Thursday, February 3, 2011

Be Gentle, It's My First Time

I remember the first time I went to a critique group.  It was agony.   Not only did I have to share stuff I wrote, I had to read it out loud. 

I was panicky, short of breath, my voice cracked.  It was terrible.  When it was over, there was a moment of quiet before anyone spoke.  It was the longest fifteen seconds of my life. 

Comments started slowly:  “I like this, but what about doing this instead?”   What?  Did the reader really say she liked it?  Yay!

And then, “The voice is strong, so strong that it might overshadow the plot.  Would you think about toning it down a bit?”  Hmm, that sounds about right.  That’s really helpful! 

And finally a derisive laugh, followed by, “Rube?  Seriously, you couldn’t think of another way to say it? You had to use the word ‘rube’ ten times in one story?  I mean, come on.  What am I reading here?”  Ouch, dude.  Harsh. 

I remember it like it was yesterday.  I still remember my face getting hot, what I was wearing, the feel of the table under my hands, and the name of the person who figuratively pushed my face in the mud.  That was six years ago. 

Critique – and accepting critique – is an important part of writing.  No one gets better without it, but feedback delivered without kindness can be crippling. 

A dear friend had the opportunity to attend a writing conference this week where her work was critiqued by some folks in the Big Leagues.  She had one good experience and one not-so-good experience.   She came away feeling as though she had been personally attacked.  She came away doubting her amazing ability.

Not cool.

To those in writing groups, remember that there is a person on the other side of that page.  Be honest, but kind.  Your words will stay with them for a year, or six, or longer.   Don’t cripple them, encourage them to be better, because better is always underscored by the idea that their work was good to begin with.

For the past couple of years, I’ve had the good luck to be part of a writing group that is kind and talented and funny and, most importantly, honest.  I couldn’t ask for more. 

To them I say thank you – you’ve made me a better writer and a better person. 

And to my friend who got her writerly feelings stepped on, don’t give up.  Don’t let the naysayers win.   

You are better than that – which means you were pretty darn good to begin with.


  1. The gems that travel with me forever: "trite and hackneyed."

  2. There are many who can only teach by intimidation. I prefer not to learn from them.

  3. I hunger for critique! As nice as the glowing comments I get from those who've read my manuscript are, its the insight and challenge critique from peers and professionals that I value most. Best negative response from someone who read a first draft of an early chapter of mine was "I found it unreadable". Partly correct (thats why there had been four rewrites of it) and humorous (if it was unreadable did that mean he did not , in fact, read it?) I was able to win the naysayer in a more recent draft but it was just the negative affirmation (?) that I needed after all the huzzahs!
    and Jame, no worries, I aim for hackneyed!