Criticism is meant to help you grow as a writer. But sometimes emotional attachment and fear can stand in the way. In this week’s blog, author Suzanne Webb Brunson gets to the heart of what it means to trust those giving the criticism, the best ways to deliver, and how to check that ego at the door.
Until next week, write with your heart, critique someone else as though they were you, and read like someone is burning the books!
How to Read a Critique without Crying
By Suzanne Webb Brunson
A notable moment for me, a would-be author, occurred once at a writing seminar. A publishing professional asked students to write a scene. We all turned in our one-page submissions. I recognized my notebook paper as the group leader looked at it, she shook her head, and dropped it onto the desk behind her. She could have been suffering a migraine, but I was too busy thinking the worst, and working on my own death by humiliation. I learned nothing.
It was an innocuous moment that occurred at a time when I was beginning to feel some self-confidence. I am a former newspaper editor and reporter. I’ve written for everything from a daily newspaper to a church bulletin. I’ve had good experiences. This was one subjective moment.
Why would I throw my hand over my forehead and want to weep uncontrollably over a piece of paper? The worst thing you can say to a reporter-turned-author is that you are a hack. You can’t cut it. I had been praised by people I trusted, but let this one person defeat me with a casual gesture.
Was this a wasted opportunity, or the foreshadowing of my literary career? It took some thinking, some self-evaluation and I finally understood how personal it becomes when you share your thoughts and your writing style with strangers. I’d done it for years as a reporter, but now I was creating the story. Psychologically, there was a vast difference. I had to learn the basics and gained something else — a savvy critique group.
How do you give and receive a credible critique? Some people are diplomats who know how to give constructive criticism. They are tactful. Others are straightforward and candid. A three star sentence is high praise in my group.
A few basics evolved as we became more familiar. There are devices that work for us. We critique with Microsoft Word. The ‘Review’ section on the toolbar includes a yellow folder marked ‘new comment.’ That feature is golden. Those word balloons can break or bolster a person’s spirit. Others print the double-spaced submission and critique with a pencil.
We know that the The Chicago Manual of Style and The Elements of Style are essential. When the guideline basics are mastered, you write faster and concentrate on your storyline. You will learn how to point out errors or suggest improvements. You can proof a submission, but talk about the editorial content.
Recently, I began reading a huge piece of historical fiction about New York City. I’m puttering along, underlining, and stopped. The words written by this New York Times bestselling author were similar to what I put on that sheet of notebook paper. It was better than what I submitted, but I was on the right track. My experience, seeing similar words, cleared the fog.
While we know there are no new ideas, there are new ways to write. The recent lawsuit by the family of the late Marvin Gaye illustrates something we have talked about in critique. We tend to use the same phrases we read in someone else’s work. We try to go with the attitude that it is flattering and if not brazen copying, just move along.
Storylines can be similar to things we read a decade ago, but if it is your story, it’s not necessarily theft. It is a fine line and one of the things that should be addressed by a group. You write what you know, including what you read two weeks ago and critiqued. We follow fashion. We choose certain car models. Copying is the sincerest form of flattery, unless it costs someone $7.5 million in royalties. Is it plagiarism or is it first amendment writing? Write it better and clear the boards.
I have learned something new at every critique meeting. One person in eight sees one thing no one else finds. You can’t have too many eyes on your copy. Several members have told me repeatedly that they look at all the suggestions on their submission and then use what they think is best. Trust yourself. There is no one else like you. You are learning.
Look at all those setbacks as your future material. If you are fast and prolific, Godspeed. If you aren’t, take that cleansing breath. It is business, but your words are personal. They are yours alone, your gift. Close your eyes. Dream.
Then, play nice.
Suzanne Webb Brunson, a native of Maryland, has lived in New Jersey, Georgia and Tennessee, where she has learned about country stores, local politics, and strawberry festivals. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she earned a journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Widowed with two young children, she became a freelance writer for newspapers, magazines, and other news outlets. She is now writing short stories and a novel. These things she can control with the luxury of imagination. Her latest short stories will appear in a family anthology to be published this summer by Troy D. Smith of Cane Hollow Press. Her writing has also appeared in the anthology, “Gathering: Writers of Williamson County“, and the online e-zine, Muscadine Lines, A Southern Journal. Visit her website at http://suzannewebbbrunson.homestead.com
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