One of the scariest things you can do as a writer is let someone read your writing. I know that sounds strange to some because few people write books and stories just for themselves. However, if you are writing, you know that it doesn’t matter if it is a hard hitting story dealing with social injustices or a tongue in cheek tale of an alien invasion. That story is filled with you, top to bottom. Your thoughts, opinions, emotions, everything right out there for everyone to see.
And by the time you let anyone see what you are working on, chances are you have spent a lot of time with the piece. You have spent your time and energy breathing life into the characters that move across the page. They are very much a part of you.
But there comes a time when you have to share them. You have to hand those words to another and let them read and pass judgement on what you wrote. And often it can feel like facing a firing squad. Especially with the first judgements. These first readers more than likely aren’t going to be agents, publishers and other assorted (and somewhat faceless) professionals in the industry. No. They are going to be people you know or sit across from in a writer’s group.
They will look at you directly and criticize your work.
They might even take the dreaded red pen to your pages.
It can be terrifying.
So take a deep breath and remember these few things.
First, not everyone is going to like what you wrote. Just accept that. You don’t like everything you read. Sometimes you just don’t like a story. It doesn’t make it a bad story, it just means it isn’t for you. That can happen.
Also something you write may hit a nerve with someone reading it that has nothing to do with you. I was in a writer’s group once with someone who was so vehemently opposed to alcohol in any form that any mention of drinking or walking into a bar made him instantly hate the story and completely trash it regardless of any other merits. I had a story of mine completely decimated because my characters had a glass of wine with dinner. Another in the group ended up changing a character’s profession from bartender to barista just for the purpose of review, because as long as alcohol was not mentioned in any way he gave excellent critique. Sometimes what people hate about your story has nothing to do with your story.
Secondly, have more than one person read it. As mentioned above, someone may have a reaction that has nothing to do with the story. Having more than one person reading it can give you a more balanced perspective. Yes, someone may hate any mention of alcohol, but if your protagonist is a bartender and that’s how they find out about the secret plot to rob the bank, then perhaps you do need a bar scene. Having more than one person reading can help you decide if the scene works or if it needs to be cut or adapted.
Thirdly, not everyone’s advice is worth taking. Sometimes it is because they have a trigger, and sometimes their suggestions aren’t where you want to take the story. I’ve sat in writer’s groups and had someone say, “You know what would be really good…” Or “Why don’t you…” or some other version where a plot element was suggested that would take my story in a direction I didn’t want to go. Sometimes, the suggestions were helpful and helped solve a problem. Sometimes they weren’t. Even if you disagree with it, make a note of their comment and look it over later and make your decision then.
Fourth, try not to get defensive. This is really hard because you have invested so much of yourself in this writing. But try. Sometimes you can be too close to your writing. You see the scene clearly in your head, but your words might have snagged when coming out of your brain and others reading it might not see what you want them to see. Listen to what they have to say, make a note of it, and then go back and see if perhaps adjusting your words or adding (or subtracting) a sentence or two might bring more clarity. It can be easy to see someone not loving what you wrote as a personal attack. Most of the time it is not. It is other people telling you their opinions. In time this does get easier as your skin gets thicker and you become used to facing the critiques. It is rough but it can make your work better.
Fifth, think about who you ask to critique your first draft. You need to remember that some people are mean. They just are. And chances are, you know who they are. I’m pretty sure everyone knows one or two mean people. They are the ones who can not see something without offering some sort of criticism, even if what is happening has nothing to do with them and no one asked for their opinion. Sometimes it is funny. Sometimes not. Either way, if you know one or more of these people, you know who they are. If you know someone who deliberately delights in tearing people down, don’t invite them to criticize your work. It will not end well. Even if they are your closest friend, trust me, it will not end well.
Conversely, don’t choose your readers because they are likely to give you praise rather than actual critique. While having someone tell you that you are fabulous is excellent for your self-esteem, it does your writing no good. It may make you feel better, but it doesn’t help. Flattery does you no favors. Choose people who will read, offer honest feedback and call you out when they have an issue with your work.
Because the final thing you need to remember when starting to deal with critique is point number six. Criticism makes you better. It points out plot gaps. It points out where something that was in your head didn’t make it to the page the way you wanted. It helps you clarify your arguments. It helps you think about what is relevant and what is extraneous detail that muddies your story or dilutes the point you want to make. Having someone else’s eyes on your work helps you to see it through another perspective. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in what we are writing that we need that external perspective just to see things clearly. And who would you rather point out your plot gaps, someone who can tell them to you when you are still in draft form or someone reviewing it for publication?
Facing criticism is difficult, especially for something as personal as writing an be. It is also one of the most useful tools out there when it comes time to edit your story. Some critiques will offer more useful assistance than others and after a while, you will learn who to go to for honest feed back, who has an agenda and who is just plain bonkers. No one says you have to take all the criticism offered. It is your story, you can pick and choose who to listen to. But seeing how others see your story can really help you make it a better story. So put on your game face and take a deep breath. You can do this.