Improving Your Creative Writing: The Art of Getting Critiques That Don’t Suck


There’s an art to getting your manuscript critiqued

You’ve written a short story or the first three chapters of a novel and now you’re eager for some feedback. You’re keen to know how you’re doing. But, as the saying goes, “There’s no accounting for taste.”

If you get a depressing critique from someone with quite different reading tastes, or who is not qualified to judge your writing, what then? You’re stuck trying to figure out whether you’re being too sensitive–or whether their opinions on how to fix your manuscript are off-base.

There are no guarantees in life (or in writing), but you can take practical steps to avoid some of the common pitfalls.

Don’t hand over your manuscript too soon

It can be thrilling to finish a first draft. You want others to read it. You want some praise. You (think you) want to know how to improve it. But getting a critique on a first draft is bound to lead to disappointment.

By their very nature, first drafts are rough and unimproved. Take the time to do revisions and editing before seeking opinions. The more rewriting you do first, the less it will sound like everything you wrote needs to be fixed.

“The art of writing is in the rewriting.” A popular quote among writers, but it’s more than just a quote. It’s really true. If you’re unsure of what the process involves, take a class or buy some books and teach yourself how to revise your work.

Once you start seeking critiques, you’ll have to do rewrites based on the suggestions your readers give you. So learn that part first, apply it first, and then you’ll be ready when the time comes to do even more rewriting.

Be clear about your goals and expectations

If you don’t sort this out before you give your manuscript to other people, you may get the kind of feedback you don’t want or that you’re not ready for.

Some beginner writers have a rosy fantasy about getting feedback from others on what they’ve written. But reality doesn’t always match the happy fantasy (especially if what you’re secretly hoping for is compliments). If you’re not really ready, you can get hurt and even have your passion for your story destroyed. This can lead to fear of writing or writer’s block.

Being clear about your goals before you seek a critique can help you avoid unnecessary pain. It’s even a good idea to write down your goals. That way, you can share them verbally with your reader without falling into people-pleaser mode.

Be careful who you choose

Family members may not be qualified to critique your writing. They may fall into one of two extremes: either afraid to hurt your feelings or eager to show you how it should have been done. Unless your mother or uncle is an editor, a writing teacher or a writer with experience—or unless you can be very clear about setting some parameters—family members may not be your best option.

On the other hand, sometimes a non-writer can be exactly the right reader for your needs. A non-writer can give you their perspective as a reader (someone who buys books because they love to read) rather than getting bogged down by the rules and opinions of the craft.

Other writers can be helpful and “beta” readings have become popular. This is where writers exchange manuscripts in order to give one another feedback on what can be improved. If you enjoy mutual trust with your beta buddy, this can really work.

If you don’t have a buddy you already trust but you’re considering a writer in your social circle, first look at what you already know about this writer. Does he or she have more experience than you? Been published or blog on a regular basis? Have you seen examples of his/her writing standards? Do you know anyone else who got a beta reading from that writer? What did that person say about the experience?

Learn to trust yourself first and foremost

When you have strong trust in your own creativity, it’s easier to discern between good and bad advice. Even good advice may sometimes not be right for your story. The more you develop your own instincts for what works, the more you’ll know who to listen to when it comes to advice on what you’ve written.

The way to develop that much trust in yourself is to write as much as you possibly can. Write the good, the bad and the indifferent. The more you write, the more you’ll know what to keep, discard or rewrite when you’re in the revision stage. This will increase your self-confidence. With more self-confidence, you’ll be less desperate for approval (a compulsion at the heart of many off-kilter critique experiences) and you will then automatically make better decisions about whom to seek advice from.

Another way is to read as much good literature as you can. You’ll soak all that good writing into your subconscious mind, and this will help make you a better writer.

Awareness is More Blissful Than Ignorance

Any piece of writing can be endlessly edited and “improved.” And who is really the final expert on how your manuscript should read? There is no magic formula for surviving the perils of writing advice. But becoming aware of the pitfalls (and how to avoid them), and developing a strong trust in your own creative instincts, can help you weather this challenging part of being a writer.

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