How to Stop Writing Critiques from Destroying Your Creative Spirit

Filed in Finding & Following Your Voice by on November 11, 2014 • views: 684

critiques 2I’ve received a lot of writing critiques over the years.

I’ve come to believe that critiques are both a writer’s blessing and a curse. After so many, I think I’ve figured out how to sort through them in a way that makes them mostly beneficial, most of the time.

But I say this with caution, and warn any writer to be super careful when seeking feedback. It’s a delicate dance we must perform when reviewing critiques, lest we lose our very (creative) souls.

Do it right, and your writing will improve.

Do it wrong, and you’ll suffer. And so will your writing. A lot.

In the most severe cases, bad critiques can stop you from writing altogether.

It nearly happened to me once.

I’m hoping my experience will help you avoid falling into the same trap.

Writers Need to Sort Through Critiques

I love contests that supply more than one critique. There’s one that I’ve entered a few times that gives you three. It’s the best of all worlds, for it seems without fail that two line up and one is usually completely out there. Where two will praise my dialogue, one will say that’s where I need work. Two will love the setting, and the third will say I need to adjust my approach.

You can tell pretty easily in that scenario which advice to take and which to throw out (after you comb through to make sure there’s nothing of value there).

It’s a little harder when you get only two. Sometimes they line up pretty evenly. If both say your characterization is a little weak, or you need some work on plot, you can probably take that advice to heart and go back to work.

It’s more confusing when they come up opposite. One loves the plot, the other doesn’t get it. One loves the beginning, the other thinks it needs to move more quickly.

Then what do you do?

If you’re like most writers, you’ll gravitate toward the negative. (We’re a self-punishing bunch.)

“Well, this one said my dialogue stinks, so she’s probably right. The other one was probably just being nice.”

It’s true we’re tougher on ourselves than is good for us most of the time, but as long as you keep your efforts confined to craft, you’ll probably be okay. Who’s dialogue can’t use a little polishing, after all? Who’s setting couldn’t be more detailed? These types of comments are usually helpful either way.

Where we can get into deep doo-doo is when the critiquer starts to tackle the story itself.

Here’s where it gets really dangerous. Put on your helmet and get ready to go into the war zone, because you’ll be battling not only for your story, but your own creative heart and spirit.

The Workshop from Hell

I have taken a couple week-long workshops that I found really helpful. I emerged from the experience with a better knowledge of my strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and aware of what I needed to practice next.

But there was one such workshop that nearly did me in as a writer. I came out of it so confused I didn’t know what to do, and it threatened to block me for good.

This was a workshop run by a bestselling author. I had read this person’s work and respected it. Let’s call the person “Dave” just for ease of communication.

Do you know the old saying “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach?” I hate that saying, as I’m a teacher myself, and I know a zillion teachers who are excellent at what they do. But I digress. Dave was someone who could obviously write, as evidenced by his books, but I soon learned he just as obviously lacked skill as a teacher.

Nothing new, right? There are a lot of successful people that aren’t the best teachers. Yet, unlike most situations, where a bad teacher ends up with students who don’t understand the concepts, a bad teacher in a writing workshop is even more dangerous—he can completely destroy the creative spirit of his students.

Some of the workshops included lecture sessions, where Dave would talk about story structure. He did his best to give us tips that would help us in crafting a story. These lectures were great, and I did learn from them.

But then came the critique part of the workshop. All students had submitted writing samples beforehand, and we had all read each other’s work. Now I’ve been in other workshops where this was handled well—students answered simple questions , such as what they liked, and where they got confused or lost, helping the writer see where the story might need to do a little more work.

That didn’t happen in this workshop. Instead, the instructor just asked the students to comment. No rules given. No guidelines.

It started out innocuous enough. The students mentioned what they liked, and what confused them or left them hanging.

It turned ugly when Dave jumped into the discussion. As the voice of authority, we all were particularly interested in what he had to say. I perked my ears. Dave proceeded to tell me that my antagonist wasn’t necessary or believable, and that I should change the entire story to be much more of a homebound drama than the sort of “good vs. evil” story that I had.

That was hard enough to swallow. To follow Dave’s advice would be starting over at square. one. Not that I couldn’t do that, if needed, but the problem was I had no idea where square one would be, and Dave wasn’t much help.

Then one particularly aggressive student weighed in, telling me what I should do with my protagonist (instead of what I’d done), and what her real motivation should be. She went so far as to tell me who my antagonist really was (based on only the first twenty five pages of the novel, mind you).

The teacher did nothing to direct the conversation. In fact, he encouraged the input. Soon, it became a free-for-all. Every student had an idea for how the story should really go. “You should do this and this,” one said.

“Or, how about this and this?” another chimed in.

“Yeah, or you could have your protagonist do X, Y, and Z, and then it could be about one, two, and three…”

“Well yeah, but if it’s about one, two, and three, then you should have the antagonist be this….”

And on and on.

Soon the students were debating with one another about what should be done with…ahem…my story.

I did my best to nod and smile, while my head was about to explode with the impossibility of putting any of these suggestions into practice.

I emerged from the workshop quite completely broken. It was like I had fallen into a deep, dark hole and had no idea how I was ever going to dig myself out.

Why did I think I could ever do this? Obviously, I had been extremely self-deluded.

That’s what I thought, but I was determined to keep trying, so I went back to the workshop with my mind as open as I could pry it.

Blocked by Everyone Else’s Ideas

About mid-week, Dave had us fill out a one-page form that outlined our story—outer journey, inner journey, protagonist, antagonist, all the stuff I’m sure you’ve probably heard about before.

Try as I might, I couldn’t do it. What before had been a simple task (as I had already completed the novel) became a nightmarish hurdle I couldn’t get over. I no longer knew what to do with my story. I had received so many ideas—all totally different than what I had originally planned—that I didn’t know where to turn.

Dave was no help. I told him I was confused, and I didn’t know what to do. Obviously he didn’t either, as he just brushed by my questions and moved on to the next student.

Not only was I left completely confused and discouraged, now my teacher, then one who had created the situation in the first place, abandoned me to my confusion with little more than a shrug.

The workshop ended a week later and I went home in despair. What I thought was the best story of my career was in shatters.

What saved me were the other professional writers at the workshop. All bestsellers—some my personal heroes—they had performed readings all week long. The sound of their voices and their prose had penetrated my bones. (If you haven’t heard your heroes read, I highly recommend it!)

Some had also given me some advice for how to overcome my confusion. One told me, for example, to go back to the place where the story went wrong (what place? I still didn’t know) and just start writing again.

So I did just that. I just started rewriting from the very beginning, focusing on the sound of the words.

Publishers Disagreed with Dave

As luck would have it, I had submitted sample chapters of the story to a handful of publishers before going to the workshop. I had just started on rewrites when I got a letter in the mail from one of them—requesting the full manuscript.

What to do? I panicked, and then asked for some time. Yet no matter how I banged my head against the wall, I couldn’t deviate from the story I had already written. Finally, I gave up and just polished the prose. I didn’t change the plot, the characters, or the setting. I took none of the advice I’d been given. I just finished it and sent it off, figuring I was doomed from the start.

Imagine my surprise when they offered me a publishing contract a few months later.

Long story short—in the end, I received four offers of publication on that book. It is now slated to come out in 2016.

Nobody Knows Nothing

What did I learn? Steven Pressfield (author of War of Art and The Legend of Bagger Vance, among many others) said it perfectly in a recent post—nobody knows nothing.

In the end, it’s a rare person that knows how to give good feedback. It’s like trying to find a good counselor—you need someone who can find the holes, point them out, and then guide you to finding your own solutions.

Those who offer you answers will always take you off course. Always. Because your writing is your creation, not theirs. What they suggest might be a good idea, for another work. But when it comes to your writing, you have to find your own answers. There’s no other way.

Just to give you an idea how often this happens: I recently received three critiques on another work in progress. Two were ecstatic about the piece. The third told me the beginning needed work, and then proceeded to rewrite it for me.

There was nothing wrong with the suggested page of new prose. It was just totally the wrong tone for my book. It reflected this person’s vision for the story—not mine.

I was welcome to use the new opening, the person so kindly told me.

Had I taken this person’s advice, however, my literary novel would have become a young adult romp, certainly not what I intended.

Bottom Line: Learn How to Manage Critiques

Critiques really can make you a better writer, but you do have to learn how to filter them. Like anything, it takes practice. If you’re not sure what advice to take and what to discard, refer to your gut feelings, but  do it on a day you feel confident. Remember that we writers hear the negative more than the positive. Approach your critiques when you feel strong, use what you can to improve your skills, but at the end of the day, stay true to your own creation.

“It seems so easy to render judgment, right?” Steven Pressfield says. “Read something and tell me what you think. But in truth it’s unbelievably hard, and very, very few people can do it.”

“Never, never give other people’s opinions more weight than you do your own,” writes Monique van den Berg at AbsoluteWrite.com. “No matter how much you respect someone, you should never give up ownership of your own words and ideas.”

I learned that the hard way. Even a bestselling writer can be completely off when it comes to your work.

Trust your own, little peon self. When it comes to your writing, the world is yours. Let no one else take it from you.

Have you ever had a critique give you writer’s block? Please share your story.

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Comments (2)

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  1. M.J. says:

    Wow! This article may have saved my sanity. After a bruisin’ and confusin’ encounter with beta readers (six readers, no two of whom agreed but all of whom were eager to rewrite my novel) followed by a dauntingly helpful (yes, that’s possible) and lengthy critique from a professional editor, I developed my first-ever case of writer’s block. And it’s a whopper. I’m so depressed I don’t even want to read a word, much less write one. I’m relieved to know (a) this has happened to others and (b) recovery is possible. Thank you, thank you!

    • Colleen says:

      Hi, MJ! I’m so very glad you found this post helpful. Sounds like you ended up in that dark, confusing place we can sometimes end up in after getting too many of the wrong kind of critiques. I hope you’ll find your way back to trusting yourself and your instincts with your writing. There are so many out there who are happy to tell you what to do with your story (everyone’s a critic), and so very few who are really helpful. (Glad your editor was!) Perhaps in the future giving beta readers a list of guidelines would help? Either way, reconnecting with your desire to tell the story and your own instincts about it should break the block. Give yourself time. Best of luck to you!