It’s the worst feeling in the world.
But of course that’s not the end at all. Indeed, the realization of how wretched having your work critiqued can be is only just the beginning of a new stage of your writing journey.
I’ve written before about my efforts in starting a critique group. This in itself was something of an epic undertaking. (Who’d have thought finding a day and time where three adults could meet in person would prove so difficult?)
But as of now, my little group comprised of a rando from the internet who happens to live down the street from me, and a long-time friend who I browbeat into joining before she felt ready, has been operating nonstop since November.
This marks a chapter of my writing life that I’ve never experienced before, that of leaving my lonely writing garret to seek feedback from other knowledgeable writers. This new experience has yielded a few key thoughts along the way:
1) I wasn’t ready
In terms of material output, I was definitely ready. I had completed multiple drafts of my WIP.
I’d completed a scene analysis for my entire novel (all 109 scenes).
I’d determined the external and internal goals of all the major characters.
I even had a solid query letter on account of some agent feedback I won as part of a charity auction.
When it came to words on the screen (and on paper), I was definitely ready.
And yet, mentally, even though I thought I was prepared to receive feedback on my work, I had no idea how largely impossible it was to prepare for this unknown unknown.
I had no idea about the emotional toll the process would have on me. How stressful I would find it waiting for my feedback each week, how it would slowly start to wear me down.
I had no idea how susceptible I was to the feeling of being judged, since it’s largely not something I give into in all other aspects of my life.
And most importantly, I had no idea how unprepared I was for the idea that my CPs (critique partners) might have negative things to say about my writing. That is to say, how overconfident I was that my work was basically perfect, and that the only changes my CPs would recommend would be cosmetic ones.
2) I was over-prepared
Despite having been prepared in the amount of rewriting I’d done on my own, one of my biggest takeaways from this process is how much sooner I probably could have initiated it.
I completed three whole drafts of my WIP long before I even thought about forming a critique group, and then another one in preparation for the start of the group.
One of these drafts (#2) was a necessary rewrite, while I did a lot of work improving my sentence structure and reducing infodumping in drafts 3 and 4.
Yet, what I’ve since come to realize through my CPs’ feedback is that I spent a lot of time rehashing and reshaping large portions of my novel that ultimately ended up trashed.
In as much as writing, like prayer, is never wasted, this amounts to a lot of lost time and words.
This could have been prevented had I sought out someone to read an earlier, rougher draft for structural feedback rather than being too hung up on producing a “perfect” (there’s that word again) interim product.
3) It hurts less later
Receiving negative feedback hurts; there’s no two ways about it.
Even for the most stolid person who is thoroughly prepared to endure others finding fault with their work (which I thoroughly was not), I can’t imagine any situation in which negative feedback on something that comes from such an intensely personal part of yourself can feel any way but terrible.
That said, I’d long heard that the sting of negative feedback is lessened with time and distance, and I’ve found this to be true.
After reading my CPs’ comments and running the initial spectrum of thoughts and emotions in response, putting the feedback away and forgetting about it for a few weeks, if possible, has really helped make it feel less personal.
It makes it feel more like an assessment of the work and what it’s struggling to accomplish rather than an assessment and judgement of you as a person.
But this emotional spectrum of having one’s writing critiqued is a fertile topic worthy of a forthcoming blog post of its own.
4) Writing in a circle
Being critiqued necessarily changes the way you think about your writing. Beyond that, though, I find it’s also changed the way I write itself.
As writers, we often adopt a writing identity: plotter, pantser, early-morning writer, sequential writer, genre writer. On top of that, we often view these identities as immutable.
I was no different in having placed myself firmly in my writing box: plotter, night-writer, writes every day, writes sequentially. However the process of submitting chapters to my group weekly for feedback has done away with much of that.
Because negative feedback is the worst feeling ever, I do what I can to minimize more of it in the future by applying the lessons I’ve learned in each subsequent chapter that I submit. Which means that I’m constantly working ahead to revise (re-revise) the next chapter.
At the same time, once the sting has been removed from the earlier negative feedback, I find myself anxious to work with it, and have since gone back to the beginning to give it all another go-over.
This essentially amounts to working on two different drafts at the same time, one pre-CP (Draft 5) and one post-CP (Draft 6).
And that’s not even getting into how I’m writing a whole new first half of Act II, completely out of sequence from the first act, which I plan to go over yet again in order to shorten it. But let’s not talk about that.
5) New writing is the ultimate painkiller
Actually, let’s talk about it.
One problem with my WIP that my CPs expressed is that a portion of its middle is too rushed—that I tried to cram too much into too short a space.
With the emmetropia that comes with hindsight, I see that they’re correct, and that some revision is in order, including the rewriting of two chapters and the addition of up to four new ones.
Initially, I was NOT happy to receive this feedback, and especially not happy to have to draft new chapters when I’ve been in revision mode for so long. Drafting and revision make use of two entirely different sets of creative muscles, and it’s not easy to switch back and forth between the two, at least for me.
Or so I thought. Currently in the midst of roughing out these new chapters, there’s a certain liberation—a certain rejuvenation—in once again being able to just write, without thought of how the words will be received.
Those concerns come later in the writing process. Albeit not as late as before I ever embarked upon this journey with my critique group, which I suspect has changed the way I write irrevocably.
For besides just the voices of my characters in my head, I now occasionally hear those of my CPs as well, speaking against those aspects of my writing style that they’re uniquely biased against, and also against my inarguable writing flaws that I previously didn’t know I had.
But that too—the subject of writing flaws I didn’t even know I possessed—is yet another one for a later blog post.
What have you learned from having your work critiqued?
(Images: J.G. Noelle)