C is for Critique not Conciliate

by: Debora Dale

I started writing… a long time ago. My teacher, mentor and friend, Patricia Windsor, never went easy on me. She was like the perfect mom. Giving praise when it was due and, just as diligently and thoroughly, handing out the reprimands.

Honestly, some of her first critiques of my work stunned me. I wrote from dawn until the wee hours of the following morning. I had a story to tell and told it in every second-by-second detail. I thought… no… I KNEW… it was brilliant. There was no other way to tell MY story than the way I told it. And then Patricia got hold of it.

I remember I’d skimmed through all the notes she’d written in the margins and thought this woman must have been having a bad day when she looked at my work. As I delved into those notes and saw what she actually had to say, I broke into a sweat. “Delete – stage directions”, “Too much ‘tell’ not enough ‘show’”, “Head-hopping”.

For the longest time, I thought the woman was clueless. How could she not see the brilliance of my work? What did she mean by ‘stage directions’? Her comments kept me up at night. I’d replay them in my head. First, I wondered how she could not see the quality of my work. Then doubt crept in. Instead of brilliance, I saw my work as awful. What made me think I could write? Why did I even try?

I don’t know when it happened, but suddenly, I had this dawning. She wasn’t insulting me. She wasn’t telling me my writing sucked. She was telling me how to make it better. After all, wasn’t that the real reason I sent it to her? Her words were not personal attacks, but gentle guidance.

Simon Cowell – for all his bravado, his brash and rude behavior and comments – is actually rather insightful. If contestants would shrug off the manner in which he delivers his critique and focus on the point of it, they’d fare much better.

Patricia was never insulting like Simon, yet the sting of her displeasure hurt just as badly. When I finally stood back and separated myself from my work, I realized what she was saying, why she was saying it and exactly how spot on she was. One lesson was actually quite simple – give the reader some credit. I didn’t need a play-by-play for every action. I could have simply said –

Jake drove to the next town.

Instead, I’d said –

Jake grabbed his car keys. Opened the door and went outside. He walked to the car and unlocked the driver’s side door. After he sat behind the wheel, he checked all the mirrors and put the key in the ignition…

I’m guessing you get my point.

Brilliant writing? Hardly. I admit that was a lot of years ago. I’ll also admit my arrogance was palpable – like that of contestants who bristle at Simon’s comments rather than learn from them.

I’ve come a long way with my writing – I can get characters from here to there without spelling out every painful detail – but I know I still have more to learn. I’m open to it. I’m eager for it. I want my writing to be the best it can be.

Like Patricia back then, I now have a caring critique partner who doesn’t hold back. My CP, Linda Ford, writes inspirational romance. I write romantic suspense. That we write in different sub-genres works for us because we don’t put our own ‘voice’ or expectations into the work we’re critiquing. Instead, we view it on its own merits. Like an attentive mother, she compliments the good work I produce and guides me back on track when I let my words wander. And she trusts me to do the same for her.

When you send your work out for a critique, you have to shake the notion that you’re sending it out for praise. The purpose of a critique is two-fold. To see what in your writing works and what does not.

I’m at the point now where I look for those notes in the margin. Why? Because I’d rather know where I’m missing the mark and can improve, rather than receive a pat on the head for writing that’s painful to read. Pats on the head feel good at first. After a while, you realize they’re little more than a brush-off, an assumption that this is the best you can do.

Accepting a critique on your work is one of the hardest parts of being a writer. Accepting a critique on your work and, once pride is duly subdued, applying what you know should be applied, is one of many vital steps along the road to publication. After all, that’s what we want, yes? Publication. So don’t be discouraged by a harsh critique. Don’t brush it off, either. Instead, do yourself a favor and take a good, long, open-minded look at those notes in the margin.

About the Author: As a member of multiple RWA chapters, Debora D’Alessio longs for world peace… and a response to at least one agent query that does not contain the word, ‘however’. She is a writer of contemporary romantic suspense, an avid baker, an animal shelter volunteer and home-schooling mother of one daughter. Her biggest daily challenge is typing a complete sentence before one of her four adopted cats takes over her keyboard

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