I’m part of an online community called Destructive Readers. It’s a writing and editing group hosted at reddit. Despite the name, it’s a fairly civil place where writers can get honest feedback and critiques of their writing. I’ve done my share of destroying and being destroyed, and I cannot recommend it enough.
It is hard to find real, unvarnished feedback, and at Destructive Readers you pay for your time in the spotlight by offering your critiques of other member’s work. The symbiotic balance is monitored by the group’s moderators, and they are quick to call out those who ask too often and don’t give enough in return.
Being on the hotseat is uncomfortable; there is no way around that. It’s a bit like having a stranger assess your toddler’s prowess on the playground. You’ve both been sitting there on a bench, watching the children playing, and at one point the person next to you leaned over and said, “Little Sammy fell off the swing, what a clutz!” You nodded sagely and offer your own thoughts; he’s not your kid, and yeah he did fall.
But then the stranger says, “That Katrin, she can’t throw a ball very far, can she?” But that’s your Katrin and she’s only 4, so exactly what sort of throwing arm should she have already? Stupid stranger doesn’t understand your kid. Your kid’s a natural athlete, and your story is perfect. Your story is exactly right, exactly as you wrote it!
And as you sit there looking at your computer screen*, reading a critique of your work, you become uncomfortable: the stranger might have a point. Maybe your writing could use another round of edits. Maybe it does drag there in that scene after the fight. God help you, maybe you do use the main character’s name too much. And just like that, you have grown as a writer. You have become someone who cares more about the craft than about being “right.”
EB White said, “The best writing is rewriting.” That’s all writing is, really. You get the plot down and then you spend hours, days, months rewriting. You polish the scenes until they shine; strip away the excess so that the sentences purr like a balanced motor. It’s hard work, lonely and thankless, and it’s what makes you a writer.
Being critiqued and critiquing has helped me improve my skills. I see my own bad habits as I recognize others’. In turn as I write a new story or edit an existing one, I am conscious of the critiques. I remember that I tend to overuse the structure “As she did X, Y was also happening” and try to find a new way to describe the scene. I hack away at the extraneous physical pointers that pop up like blackberry brambles in my writing. And I certainly red-line the flowery similes.
I’ve submitted my work three times, using Google documents as a way to share the work and easily get edits and comments. The first was the opening 2,000 words of a novella I had written. I felt really, really good about the work, and the critiques I got were sort of what I expected – some simple mistakes, lots of reader confusion about setting, plot and motivation that was easy to improve with the right word here and there, and suggestions to tighten up the prose and structure. Excellent suggestions all, and what I was prepared for because I have a lot (perhaps too much) confidence in my writing.
The second time I submitted, it was a really fresh piece of writing. It was barely a 2nd draft of a short story, and I again submitted the opening 2,000 words. I submitted it so soon because I wanted to try to make a contest deadline. I thought, rightly it turns out, that Destructive Readers would tell me if I was on a good path with the story.
I felt eviscerated by the critiques. Although I am sure there were a few nice comments scattered in the mix, it was a bloodbath. Half a dozen people weighed in and to a person they hated it. I took a day to pout, and then I went back and read the story with eyes wide open. Then I read the critiques. All of them, every word. I opened my draft and the heavily annotated Google document side by side and began to revise. I had survived my destruction.
*Getting critiqued online is worlds better than being face to face with your critic. I abhor in-person critique groups because they are either never useful enough, or they tip into a brutality that would make Lord of the Flies seem like a day camp. Either the group pulls punches on their critique because it is hard to say critical things to someone you know and like, or the bully of the group (and there is always one) sets the tone and all you hear is the bad stuff without a whiff of positivity.