Monday, January 3, 2011

A Writer's Need For Criticism

Today I’m going to talk about criticism and the writer. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but by the end of anyone’s career in any field, looking back guarantees that a person will come face to face with remembered criticism. Ask any actor or working writer about reviews.

Critiques are part of the industry, whether they come from a friend, colleague, or editor. Reviewers are a different animal altogether.

There are some realities that writers must live with and criticism is a big one. Whatever a writer puts out for public consumption will be critiqued. That’s guaranteed.

Whether the writer ever hears the criticism is irrelevant. We’re all judged on our words, images, characters, POVs, and messages. If those words are blogged, on a website, or sitting as a feature article in a glossy, they are judged by readers and peers.

This is where a thick skin becomes essential. A new writer tends to be sensitive about every word that drips from the pen or goes onto the monitor. It’s the writer’s baby, her next presentation to the world. It’s perfect as all babies are to their mothers. How dare anyone criticize that child’s perfection?

Unfortunately for writers, once the words are available for reading, their lives seem to depend on acceptance and appreciation. Not every reader will exhibit both, and some readers will feel neither emotion about the writer's words.

The writer must understand that reality if she has a prayer of succeeding in the industry. Because not every sentence is perfect, because not every character is a dream delight, each writer must be capable of accepting that imperfection.

For instance, here’s a paragraph that is off the top of my head. It’s part of an essay on looking at the job of rest area caretaker for the state of Texas.

The clock reads 3:00 a.m. Frigid wind circles the buildings of the rest area in the December weather change. A tall figure, hunched over his rolling cleaning cart, appears at the corner of the central building. He doesn’t bother to glance at the parking lot or show curiosity as to how many semis idle at the edge of the parking drive. His focus remains on getting to the restrooms as quickly as possible to get his job done so as not to inconvenience the travelers who are using the facilities.

On the face of this paragraph, nothing seems too bad. Look closer and you’ll find that changes can be made to strengthen and tighten the overall picture and characterization of the unit.

For example:

At 3:00 a.m. frigid wind circles the rest area’s buildings. December brings colder weather. A cleaning cart rolls into view. A hunched figure pushes it. The man shows no curiosity about how many travelers have stopped in or how many big rigs idle nearby. The tall man focuses on his job of cleaning the facility without a single glance toward the parking lot.

The same information is in the paragraph. The rewrite is tighter, sharper, more focused on the worker’s attitude by the simple expedient of arranging the words to emphasize his focus.

I could send the original paragraph to ten different editors and get several different rewrite suggestions. The critiques would all be legitimate and worthwhile. I expect that, knowing that I’m learning each time I get a new critique. I can go back right now and do another rewrite and tighten it further without help. I might also get it so tight that I ruin its integrity and overall flavor and feel. The balance is a fine one. I want an editor's opinion.

Writers learn by doing, by listening, by rewriting, and by doing critiques on other writers’ work. That experience is invaluable.

For any new writer to succeed, she must learn to take words of suggestion, criticism and recommendations as they are intended. Those words are to help in the learning process. They are to encourage the best possible work from the writer.

Not everyone can know everything. It’s impossible. Each person has a specialty of some kind. Good editors are worth their weight in clippings. I’ll always listen to my editor about anything she has to say. She’s taught me more than I’ll ever be able to repay.

A thick skin is also absolutely necessary is this business. There will always be things that need changing in a manuscript. Reviewers and the like might want to see perfection, but in this world it doesn’t exist. Knowing that, no writer should not expect it of herself or her fellow writers.

When I began to write and submit for peer review, I began my real education in this business. Thank the heavens that I’ve been blessed with writer friends and others who never balk at helping me do rewrites. They are my strongest supporters and my dearest teachers. They also keep me honest about what’s decent writing and what’s wishful thinking on my part. Without them, I’d be lost.

So how can a new writer become thicker skinned and less tortured by critiques of their work?

The best way is to understand that critiques are not meant to discourage but to educate the writer as to how the active reader perceives a given piece of work. Whether the issue is grammatical, one of semantics, or a simple case of character strength or sentence structure for strength, all suggestions are meant to help.

They reflect a reader’s appraisal of the strong and weak points of a body of words. The writer isn’t being evaluated. She’s being shown where and how to make her piece stronger and more important. That’s a gift all writers look for in critiques.

After that understanding, I’d recommend that the new writer do some critiques of her own on the writing of others. Learn to look objectively at the words, sentences, punctuation, etc. that makes up the piece. She should see if she can spot where strength can be added without losing the storyline. When she can do that, she’ll have a much better understanding of the critique process and purpose. Her skin will have thickened automatically.

That's how it works in my world of writing. All of the writers I know go through the same scenario. Write, send for review and critique, rewrite, and repeat.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have several articles and stories to work on before we get back on the road. Most of them will have to have that same process used on them.

Take care, all, and God bless.

Until later,



  1. Good article, Claudette. Learning to get thick skin is no fun, very hard but absolutely necessary for us writers!! Thanks for reminding us.

  2. Thanks, Al. Every timne I hear a new writer begin to sound off about what someone had to say about a WIP or offering for submission, I think back to those first few times I offered my own work up for review.

    I hated the thought of not being good enough, of not having everything perfect. It took a while, but I got over it, and I did that when I joined my first critique group and realized what an invaluable tool those crits really were to me.

    Now, I go looking for someone with the time to read and review what I write. I know you do the same, as do all the writers I know who publish.

    Thanks again. Sometimes the simple things need repeating because they get lost in the daily routine.


  3. The first time I submitted a rhyming story for critique, boy did I get critiqued, and rudely so. I do believe in honesty when critiquing but I also believe you simply MUST find something positive to say as well. This person simply told me to give it up.
    I was really upset about it for quite awhile; however after thinking about it, it did sort of help me. It made me bound and determined to work as hard as I could to master rhyming so that I could prove him wrong. I still havent mastered it, but I've learned alot and will definitely be submitting a rhyming story in the near future.
    It's hard to take bad criticism, but really... we writers need it and we need to learn to deal with it. We simply will not get published if we don't do it right, no matter how much we believe in our story!
    I still am very skeptical about my own critiquing abilities, but everytime I do one, I get a little better. And boy is it fun when someone realizes that the advice you may have given them, really helped them. That really rocks!!