My brother was a boxer as a kid.  One of the first things his coaches taught him was how to take punch.  If you’re going to take one in the gut, you have to harden your belly to reduce the impact.  It might still hurt, but probably not enough to bring you to your knees.  Hopefully you can work through the pain to make your next move and stay in the fight.

Critiques are like that.  As writers, getting feedback on our work can be like taking that punch – it hurts sometimes.  But if we’re not willing to take it, we can’t even enter the ring.  Nobody – and I do mean nobody – is so gifted a writer that s/he can birth a masterpiece with no input from others.  Yet, many writers are so in love with and so protective of their “babies” that they can’t even hear feedback, much less incorporate it into their work.

At the Big Sur in the Rockies workshop, author Alane Ferguson said it best.  Sometimes she comes across writers who are so unwilling to consider revisions “it’s as if they think they are channeling God’s words.”  To which she said she always wants to respond, “Honey, God is not that bad of a writer.”

Because critiques are so critical to the writing process, we spent most of our time at the workshop in small critique groups, each led by a professional author, editor or agent.  The experience was invaluable because the only way we can see our words as others see them is to share those words.  We need to hear from people whose very selves are not stitched to the paper with those words.  All of the faculty at Big Sur stressed that the best way to improve your writing is to: 1) write; 2) get feedback; 3) revise; and, 4) repeat the whole process multiple times.  They urged us all to be more flexible with our words.  Add some, cut some, change some.  They are not set on a stone tablet.

So, how can we “get over ourselves” enough to use the golden nuggets of feedback we get from critique groups?  Here are the top things I took away from the Big Sur workshop, both in the comments from the faculty and from my own experience in the critique groups.

  1. Mind your defensiveness.  Watching others in the critique groups, I noticed that when someone got very defensive, it was usually over an issue that was very important to the direction of the work, and one that almost all of the other critiquers agreed upon.  That person would then sometimes spend the rest of their valuable critique time defending her choices (words).  It made me wonder if I did that too.  Upon reflection, I realized I did.  So take note: the points that make you feel the most defensive are probably also the ones you most need to hear.  Force yourself to shut up and listen, or you’ll miss the good stuff.  Nobody is holding a gun to your head forcing you to make changes, but upon reflection you might find some serious kernels of truth to the suggestions you receive.  When you start thinking, “They just don’t ‘get’ it,” or “So and so doesn’t recognize my genius,” or “S/he doesn’t know what s/he’s talking about,” that is precisely when you need to stop talking and start taking better notes.  You’ll decide later after you have more distance whether the feedback makes sense, but if you tune out or talk over it, you’ll miss a huge opportunity to evaluate your work.
  2. Pretend everything is true.  Nancy Mercado, editor at Roaring Brook Press, said she had one author that used to get riled up every time he received her edits.  They always spent lots of time wrestling over them.  Then one day he called her and said, “For two weeks, I decided to pretend everything you said was true.”  He revised the manuscript according to her suggestions and found that the vast majority of them made his work better.  I’ve tried this myself, and in the process I discovered another benefit.  Because I only “pretended” the comments were true, it gave me the emotional distance I needed to give them a fair chance.  That distance gave me the ability to evaluate whether they genuinely worked for my manuscript or not.
  3. Give it time.  Everyone on faculty warned us against racing home to make revisions based on feedback received over the weekend.  You need a bit of a “waiting period” while your brain comes to grips with the suggestions.  Waiting gives you that all-important distance you need to decide what is true for your work.

Writers can be tender, sensitive souls.  Squeezing our hearts onto the page makes us a bit touchy when it comes to taking even the most constructive of criticism.  Yet, we can also be egomaniacs.  Let’s face it: one of the thrills of writing is the omnipotence that comes with pulling the puppet strings on our characters’ lives and worlds.  Taking feedback doesn’t take that power away.  If anything, it strengthens that power.  Even if we decide not to use the feedback, the simple act of considering it will make our work stronger and more true because it gets us closer to what we really want to say.

Believe me, because I know how to take a punch.  My brother was 4 years older than me, and he had to practice on somebody. 🙂

Categories: SCBWI, Writing · Tags: , , , , , ,

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7 Comments

  1. Great Points! I agree, I always find having feedback makes the work better! You can’t write in a vacuum.

  2. Great advice. Your suggestions are easy to put into practice; deceptively simple because you got right to the heart of the problems that can arise in crit groups…
    Seems that you got a lot out of your SCBWI workshop! Thanks for sharing, Julie.

  3. Great advice! Hopefully in time we’ll come to internalize our best beta readers and incorporate their eyes into the writing process itself.

  4. Terrific insight, Julie. Thanks for sharing so much about what you learned at Big Sur in the Rockies.

  5. I’ve found over the years that often the comments that hurt the most are the most true! I’ve developed a poker face over the years, and I’ve learned not to fight against comments I don’t agree with. If they really feel wrong, I can always disregard them as I’m revising.

  6. You’re right, Julie! We did have very similar posts! You put your thoughts down so very well. I like the suggestion to pretend that everything is true for 2 weeks. And I agree with giving ourselves distance. Usually that takes the sting out of the punch. Wonderful post! 🙂

  7. littlehousesouthernprairie

    i love the line about God as a writer.

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