply upset with the criticism they received. The instructors weren’t trying to tell them “You’re terrible at this.”, but were pointing out specific areas that needed improvement. In the same vein, your fellows and peers in writing don’t want to see you fail. Anyone who does try to tell you “This is horrible, never write again”, should probably not be listened to. Good critiques are about pointing out specific things, suggestions, and the like. They want you to acknowledge those issues, improve them, and come back with edits so they can root for you.
- Separate yourself from the work. Your work is not always a stark reflection of you as a person or a writer. Look at the work as what it is, a piece of work. It can feel like you’re stepping naked into a snake pit, but that’s not exactly the case. The work is doing that, not you. You have all the power to improve it. This mindset will help you not feel personally attacked when you receive constructive criticism.
- Your work will not get better without a second set of eyes. It’s probably possible, but wholly uncommon. You can pour over your work dozens of times and still miss things. Things that make sense to you as the writer and builder may not make sense to the reader. Would you submit a thesis without using spellcheck? Without asking a professor for advice or a review? Than you should probably seek out outside eyes.
- Finding north. Emily Dickinson once wrote “The Sailor cannot see the North, but knows the Needle can.” Source. In the same way, the writer cannot always see things, but knows outside eyes can. Think of yourself as the sailor and those you ask for critique as the compass.
WHAT TO DO
- First, seek reliable critiques. By reliable, I mean people who aren’t personally involved in the project, who are also likely to give you their honest take on it. Don’t seek a best friend who doesn’t know that much about the writing process. People you know are fine, but be clear you want complete honesty, not sugarcoating, and it helps if they have some grasp on storytelling in general.
- Submit complete work. It could be a page, a chapter, or a whole novel. Whatever it is, make sure it’s complete as in a complete first draft of that piece of work. It’s really hard to give good constructive advice without having the whole thing. Do minor edits (grammar, sentence structure, etc.) and then submit only when you consider it complete.
- Ask specific questions. Vague questions like “Is this good?” aren’t usually helpful. Be specific. “Do I have too much info-dumping? Can you as a reader really visualize the scene? Do you have a good grasp on what’s going on in this scene?” The more specific you get, the better help you’ll receive.
- Tell people what you want. This goes with point 3, but I’ll continue. What do you want to get out of the critique? A general feel, help with a specific problem, what is interesting/what is boring. Don’t put it out there without telling people the kind of review you’re looking for.
- Get multiple reviews. If one person is bored by something, but no one else is, than you don’t have to worry about that as much. If a bunch of people are pointing out the same thing, then that’s a sign it probably needs to be fixed. That’s why getting multiple perspectives is really helpful.
- Tell people about the work. Don’t let reviewers go in blind. Give them a brief rundown of what’s happening in the work so they know where you’re getting at. That way they can better help you get it to what you’re intending.
- Give warnings, if necessary. If something in your work isn’t appropriate for certain places (Not Safe For Work, or NSFW, for example), let people know that. It’s more of a courtesy thing. Give people fair warning if there’s dark themes, violence, sex, etc. so they know going in what they’re getting into.
Places to Get Critique
- Check out writers groups in your area. These can be done in person or online. They can be genre specific, or more general fiction. Do a Google search and see what comes up.
- Look into your school or university. As a student, this sort of thing may be easier to find. Not only is it an opportunity to meet new people, but also to get more involved in your school.
- Look into people you know. I know I advised against people you know, but if you know people already who create, try getting them together for this kind of thing. I’ve done it and have seen it done, and it can be a great help. Network with other writers.
Here are some places online:
- Fantasy Writers Reddit This is specifically for fantasy writing. This is a critique based subreddit that is pretty active. Make sure to read their guidelines before submitting.
- Destructive Readers Writers be warned, this subreddit is specifically designed to give what some may consider “brutal” criticism. It’s never an insult to the writer, to be clear, but they will not hold back in giving very honest criticism and edits to submissions. Make sure to lurk for a little bit and to read their rules and FAQ before posting. Be aware that if you submit, you’re also supposed to critique as a courtesy.
- Finding Beta Readers