Writing is not a team sport, except for when it eventually becomes one.
Overall, I consider writing the most solitary of the arts. Not only does writing a novel involve spending months, if not longer, alone inside one’s head trying to reproduce the drama unfolding therein, the interim stages of an unfinished novel hold next to no interest.
Paintings, songs, sculptures, dances, and videos in progress are still able to delight a passer-by—to capture the imagination as to what the finished product will be like. But then, these arts involve colour, sound, texture, and/or movement, all of which are almost impossible to ignore.
There is nothing quite so uninteresting, however, as a piece of a novel in progress. And I’m saying this as a writer in possession of more than one novels in progress.
Novel excerpts generally lack the necessary context to make them exciting. And depending on what draft number it is, probably lacks a level of polish as well.
Really, it’s just words on a page, as if we aren’t subjected to enough written verbiage in our daily lives already.
Until the words form an actual book with a beginning, a middle, an end, and for many people, a cover and price point as well, no one really cares what we’ve written. And as writers, we know this.
It’s no wonder that novel aesthetics (i.e. photo collages) and decorated quotes are the typical way that writers generate interest in their works-in-progress on social media.
It’s also no wonder that many emerging writers work away steadily for years with those closest to them none the wiser to what they’re actually writing.
Talking to myself
But writers can’t remain an island unto themselves forever. There comes a time for every writer, and with every project, when eventually, outside input is required.
I could fill a whole other blog post about the benefits of having one’s writing critiqued.
Personally, I believe there’s no discipline in life where one’s performance can’t be improved by knowledgeable, constructive feedback. I’m also a huge proponent of the power of teamwork in general.
As I’ve discussed in a previous post, more than just improving your writing, critique is about improving yourself as an artist and as a person.
I’ve also written about the process of forming and working with my own critique group over the past year.
One thing I haven’t yet discussed, though, is how I maintain optimism and self-confidence in the midst of hearing firsthand everything that’s wrong with my writing.
Because let’s face it—however necessary it is, getting critiqued sucks.
Even when the feedback is positive, getting critiqued still sucks. Waiting for a beta reader or critique partner to get back to you with their notes is one of the worst feelings in the world, even when the feedback is being delivered on a set schedule, as with my critique group.
(It being delivered on a set schedule is actually worse, because I know exactly when the sword of Damocles will drop.)
Being critiqued is challenging because you can’t control the outcome. But you can control how you respond to critique, and overall, the better you’re able to do so, the more valuable the process will be.
The way I choose to respond is by practicing positive self-talk, notably in the form of positive affirmations. Positive affirmations are uplifting, declarative phrases that one recites, either silently or aloud, to help bring about or maintain a positive mindset.
The more you work with the same positive affirmation, the more you will come to believe it (recall the old wisdom about how, if you hear something often enough…).
I have nine positive affirmations for giving and receiving critique that I came up with when my critique group first started operating nearly a year ago. These are taped to the wall in my bedroom where I can review them daily:
1) The purpose of critique is to make our books stronger.
2) Critique is a necessary stop on the road to publication.
3) Proper critique is not mean-spirited or a personal attack.
4) A negative critique of your writing is not a judgement of you as a person.
5) We are all still learning as writers. It’s okay to make mistakes.
6) All feedback, both negative and positive, is a gift. The only appropriate response to it is “thank you”.
7) Studies show that the brain processes negative and positive feedback differently, and that it takes five to seven positive comments to balance out the sting of one negative one. That means you’re not actually doing as badly as any negative feedback is making you feel you are. Your brain’s just a bloody drama queen.
8) It’s up to you whether you choose to apply any feedback that you receive. You are the sole owner of your work and are under no obligation to change it.
9) We’re all in this together.
In my view, this list needs a number 10 to make it visually and functionally complete.
For that, I will defer to the immortal words of Canada’s first hit rapper from the early 1990s, Maestro Fresh Wes.
In many ways, affirmation number 10 is the most important reminder of all. Because even though our interim work can be dull as dishwater; even though writing does, for a time, become a team sport; in the end, we writers are indeed solo artists, and every artist must always stick to their vision.
How do you keep a positive attitude during the critique process?