Tuesday, July 27, 2010

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us

"I have no judgement about this piece anymore, nor any control over it."
Johannes Brahms, 1857, about his 1st Piano Concerto

HANK: Can you take it? Continuing our chat about handling criticism...If you have never been critiqued, you may not be completely prepared for the kind of feedback another writer can give you. But Becky Levine, knower of all knowledge about critiquing, knows sometimes critiques really hurt. And sometimes make you wonder whether you should be writing. At all. But Becky—should a critique ever make you think—forget about it? I’m stopping?

BECKY: No. Definitely not. If you are working with a critique partner who consistently delivers critiques so harsh they make you feel this way, you need to talk with them, let them know how you’re feeling, and see if they can change their critique style.

HANK: But a good critique can be so helpful! Especially from someone who really knows what they’re doing. (Check out Becky's amazing schedule of how-to seminars! But if you're not in Northern Calif, Jungle Red is now the place to be.)

BECKY: Yes. The whole point of a good critique is that it should help us see things we haven’t noticed yet, to look at our writing in new ways. When you receive a critique, you are hopefully getting a thorough, detailed set of feedback. Take time to think about the comments you’re getting, to really look at them “next to” your story, and see which comments are going to help you transform your story.

HANK: But you look at the pages and see all those red marks

BECKY: This may be where that fear of red ink comes from! Even if, logically, you know all those comments are there to help you, you may still feel overwhelmed. Sometimes very overwhelmed.

Try to remember a few things.

You are not the only person to ever have their work marked up this way. It happens to most writers. It happens to me all the time! You are allowed to start slowly.

Take it a chapter at a time, work with the small changes you can say “yes” or “no” to, and let the other, bigger comments simmer in your brain as you work.

You don’t have to make all the changes at once. When I’m revising from a critique, I find it most helpful to pick one or two big things to work through in one revision, following the thread of changes through each scene, and watching how my story grows and improves as I work.

HANK: There’s a real skill, though, in being able to make it clear what the suggestions mean. And to understand what the reader is really saying It may be that something just doesn’t ring true for them. But the way the reader suggests to change the ms.—isn’t the only way to do it.

BECKY: That’s very true. It is hard to, first, understand what isn’t working for you and, second, explain it to the author. That doesn’t mean, though, that a reader is wrong that something isn’t right. If you get a comment that doesn’t make sense to you, or a suggestion that doesn’t mesh with your vision of the project, still go back and read the passage your critique partner called out. Between their comments, your understanding of your story, and the re-read, you’re probably going to see things a lot more clearly and be a big step closer to revising this section.

HANK: What if you think the suggested changes are just--wrong?

BECKY: You are the author of this manuscript. You can always decide against putting in any of the suggested changes that you’re not happy with. Just be open to the possibility that your first negative reaction doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to and think about the comment. We have a lot of fear about whether or not we can change our stories, anxieties about not being able to make the changes someone suggests. If the critiquer make a big point about something multiple times through the pages, do take a second look at those comments before deciding against them.

HANK: But the point is—empowerment, right? And if you’re writing a book, someones going to read it, eventually, right? It’s got to happen sometime, right?

BECKY: Right. You can do this! We send our words out with high expectations, and higher hopes. We know, in general terms, that we have more work to do, but—often—we don’t know or recognize, how much work that will be. Take your time. Be patient with yourself, and allow yourself to grow your writing along with your project. Every revision you do of your manuscript will bring it that much closer to being the book you want it to be.

HANK: Is it okay to go back and ask for clarification?

BECKY: Oh, yeah. Your critique partner is not (usually!) going to disappear after they send you the critique. They’re available for questions—don’t hesitate to email them if you don’t understand something they’ve written, or if you’re feeling confused about where to go with the critique. They’re in your group because they want to help—ask for that help when you need it. And be ready to give it in return,when someone in the group comes back to you.

HANK: Are you in a writing group? Do you have a critique partner? (And if you don't and want one--come back Thursday. I'm just saying.) Have you learned anything BIG from someone else reading your stuff? Ever regrettted it?

I also learn from reading other people's work! And that's a rarely-discussed but wonderful benefit to critiquing!
(Tomorrow: It's Wednesday, so we'll have a special guest. Clue: say cheese! Oh, a
photographer? Nope.)

Becky, a stalwart FOJRW, is the author of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide: How to Give and Receive Feedback, Self-Edit, and Make Revisions. The Survival Guide was published by Writer’s Digest in January, 2010.
Through her ten years as a freelance editor and her more than fifteen years participating in critique groups, Becky has learned firsthand the support and motivation that writers can give to each other on their writing paths. She is a passionate advocate of the benefits of critique groups and the value in working to build a strong, productive group. She is available to speak at conferences, writing clubs, and your critique group. Check out her website!


  1. Hank, thanks so much for interviewing me here at Jungle Red Writers!

  2. YOu know--I do a lot of judging of manuscripts.

    (Whether I have the experitse to do that--well, I guess I do. I'm pretty comfortable with it. And I truly enjoy it! I've gotten to read some fantastic stuff. And other manuscripts are--TERRIBLE. Well, let's say, in need of some editing and thought. )

    Any thoughts, Becky or anyone, about judging? And the difference between judging and editing and critiquing?

  3. HI Becky,

    Great interview and topic. I judged a fiction contest once for The Real Paper (do you remember the Real Paper, Bostonians?) It was a short story contest and the finalists were so apparent, it didn't feel like judging. It just felt like common sense. I'm guessing though, that when you are dealing with a multitude of talent, it boils down to new voice/perspective/insight to a world we haven't seen before.

    On critiquing, my general policy is that new writers of poor quality work can really only absorb so much at a time. There is no point bombarding anyone with too heavy a dose of criticism because it becomes counterproductive. So I try to point out the good things and focus on the stuff that will get them to the next level when they can turn their attention to the next round of changes.

    The better the work though, the more willing I am to get detailed with the critique mostly because I get so excited about its potential I lose some of my self restraint.

  4. I think contests & judging are a great chance for writers to push themselves, get something out there, and learn about taking a risk with your writing--which we need to do! It's hard, though, because winning a contest does not necessarily mean a project is ready for submission to an agent or editor. Which a lot of us have probably learned the hard way. :)

  5. I just finished judging a contest, and I do hope the people who received my feedback can deal with the fact that I might have been too much into 'crit partner' mode. Of course, the score sheet for a contest makes you zero in on specifics.

    In my first crit group, I drove them nuts trying to get them to explain exactly what they meant in their comments--and my most frequent question was, "Did I write it wrong, or did you read it wrong?" Because even when trying to be careful, we miss things.

  6. Terry, that's so interesting!

    Sometimes when I'm working on the video edits of a TV story, I have to decide whether the story isn't working becuase the pictures are wrong, or because the writing is wrong.

    Sometimes it turns out the video is perfect, I just haven't written the script to match it. And when I do, suddenly the whole thing works.

    See how analagous this is to writing a book?

  7. I was a judge last year for the Edgar (MWA) best novel contest. It wasn't a critique situation, it was choosing the best books of the year. I'd say it was relatively easy to weed out what didn't belong until we got to the top ten percent. Then it got hard because books are good in different ways and for different reasons. The experience was enormously time-consuming, but useful for me as a writer because I got a panoramic view of what's being published in crime fiction today.

    Thanks for stopping in as our guest today Becky!

  8. OH, Roberta, I agree. Even in judging manuscripts, the top ten percent just stand out, instantly, somehow.

    We should chat, someday, generally, about what things made for a winning entry.

    My number one: voice.

    How about you all?

  9. Oh, yes, Jan! The Real Paper. What a great name, too.

    Tomorrow...well, think about this.

    Monday we talked about your parents' influence on the way you handle criticism.

    Tomorrow--another pivtoal character in our criticism-formative yers!