Wear Beige and Keep Your Mouth Shut: How to Survive a Writing Critique

“Wear beige and keep your mouth shut,” was the advice my 85-year-old father gave me when I lamented that I thought my son and future daughter-in-law were too young to get married, particularly since they were still in college. Never mind that I’d married even younger (although that hadn’t worked out too well). I took his advice, and they not only took their degrees, but went on to earn advanced degrees, raise children–and stay married.

I’ve since learned that the art of keeping my mouth shut–or at least filtering what I say–is an important element in working with other writers. Unless you live a solitary writing life, and only communicate with your agent or publisher, you’ve no doubt encountered writers of varying talent and dedication. You have been asked to read paragraphs, chapters, and occasionally a tome that staggers the imagination. Were you to honor all these requests, you would be lucky to have time to write a grocery list, much less attend to your unfinished manuscript.

While there are tactful ways to decline random requests, you may owe allegiance to writers with whom you have a relationship. If you like and respect them and their work, you will be caught in a bind that requires you to be supportive and honest at the same time. These expectations are often at odds.

Egos can be fragile. I used to tell my college freshmen-composition students to “Separate your ego from your writing. See it as a skill that a coach is helping you improve, not unlike hitting a tennis ball.”  I assured them that their essential personality, and worth as a human being, was not tied to how well they strung a series of words on a page. Still, I find that even when I try to follow my own advice, or work with others, it can be difficult to give and receive criticism.

Note: I use the term criticism as a neutral, meaning evaluative, not pejorative.

That’s why, when I’ve participated in writing groups, I’ve tried to distinguish between helpful, constructive, criticism and the marginally soul-destroying comments that some people seem hell-bent on mouthing.

Some writers are happy and confident to work solo and not share their work with anyone other than an agent or publisher. There’s nothing wrong with that. But others want to have that second set of eyes evaluate their work. If you find you want the opinion of other writers, or avid readers, you can choose to show your work to one reader at a time–at different stages of your manuscript–or you can read to a small, dedicated group.

For a half-dozen years, I presented workshops with a writer’s organization, IWWG, that held a yearly, week-long writing conference. In the evening, we would hold open critique sessions so people could read what they’d written that week. Some were veteran writers; others were revealing their work for the first time. Some were extremely talented; some were just finding their voice; all were vulnerable to an extent.

I’ve been on both ends of the critique spectrum. In either case, it’s crucial to keep your perspective and choose your words carefully. A friend of mine, who has read my manuscripts so many times she’s probably memorized them, always offers her criticism in gentle terms of advice. For example, one of her best lines is, “Have you thought about . . .?” That is usually followed by a suggestion on word choice, eliminating awkward phrasing, correcting an obviously confusing section, fleshing out a scene, eliminating superfluous details or back story.

Occasionally, a member of a group will take umbrage at what someone has written, usually a religious, political, or philosophical point of view they disagree with–and are determined to argue at length. They are usually looking for an audience, and are eagerly awaiting an opportunity to vent their wrath. Get rid of them; they don’t belong in what should be a supportive atmosphere.

Then, of course, there is the nitpicker. They look for errors–any kind–that allow them to showcase their knowledge and/or command of the language. What they tend to overlook is that the writers are often presenting first drafts, and are well aware they don’t have a clean manuscript. The nitpicker’s talent is being wasted at this stage–not to mention annoying the rest of the group.

If it is the last draft before submission, then a writing group is probably the wrong place to present it anyway. What we need, at that point–and should appreciate–is a willing nitpicker, one who will do a thorough and competent job of copy editing. If you have a friend or acquaintance who volunteers, you are lucky indeed.

So what can a reader or member of a writing group do to facilitate and encourage others?

Understand the writing experience of the individual who has offered their work for examination. A novice writer needs encouragement. There is always some aspect of the piece that is deserving of approval or admiration, even if it is only a great adjective or line of dialogue. Build on potential, not on flaws. Encourage further development of ideas.

If the work is by a skilled writer, your evaluation might address the theme, the mood, or the intent of their work, as well as comments on particularly arresting imagery, metaphor, or other more subtle features.

Choose your words carefully. For example, while it may be true that the piece is loaded with clichés, realize that younger people may not have heard a term enough to realize it is a cliché.

If it is too much of a “I remember grandma in her rocking chair,” and sentimental to the extent of being saccharin, suggest including it in a future memoir.

If the writing is a sermon, or an ethical or political statement, suggest the writer look into specific publications that feature essays of that nature.

Don’t overdo your criticism. Most of us can take helpful criticism in small doses, remember it, and do something about it. Too much at any one time and we become overloaded and, often, discouraged. It is common to make the same sort of writing blunders consistently; thus, once we are aware of a bad habit or weakness, we will usually look for it ourselves.

Respect the writer, praise what is praiseworthy, offer helpful suggestions for the rough spots in the manuscript, and demand the same when your work is being evaluated.

When it’s your turn to be the subject of a critique, consider the readers. What do you know of their background and experience? One type of reader might give you a formal, literary assessment. Another might judge the material on whether or not it’s a page turner. Another may simply identify with a character or a situation.  In other words, “Where are they coming from?”  Determining their expertise and mindset will help you choose from their remarks: embracing the useful, disregarding the rest.

What I try to do, with varying degrees of success, is to stay objective, even if I disagree with either the evaluation or the way it which it was delivered. A standard reply is, “Thanks. I’ll make a note and think about that.” Later, when I look at the notes (change word, expand, unrealistic dialogue, too many adjectives, etc) I usually see the wisdom and frequently make changes and corrections.

One of my friends and readers is a lawyer; her legal training and fine eye proved invaluable when she proofed my work. Another friend understands the local culture more than I ever will; her insights are on target every time. Yet another said she enjoyed my novel so much she didn’t realize it was a proof copy with a half dozen mistakes not yet corrected (I liked that response a lot!).

I think the best we can do is be open to suggestions, try really hard to separate our ego from our writing, strive to improve, and . . . always . . . remember to trust ourselves.