Writing Feedback, Critiques, & Criticism

???????????????Writing feedback. I have a love/ hate/ love/ love/ hate/ appreciate/ dread relationship with it. I imagine most writers do.

Of course we dread it. Which artist wants to pour their heart and soul and energy into their creative work and then have someone tear it to pieces? Even though I know– a thousand times over– that my editor is on my team, I still have major moments of panic when I read her feedback.

Yet the love/appreciate part is very, very important. Without critique, my writing hits an early apex. I can’t push through to a higher, better, superior level of writing without the much-needed push from feedback.

This is what feedback looks like in my own life:

Writing group. Every month, I meet with three other novelists. Each of us are working on our own projects, and they’re all very different from one another. The week before we meet, we send each other what we’re working on– maybe a few pages, maybe a couple chapters, maybe a whole manuscript– and share what kind of feedback we need.

Last month, along with my submission, I asked:

What I’d like from you:
* to know what you like
* what you want more of
* what doesn’t work
* any prompts you might have

The four of us get together, eat some soup, chat about life for a little bit, then dive into each other’s work. We start with one person’s work, and each other person shares their thoughts on it. We agree, disagree, discuss, brainstorm, and support. Before we move on to the next person, the person whose work we’re discussing gets to ask any questions she might have. And so on.

This monthly meeting is so critical to me. It keeps me on track, keeps me accountable, keeps me motivated. It helps steer me down the right rabbit holes. When I leave, I can’t wait to get back to work.

I’m lucky, I know, to have three talented writers in my life whom I can meet with in person, and I know it doesn’t work out that way for everyone. But I think that committed writers need to fight for this opportunity, whether that means seeking out local writers (even if you don’t know them!) or finding critique partners online. I thought this article from The Write Life was great: 40 Places to Find a Critique Partner.

Beta readers. Yes, that’s right– in addition to my writing group, I also share my work in progress with a handful of other readers– some who are also writers, some who are not. I let them read my manuscript and tell me what tripped them up as they read. Obviously, it’s not fun to hear what trips your readers up– but it allows me to fix it.

I think it’s helpful to have beta readers from a variety of different backgrounds, people who are excited about your writing, willing to read it, and able to share their thoughts (when possible, I recommend buying their lunch in exchange for their feedback).

My editor. Ahhh, yes. Here I know I am privileged, of course, to have a genius editor at HarperCollins able to pour her brilliance into my work. But even before I was working with Jill, I still paid an editor in Minneapolis (Ben Barnhart, he’s great!) to read my work– for developmental, big-picture edits, and also for line edits.

Not to mention writing workshops (I highly recommend the Big Sur Writing Workshop!) and copy editors (they amaze me).

My point is simply this: if you want to be a good writer, write; if you want to be a great writer, seek out criticism, embrace it, and let it push you past your own limits.

Criticism is not the knife; your writing is the knife. Criticism is the whetting stone against which you sharpen your stories.

My Love/Hate Relationship with Feedback

“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready.’”
David Mitchell, Black Swan Green

Yup.  That’s about it.

No, but seriously, I have such a love/hate relationship with feedback and writing criticism.

On the one hand, I hate it.  Showing people a chapter you’ve written is like saying, “Look, here’s my baby.  Tell me if you think it’s ugly.”  And they do.  You slave over your words, you climb up a mountain with them, and when you finally reach the top, someone pushes you over and you tumble back down.  It’s really, really hard to get writing feedback, especially when you truly care about a project.  When I was in my writing program in college, I couldn’t look at feedback on my poetry and stories immediately after our work was graded.  I would get my work back, and– while looking away from the top of the page where the grade was– would fold it in half and tuck it, unseen, into my backpack.  In my room, I would move it to a desk drawer where it would sit– still unseen– until it was time to work on the next draft; usually by that time, the sting would have gone out of it a little bit.

During my senior capstone, I had to learn how to handle criticism.  I met every single week with my advisor, who could cover the whole front and back sides of a sheet of paper in red ink full of suggestions, deletions, squiggle underlines (bad), straight underlines (good), and the word PUSH.  There would be more red ink from her than black ink from what I’d originally written.  In addition, every week, I sat down with a group of seven other writers, and we critiqued each other’s work aloud in a local Caribou.  At the beginning of that semester, I would pray before I had to meet with my advisor; I was so nervous for her critiques and so scared I might cry in front of her.

By the end of that semester, though, I had learned how to handle criticism– and better yet: I had learned how to take the criticism, revisit my writing, and make it better.  When I graduated, I had a senior portfolio I was proud of.

So on the other hand, I love criticism.  I love that my friends who love reading and writing, words and metaphors, can see the potential in my drafts and that they are willing to put the time and energy into reading them and making suggestions.  I love that they can pick out the obvious flaws that I somehow just cannot see.  They tell me when my characters aren’t being true to themselves; they find big-picture concepts that are a little off and help me correct them.  I have realized that the mere fact that someone is willing to offer feedback shows that they are investing in me and my writing, shows that they believe it has a future, one they want to buy into.

I’m so blessed.  I have the most incredible writing group.  Anna, Rachel L, Jaidyn, Rachel R, Carra, and Addie.  We meet once a month to share life, stories, poems, and commiserations.  They are all completely brilliant and care deeply for me and my novel, and I am so, so grateful for their help on this journey.  Along with my writing group, I also have wonderful beta-readers in Elyse, Stacey, and Mary.  My faithful blog readers Brienna and Melody too!  My mom and sister are rockstar readers as well.

In addition, I have been getting help from Ben Barnhart, this incredible editor in Minneapolis, and of course, I went to the Big Sur Writing Workshop too for an intense look at my first two chapters.  I have come a long, long way from those early days of feedback– now I seek it out.  It’s still not easy; make no mistake.  It’s hard.  But it’s good.  

In fact, for me, it’s the only way I can take my writing to the next level.

How about you?  How do you feel about feedback and constructive criticism?

group reading