By Mary J. Nickum
Does criticism by other writers really help? The short answer is yes, it can. How can criticism by other writers, especially those who don’t write the same kind of articles I do, help me?
First of all, you won’t just be criticized; you’ll get some praise too. While feedback from other writers as focused as you can be frustrating and exhilarating, there’s a flip side. You will have to return the favor. How? Read on.
But aren’t critique groups just for fiction writers or graduate students? No, they are an important part of any writer’s life, no matter the genre. Editors and publishers state that a major reason for rejecting submissions is poor organization and writing skills. This problem can best be overcome by the writer receiving feedback from other experienced writers. Fresh eyes can spot problems you might overlook in your attention to subject matter detail. You, in turn, can look at other writers’ work with fresh eyes and spot deficiencies or find explanations of details expressed that are entirely new and meaningful to you. There is give and take in a critique group.
While practice is the best way to improve your writing skills, you won’t know whether you’re on the right track—what you’re doing right or wrong—unless you get feedback. You have to show your story to others.
At first, while you’re still feeling your way, you’ll probably show your story to friends and family. But friends and family don’t know how a story is created, only whether they like it. “I like it” is not a constructive comment, no matter how well-intentioned the reader. People who know nothing about writing can do little to help you improve your writing. So where can you get constructive feedback? From other writers. And you connect with other writers through writers’ groups and critique groups.
Critique groups can benefit you in more ways than the obvious one of having good and bad aspects pointed out in your stories. As strengths and weaknesses in others’ work are called to your attention and examined in critiques by experienced members, you’ll learn about the elements of good writing and techniques you can apply to your own work. It’s often easier to see mistakes in others’ work than it is to see what’s wrong in your own. You’re too close to your own work to see its flaws. As you learn to recognize weaknesses in others’ work, you’ll be able to distance yourself from your writing to apply new analytical skills, allowing you to recognize and avoid those same weaknesses.
How to Critique:
- Don’t think you have to cover every point in a story. Look for ones that stand out for you and comment on them.
- Do try and give feedback on what could be changed to improve the piece.
- Don’t say: “You should have written it like this.” We all have our own styles and we should respect that. That isn’t to say you can’t offer examples of how you would have written it, but that is all they should be, examples.
- Do say what you felt about the piece as a reader. As a writer we need to know what readers feel about our work. So say whether it moved you, confused you or made you laugh.
- Never criticize the author, only give criticism of the work.
How to Receive a Critique:
It is equally important to know how to react to a critique of your work. Submitting your work to others is daunting, but if we are to be published writers then this is something we must do.
- Do take time to thank the person who has done the critique. Reading and providing feedback on works can take a long time. It is only polite to acknowledge.
- Do think carefully about the comments that have been made.
- Don’t immediately fire back defensive messages. You might feel that the reviewer has got it all wrong, but wait before you act. Take time to re-read your work and consider the comments made about it. It is hard to see your work being criticized, but if you want to grow as a writer, you need to learn to take criticism and learn from it where you can.
- Do post clarifications if you think they are necessary and valid, for instance “The source’s dialogue is deliberately misspelled because that is an indication of how they pronounce the words.” Or “I was intending to hide the sex of the speaker by means of …”
- Do take the time to critique others’ work, too.
Critiquing isn’t hard. It isn’t an obscure science. It does, however, take time and practice. Remember the critique is only a suggestion. You, the writer, have the final say as to how the work is presented for publication.
Mary Nickum, of Fountain Hills, Ariz., has been an OWAA member since 2000. Her recent children’s chapter book, “Mom’s Story, A Child Learns About MS,” is available from amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com as well as her Web site: www.marynickum.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.