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

Manuscript

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 from someone 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 each other 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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10 thoughts on “

  1. Tiffany Kim

    This bit about not asking for critiques when you’re not ready is true. I have this app called Daily Prompt and have been using it, on and off. I got a poetry prompt today which asked me to write a poem that either began or ended with “If wishes were rain, then certainly I am a storm.” I wrote about ten lines or so, thus this wasn’t a very long poem. My poem was “A Warning from Old Scratch”, and I was thinking about asking for critique, which is something the app allows, but then I realized that this was a very rough draft, and I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone to read it, much less give me feedback on it! In any case, it’s definitely important to know the right time to get the kind of feedback which targets actually improving one’s writing. Grammar, I think I could take, but it’s the other stuff surrounding my creativity that I know I’m not yet ready for. Part of it is that I’m just doing this for fun, which means I’m doing it to please me. The other part of it is that most of what I’ve been doing has been rough drafts anyway, so I need a chance to fix them myself before I let someone else hack it to bits.

    Reply
    1. fearofwriting Post author

      Tiffany,

      I’m relieved you caught yourself just before asking for a critique on that app. In my travels through the world of armchair experts, I’ve met alarmingly few people who understand the purpose of the first draft.

      When it comes to the difference between a critique of your grammar and a critique of your creativity, I understand your feelings completely. Every word of this article was forged as a survivor of unsolicited critiques or asking someone to read my writing without specifying what I wanted.

      Especially when you’re writing for your own fun, who wants to let someone else spoil that for you when they may not even know what they’re talking about?

      Keep growing through having fun! It’s even fun watching you do it.

      – Milli

      Reply
  2. Nicholas Jackson

    I can definitely relate to your suggestion to read great literature. While I haven’t read anything like Homer recently, I have still seen many different settings and creative uses of the written word which I have enjoyed and have made my writing seem even more fun. I also have that same concern about showing what I’ve written to the wrong audience, specifically family. I used to have my parents help with editing major projects in high school, but that was mainly to get the grade. When it comes to my creative writing, I still feel that it’s better to hold off for now. I hadn’t considered it before, but writing my goals now feels like a very important step.

    Reply
    1. fearofwriting Post author

      Nick,

      I’m thrilled to hear your reading adventures have helped you notice settings and creative uses of the written word that are making your own writing feel even more fun. What a wonderfully natural way to absorb more learning about writing, right? Way better than sitting in a stuffy classroom or having an essay graded.

      I’m happy to hear that this article has inspired you to write your goals about sharing your writing. It’s always amazing to me how much extra clarity shows up once we start writing things down.

      – Milli

      Reply
  3. Alexis Tulloch

    Your article brought back to me the proposed book on Preceptorship myself and some colleagues were planning to write, which was rejected outright at the very first hurdle. We had submitted an outline on the proposed content as advised.

    Your first key point spoke loud and clear to me: don’t hand over your manuscript/outline too soon. I can see we did this, probably because we had been actively working on the research, which was going to be the basis of the content and message we wanted to convey. I can now see clearly the real value and sense of writing and rewriting.

    Being clear about goals and expectations are key I can now see, because in that we would not have been derailed, which caused us to give up without a peep!

    Being careful who we chose is another key we messed up on and only went to one publisher.

    Learning to trust myself was also key, which of course I didn’t. I know what we were offering could have had impact but faltered through not trusting myself or one other in the team to press through. We just dropped it!

    Awareness being more blissful than ignorance is also key. I can see now how professional rivalry and jealousy played a part. If the outline was that bad some feedback could have been offered, but it was not and we didn’t pursue that.

    Great tools, Milli, and I can truly relate to each one of your key points. I now need to just develop the art of allowing them to become part of my inner core as a writer and unlock each key at the right stages of the process.

    Reply
    1. fearofwriting Post author

      Alexis,

      I’m glad this article was helpful in reviewing what happened when you submitted your outline to the publisher. The successful people in life advise that they often learn more from failure than they do from success, but it’s difficult to learn from a failure unless you have the keys you need to understand where you went off track. It sounds like you’ve internalized these keys with deep intent, and next time you’ll be able to prepare more thoroughly. I wish you every success!

      Milli

      Reply
  4. Antoinette Anderson

    Timely advice, Milli.
    There is so much wisdom in this lesson, that has clearly been forged in your own experiences. Each paragraph, like a sign post along a path, leading us away from emotional danger, onto a more prudent road—a path that will lead to us being built up rather than being torn down.
    I love the paragraph entitled ‘Learn to Trust Yourself First and Foremost.’
    The first line reads “When you have strong trust in your own creativity…develop your own instincts.” For me this is the bottom line! Keep going, keeping writing and growing in instinct.

    Thank you for these signposts, they have prepared a safer journey for me.

    Reply
    1. fearofwriting Post author

      Antoinette,

      I’m glad to know this advice felt timely for you. I tried to place this lesson at a point in the grad course where I felt students would be ready to hear it and understand its intent.

      I love that you saw each section of this article as a signpost. Very visual way of putting it. I’m guessing that’s your visual artistic nature visualizing things as you read. 🙂

      Milli

      Reply
  5. Angela Marra

    Dear Milli
    This is very sound advice that I will keep and treasure. Even though I have wonderful feedback on the course from yourself and the A team I can totally relate to the fact that we want someone to read our work. I have a friend who is a Ceramicist and very creative who I occasionally have been forwarding my stories. I feel safe with her and she is not really a reader but found my stories to be good. The tip about rewriting and checking is very good too. When I read my story aloud I hear the mistakes I have made so to just keep on being diligent about it. Also getting books or watching videos about rewriting your own stuff will be beneficial. Writing goals and expectations are essential to register within me in order to not be crushed.
    Yes being wise about who to give your writing is another very important tip. I find your statement that being confident about your writing helps you to be a better discerner is going to need some work. So I will need to write more and more, end of story. I look forward to trusting my creative instinct more and more.

    Reply
    1. fearofwriting Post author

      Angela,

      I’m happy you found this article helpful. It comes from too many painful experiences I had myself because no one advised me about this. I kept hitting my thumb with the hammer so many times I’m amazed I didn’t learn sooner.

      There was eventually a silver lining and it led to something good: I wrote a book about fear of writing, which resulted in the online course you’re taking. If I can save other writers from going through that with a little education at the right moment, all my messed up experiences with being inappropriately critiqued will be worth it.

      You’ve come to the conclusion that to gain more confidence (and, thus, be more discerning) you just need to keep writing. That’s the healthiest way to look at it and I’m very glad you see it that way. So many things about writing are solved by just doing more writing.

      Milli

      Reply

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