In Your Corner: What is Criticism & What Can It Do For Me?

The latent question lurking under the title of this post is perhaps a more honest one, but we’ll talk about honesty versus insight in a moment. You might say we’re going to spend this post looking at:

Can Criticism Be Anything Other Than A Tool Of The Snob & A Misery For Everyone Else?

But as you can see, that title is a bit too long to fit, despite feeling more accurate (to me, anyway. I suppose I’m projecting some of my fears here. Apologies if that doesn’t hold true for you!).

The last time I was in a setting where I was exposed to criticism of my writing from multiple points of view was during my last stint as a student. For many of you, that will also be true, but some of you are lucky enough to have stumbled across writing clubs and manuscript exchanges where you can get some of the same experiences outside of academia. This post is geared towards any author who is looking to develop some serious skills in giving and taking constructive criticism, however, not just those in structured group environments.

Here’s a truth:

No matter how well-prepared you are to receive it, any kind of correction or less-than-enthusiastic take on your writing can fall like a blow. The only times where this hasn’t felt true to me were when I was completely wiped out from pulling all-nighters and didn’t have the emotional capacity to take in what I was hearing. (Don’t be that person. Don’t stay up all night to get this effect! It comes with other problems. It’s not an admirable skill to cultivate.) Accept that it’s going to hurt, or feel uncomfortable, or at the very least come awkwardly.

If you relax too much, you might fall into the trap of being honest instead of insightful.

What do I mean by this? I mean that not everything is useful to hear. I’m being serious here. Not everything is useful to hear. The key to giving constructive criticism is in paying attention to both your own personal needs and to the expressed needs and wishes of your fellow writers. Don’t, for example, spend a lot of time breaking down spelling errors and grammatical issues if the author whose manuscript you’re reviewing has asked you to pay attention to plot holes and characterization. Maybe the spelling stuff can be dealt with later, or will naturally resolve itself as the author moves into his or her next draft. But it’s not something that will help that author right now, so it’s best to focus on what will.

Pro tip: when you’re the one receiving the criticism, you can’t always get people to act this way toward you … but you should always be free to lay some ground rules and boundaries for what sort of feedback you want. I’ve had professors give caveats at the beginning of every semester about how to respect and support other authors, so it’s worth approaching whoever is facilitating your group meetings and requesting this, or if you’re doing it digitally you can store some guidelines as a file on Dropbox.com or Google Docs for easy access. If your consortium is a little more casual than this, maybe take a line from Christopher Nolan’s movie, Interstellar:

 

Cooper: Hey TARS, what’s your honesty parameter?
TARS: 90 percent.
Cooper: 90 percent?
TARS: Absolute honesty isn’t always the most diplomatic nor the safest form of communication with emotional beings.
Cooper: Okay, 90 percent it is.

But look, you’re not a robot or a space-farer (probably), and you are in need of the support and guidance of your fellow authors. So how do you take part in that community in a way that produces construction (the building of something good and new) rather than a cataclysm of doubt?

Simplicity is the enemy.

Seriously, though. Saying “this story was badly written and I dislike it” is definitely critical, but it leaves no room for construction. Along the same lines, unabashed praise–“I loved it! It’s great!”–creates a similar vacuum of opportunity. A few small compliments throughout a critique may be helpful for keeping morale high, but they’re not your stock and trade. They can’t be your bread and butter, or no work will get done.

So complicate it. And ask for people to complicate their feedback, if it’s too simple.

Giving is as good as receiving, if not better.

Okay, maybe not better. But it’s important, this giving thing. Honing your critical capacities on someone else’s work–and seeing how other authors receive specific kinds of insights–will help you understand what to do with criticism when you’re on the receiving end of it … and it will also help you spot flaws in your own work before anyone else even looks at it. As other, wiser people have said: It’s one thing to develop a nagging sense that something is wrong with a work, but to be able to figure out where that sense of wrongness is coming from–character, language, plot, or something else–and then act to address it is what differentiates good authors from great authors.

 

It’s not personal.

It’s not, we promise, but it will sure feel like it is–especially if, as we mentioned earlier, someone takes a snobby approach (they’re no doubt working on some personal crisis of identity or insecurity of their own). Still, try to put aside your personal feelings, and bring an objective lens to what you’re looking at. Your manuscript and the manuscripts of others are mysteries waiting to be deconstructed and reconstructed. And even if you’re not a fan of the genre of manuscript you’re reading, you can still be useful to the author by putting your personal tastes aside and looking at the bricks and mortar of what makes for universally good storytelling.

Take notes.

Many workshops limit the author being critiqued from responding during the main critique session, but every group looks different. I’ve found that even without that restriction, simply watching and observing is more useful than trying to guide the conversation myself–if I do, I end up missing out on really useful advice I didn’t even think to consider asking for! So … take notes. It will distract you when the criticism is too pointed or your feelings too close under the surface, and it’s also just good advice for retaining detailed memories of the event. You can dispense with any advice that isn’t useful once you’re out and away from the session, or some advice might leap out to you later that didn’t in the moment. Time and distance is a great healer, no?

Lead with the positive.

Choose a handful of things the author did well–specific things–before diving into the rest of your critique. It’s also a good idea to end with a positive, for mood boosting effects. You can’t control how others do this on your work, of course, unless you make it a part of your collectively-agreed-upon rules for critiquing, as mentioned earlier. But remember, specific is vital. If you liked a character, what did you love about her? Was it her snappy dialogue, her peculiar tics and traits, or her back story as a mathematician during the Space Race that fascinated you?

Find your ideal reader(s).

Every workshop has one or two people who really know how to give good, useful, smart, and insightful constructive criticism. Latch on to those people and never let them go. Some of the people who were ideal readers while I was in college are still in touch today, and we still do good work together. There’s something symbiotic about it, of course–they get my work, and I get theirs, so the feedback goes both ways–but these people have become something more than just workshop fellows. They’ve become friends.

 

Joining a critique session is anxiety-inducing, there’s no mistake. But when everyone participates in good faith, it can be one of the most enriching experiences of your life as a writer.

“Don’t trust a mirror that only tells you how wonderful you look.”

― Matshona Dhliwayo

criticism

 

You are not alone. ♣︎


Elizabeth

ABOUT ELIZABETH JAVOR: With over 18 years of experience in sales and management, Elizabeth Javor works as the Manager of Author Services for Outskirts Press. The Author Services Department is composed of knowledgeable publishing consultants, pre-production specialists, customer service reps and book marketing specialists; together, they all focus on educating authors on the self-publishing process to help them publish the book of their dreams. Whether you are a professional looking to take your career to the next level with platform-driven non-fiction or a novelist seeking fame, fortune, and/or personal fulfillment, Elizabeth Javor can put you on the right path.

Conversations: 2/12/2016

IMPASSIONED DETERMINATION

Since I was a teen, I’ve been pursued by ideas—stories—that had to be written.  I’ve started multiple manuscripts in various genres from young adult to science fiction, mystery and children’s books.  The generic reject letters from the “old guard” publishers—who never even read my cover letter—seemed to come back to me almost before I sent the queries.  Then I discovered that the self-publishing industry was beginning to re-invent itself.  Could I adjust my old paradigms and consider options beyond the gates of publishing “houses?”

Because the very nature of being a writer takes place in what I fondly label solitary confinement—poised behind a desk with pen and paper in hand or wrists resting on the computer keyboard—most writers work alone.  This self-imposed cocoon is great for the flow of creativity, but harmful when we’re ready to face the new hurdle of how to make this novel (poetry book, cookbook, short story anthology, etc.) available to the Readers.  That is when my librarian’s words became golden advice: “Why don’t you try the writer’s workshop we’re hosting?”

adult education class

Magic happened!  Since 1976, I was nestled in a group of very active writers—a producing writers workshop—where everyone became “published” in one form or another.  We helped each other find our niché in such publishing arenas as newspaper columns, poetry chapbooks, cookbooks and magazines.  We grew in our writing skills and nurtured each other along through gentle critique. TIME has now taken many of this group home.  However, the impassioned determination to write and publish remains strong within me.

I have expanded my writing horizons by attending Writers Conferences, selecting workshops specific to my genre and rubbing elbows with published writers, editors, literary agents, creative writing consultants and marketing experts.  These conferences are great for building up a writers’ knowledge base of the publishing world and finding encouragement.  Can a publisher—from a publishing house—be found there?  Yes.

Am I just as passionately determined to write my books and get them published as I was forty years ago?  No.  Even though I can still see my book-child smothered under piles of other manuscripts only to find breathing room a year (or two) after I submit it to a publishing house, I am even more resolute to get my work in print and IN the hands of readers!

The GOOD NEWS is—the World of Publishing has changed!  Writers now have a great option to self-publish!  The old stigmas associated with self-publishing have all but disappeared being replaced by exciting new ways to print, distribute and market—and even catch the eye of film producers.  And possibly best of all, writers can now retain ALL their rights and control of their own creations.  From my impassioned and determined perspective, tomorrow is here today in the self-publishing business.  My first book—FIREPROOF PROVERBS, A Writer’s Study of Words—was released in May 2015!  WHEN will yours be released? ⚓︎

RoyaleneABOUT ROYALENE DOYLE: Royalene has been writing something since before kindergarten days and continues to love the process. Through her small business—DOYLE WRITING SERVICES—she brings more than 40 years of writing experience to authors who need “just a little assistance” with completing their projects. This is a nice fit as she develops these blogs for Outskirts Press (OP) a leading self-publisher, and occasionally accepts a ghostwriting project from one of their clients. Her recent book release (with OP) titled FIREPROOF PROVERBS, A Writer’s Study of Words, is already receiving excellent reviews including several professional writer’s endorsements given on the book’s back cover.  

Royalene’s writing experience grew through a wide variety of positions from Office Manager and Administrative Assistant to Teacher of Literature and Advanced Writing courses and editor/writer for an International Christian ministry. Her willingness to listen to struggling authors, learn their goals and expectations and discern their writing voice has brought many manuscripts into the published books arena.

Why Self-Publishing Authors Should Join Reading and Writing Groups

March is National Reading Month and National Small Press Month. In honor of both, now is a great time to join a reading group and a writing group. Both offer many personal and professional benefits. Here is what you can expect.

Reading Groups

Readings groups are also known as book clubs. One of the best ways writers can improve their craft is by reading. A book club will…

  • Motivate you to make time for reading
  • Introduce you to books you may never have read on your own
  • Help you meet new people
  • Allow you to experience books in a new way
  • Give you a glimpse inside the mind of other readers
  • Expose you to new writing techniques

All of these benefits can help you improve your writing. Also, the social aspect could be lucrative after you self-publish and are promoting your book.

Writing Groups

There are many different types of writing groups. Some examples include critique groups, reading circles, support networks, and timed writing groups. The benefits of writing groups include…

  • Receiving feedback on your work
  • Reviewing the work of others, which can be a great way to improve your own craft
  • Socializing with other writers
  • Building a network and support system
  • Setting goals and validating yourself as a writer
  • Brainstorming with others

All of these benefits can help you improve your writing and help you during the self-publishing and marketing process.

Look for a local group in your area or consider joining an online group. I’d love to know, how has a reading or writing group improved your writing?

ABOUT JODEE THAYER: With over 20 years of experience in sales and management, Jodee Thayer works as the Manager of Author Services for Outskirts Press. The Author Services Department is composed of knowledgeable customer service reps and publishing consultants; together, they all focus on educating authors on the self-publishing process in order to help them publish the book of their dreams. Whether you are a professional looking to take your career to the next level with platform-driven non-fiction or a novelist seeking fame, fortune, and/or personal fulfillment, Jodee Thayer can put you on the right path.

More Writing on the Road to Self-Publishing

We’ve been discussing the benefits of the Internet in writing and self publishing, and even promoting your book as Kelly mentioned on Monday.

The fact is, the Internet appeals to instant gratification—in a good way. There is something empowering about being able to compose an original story, or the start of a new novel, and upload it for a virtually unlimited audience to see within minutes.

It is important to play that card smartly though. Here are some notes for consideration.

Be sure to upload your writing in an appropriate forum, preferably in a place where it will provide long-term promotion assistance down the road and where you trust the people to provide worthwhile feedback, rather than pilfering your ideas for their own.

Writing online is no easier than writing offline. In fact, it may seem harder at first. But trust me; the extra effort is worth it later on.

If you are seeking instant feedback on your writing from other people, I would suggest participating in online writing groups and forums. Yahoo offers “Groups” specific to a wide array of writing subjects. You can access the Groups section by going to the Yahoo main page at http://www.yahoo.com

Google offers groups also, and you can find them on the Groups link on Google at http://www.google.com

By conducting a subject or category search from either of these venues you can find a number of possible groups in which to participate.

I recommend you spend some time exploring Yahoo and Google groups. Register for an account with the one you like best. Don’t necessarily start writing online yet. That comes later. Instead, just look around and become familiar with the “environment.” It may be foreign to you at first.

Have fun and keep writing!

Sincerely

Karl Schroeder

https://selfpublishingadvice.wordpress.com