WRITING Critiques: the pros and cons (part 1)

Does receiving critique on your work turn you into a hamster in a wheel, unable to stop and get off the circle of doom or does it turn you into a bird, making the wind beneath your wings stronger, elevating your work? Words & Pictures Editor Gulfem Wormald shares her own and other writers' experience.


One of the (anonymous) writers I talked to, a former teacher of 20 years, said that they developed a thick skin for their work being critiqued thanks to years of people sitting at the back of their class and pulling their lessons apart. They believe this was a great preparation for having their writing critiqued. 

"I don't want to hear that my work is fantastic and wonderful and amazing," they say. "I know it isn't and I know I can always improve it. If I receive my piece of work back without much criticism, I am annoyed. How can I make progress if it isn't signposted?"

Their worst experience was when their manuscript tutor told them that their story was 'done', 'dated' and 'not worthy of publication'. Very harsh! They were devastated but after the initial shock, realised the tutor was absolutely right. They picked themselves up and started writing something different. Which received positive comments from another staff member.


Rewriting in progress

Another fellow writer had some really bad experiences because of their previously undiagnosed dyslexia and dyspraxia. "Especially from the 'you shouldn't write if you cannot master the basics' people," they say. "While other people just did not care for the content of my writing (usually they were the same people). Even my creative writing tutor gave me damming feedback, basically saying my story was total 'rubbish'. This hurt, because I had made myself vulnerable."


They told me that while honest criticism is often necessary to improve as a writer, having 'positive' like-minded people in your corner is just as important, if not more so. I couldn’t agree more!


Another member says they envy some groups; for example, Anne Whitford Paul has been in the same one for 40 years. Jim Averbeck: same one for 20 years. Whereas they have jumped around and are currently not in any critique group. In actual fact, they went through critique groups like damp flannels in a heat wave.

It just takes one person to upset the dynamics of a group

They have been in ones which have dissolved because of one person. They felt it became a chore once a month to have to give feedback to one person whose standard of work wasn’t the same as the rest of the group. Eventually people started posting less and less until finally it just fizzled out.


They add: “I was in a picture book critique group where one person, who was a very talented writer, was particularly harsh with their critiquing and upset various members causing them to leave, sometimes in tears. Eventually it became untenable and the group dissolved. It just takes one person to upset the dynamics of a group.”


Another group they were in, where several writers were agented and/or published left them feeling slightly intimidated. "They kept giving line by line critiques, which made me completely stall with my WIP. I suppose I wasn’t clear because at the time I thought editing was going straight into micro-editing! Now I’ve learnt after many, many years to start with the macro – the bigger picture. So the advice I’d give (which I wish I listened to!) is to say what you want, ie make it clear if you want overall impressions only."

Post-critique editing

As for me, I am not as thick-skinned as some people. I am someone who is motivated with a carrot, not a stick. You will keep hearing me say this and I will repeat: creative writing is my me-time, it is my salvation, my “meds”, so to speak. If I haven’t made it clear, I will spell it out, it is very personal. And apart from some obvious things, I found that there is no right or wrong when it comes to writing.


I paid a lot of money for a two-day picture book writing course once. We focused on writing a story on the first day and read it out loud to a panel of a publisher, an illustrator and the course tutor as well as the rest of the course delegates. It was nerve-wracking. I ended up with a migraine because I felt so vulnerable and nervous. I read out what I now realise was a rubbish story. It was rhyming and I made a real dog’s dinner of the rhyme.

The only way to survive the critique process is to treat it like a Christmas present; accept it with gratitude but remember, it is your choice whether to use it or declare it unwanted 

The publisher said she liked it but suggested toning down the rhyme. The illustrator said he loved it and wouldn’t change anything about it. He added that he was already visualising the illustrations on every page as I was reading it. He said he would love to do the illustrations for this story. Wow! The tutor, however, just made a horribly sour face and said, “It is so bad I suggest you pause on writing and read loads and loads of picture books to see how it is done first and when you come back, stay clear of rhyme!”


How come three people gave such different feedback on the same piece of work? That is when I realised, the only way to survive the critique process is to treat it like a Christmas present; accept it with gratitude but remember, it is your choice whether to use it or declare it unwanted and chuck it away. Otherwise you will have to deal with a lot of clutter.


* Header image and photos by Tita Berredo




Gulfem Wormald is the Editor of Words & Pictures. Contact: editor@britishscbwi.org 

No comments:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.