Happy July. I hope your writing is going well...
I just finished a pretty big writing project and I have the daunting task of sending out to be critiqued by a peer tomorrow. I thought this was a good opportunity to write this Ezine about giving and receiving constructive criticism
Not much terrifies writers like the prospect of opening up their writing for constructive criticism, and it isn’t hard to understand why.
Writing requires a significant personal and emotional investment. A writer who has just finished pouring his or her heart and soul into a story can be forgiven for struggling to separate the writing from the person.
It’s easy to take constructive criticism personally, and difficult to offer it in ways that challenge a writer without destroying the desire to write.
Difficult as it is, learning to give and take construction criticism is a vital part of learning to edit creative writing projects with expertise and effectiveness.
Here are my top tips for both giving and receiving constructive criticism:
- Ask questions instead of giving directions. Don’t say, “Take out this adverb, it makes your sentence sound trite and amateurish.” Instead ask, “Do you think a verb might work more effectively here?” Then give an example and really listen for the writer’s answer.
- Question the editor. You can always throw suggestions back at the critic, offering them in the form of follow-up questions. Replies like, “Why do you say that?” and “How would you write it differently?” can help clarify what is actually being offered and prevent bruised feelings.
- Pretend your work belongs to someone else. After you finish a first draft or perform several edits on your own, put your story or essay away for a week or two, then listen to constructive criticism from others as if they were critiquing a stranger’s story. Distance can foster objectivity.
- Preface constructive criticism with positive commentary. Writers learn from hearing what they do right as much as they learn from hearing what they do wrong. Point out what is strong in a creative writing project first. Then offer edits to make what is good even better. Don’t be phony, but do offer the strengths along with the weaknesses when you criticize.
- Ask for positive feedback only. Sometimes creative writers do want reactions to a new piece but just aren’t ready to have it ripped apart by peers… at least not yet. Asking for positives-only is fair play, and it can be a good way to dip your toe in the water of constructive criticism without having it bitten off. Positive feedback builds confidence yet still conveys useful information that the writer can take back to the editing process.
- See constructive criticism as a gift. This is tough at first, but the truth is, any piece of writing is only your piece of creative writing until it is published. Once a work is published, it belongs to the reader as much as it does you. Readers project whatever they will onto your published work, and you can’t do a thing about it at that point. Opening yourself up to constructive criticism helps you get your writing the way you want it while you still can.
- Remember that you don’t have to take it. Just because another writer or a creative writing instructor tells you to change your work in some way doesn’t mean you have to do it. Other people aren’t always right. But if you find your work is the target of the same kinds of constructive criticism over and over again, that’s a cue that you might want to listen a bit more intently.
Great creative writing requires the writer to write personally and straight from the heart, yet at the same time to be tough enough to be ruthless with one’s own prose so as to make it shine. This balancing act is ongoing, so adapt early and keep it up.
The truth is that no matter how well you write, you will provoke your share of negative criticism. Someone will hate your stuff no matter how good it gets, and you will have to accept that. Even Faulkner has his critics.
Learning to sort the wheat from the chaff and then use all of it to become a more skillful, more focused writer is the knack that turns amateurs into professionals and merely good writers into brilliant writers.
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