Getting critiqued is hard.
There’s really no way around it. When you first start getting hardcore critiqued, it hurts. It took me the better part of a year to grow thick enough skin to really get something useful out of my critiques, and I felt horrible the entire time. Part of it is the battle of what you tried to do vs. what you actually did. The following thoughts tend to creep in when being critiqued for the first few times:
- But they just didn’t understand this part, even though it was obvious
- Well, they completely missed the point here
- I know they think this, but I really like this part as-is, so I’m going to leave it
- It’s MY book anyway, so I’m going to do it my way
Don’t shut out your critique partners!
Secretly, everyone who submits their work for critique for the first time wants one thing: VALIDATION. We want readers to come back with a few little comments here and there, maybe catch some typos, but overall want our work to be loved and understood. Above all else, we want to know that we do have talent, we can do this whole writing thing, and we aren’t wasting our time. We all want to be the exception, the one that really is talented enough to get by without revisions.
I get it. I’ve been there. I still wrestle with these feeling every time I submit something. But you have to let it go, because there is exactly one purpose to submitting your work for critique: getting better.
If you’re writing purely for your own enjoyment, you shouldn’t worry about having your work critiqued. Don’t even bother! So long as you’re happy with it, mission accomplished. If you want to share your work with readers, though, critiques are absolutely necessary.
There are two sides to any creative work: the work itself, and the audience’s view of the work. We all have things we hope to convey through our work, but if we’re conveying those things in a way that doesn’t come across to the reader, it doesn’t matter how in love we are with our own words; the meaning has been lost. Our work must stand on its own once it’s out in the world. We can’t be there to defend it or explain it to those who misunderstand. It is a product wholly separate from ourselves, no matter how much of our hearts we pour into it.
These days, when I present my work for critique, I have a very different attitude: Be ruthless. Overlooking mistakes doesn’t help the work become stronger. It doesn’t help me become a better writer. I want to know everything I’ve done wrong. Everything that’s unclear. Everything that makes the reader pause and question. I don’t want my feelings spared if it means the book is worse for it. That said: don’t be a dick. Self-explanatory, yes?
And of course, there’s a whole other essential skill set to master once you’ve become numbed to the pain: Sifting through the feedback, identifying the useful bits and, hardest of all, figuring out how to fix everything. Learning to spot the problems and learning to fix them are two separate skills. Fortunately, I think the key to both is the same: critique other people’s work. As you learn to see things in others’ work, you’ll start to see them in your own work. It’s a brilliant symbiotic relationship, and it really helps with internalizing that a story isn’t any less yours because you’ve incorporated feedback.
Critiquing others, more than anything else, helps writers understand that it’s not about following the rules of style because they’re rules, but because of the psychology of reading that backs up those rules. There are reasons you need to say things in the clearest way possible, reasons you should ensure your first chapter sets up certain elements of your story, and so many reasons you should show instead of tell.
As my brilliant agent Barbara Poelle once told me: you need crit partners who can kick your ass. I wholeheartedly believe this now, and not just because a good ass-kicking got me the greatest agent in the world. I can see how much better I’ve gotten, and it’s exciting. That’s my new form of validation: Being able to look back and see the improvement with my own two eyes. I’m a completely different writer than I was a year ago, and I have so many brutal crit partners to thank for it.
Also, seriously, grammar is not optional. But that’s a post for another day.