Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. ~ C.S. Lewis
Want to be a better writer? Seek the company of other writers.
While you are writing, write for yourself alone, but when you’ve made the best story you can make, you must solicit the opinions of other writers – how else do you improve?
I love the CS Lewis quote for this very reason. Asking for critique, getting another writer’s take on our work makes us better writers. Not because the others will rip our work to shreds but because they will invariably see things that you cannot.
Beyond the mundane grammatical missteps and misspellings, another writer will notice a place where you can heighten tension or notice a spot where you underwrote the scene. Beta readers are great to tell you what plot points are confusing; other writers point out thematical opportunities, character holes, pacing issues, and the like.
Find a community – online or in person (maybe both!) – and join the discussion. Here’s how to become a better writer and valued member of a writing community: give 90% more than you receive. Yes, about 90% of the time you should be critiquing other people’s works and about 10% of the time you should be asking for input on your work.
Not everyone will do this – there are always people who will extract what they can and not give back fully. Eh, let them alone. They have their own journey. For you, jump into critique with both feet and enjoy it! Learn from it and from the company of other writers.
No one is going to steal your writing. Only you can write your story so don’t be worried about sharing your work in the world. Story ideas are in ample supply, so don’t let that worry keep you from joining a group.
Don’t be afraid of criticism. If you do plan to share your writing with the world at large, if you’re thinking you want to make a go at being a “writer” than you need to be prepared for people – hopefully not many! -to dislike your work. It happens and it’s fine. Have you loved every book you’ve read? Have you even liked every bestseller you’ve picked up? No, of course not! And so it will be with your work, too. Jumping into the writing community is great way to become a better writer, but it’s an even better way to develop a thick skin.
Three ways to be a great critiquer:
1. Give praise and suggestions in about equal measure. There are always good things to say about a piece, even if you find it as a whole to be problematic. People need encouragement – new writers especially.
2. Offer concrete ideas. If you think a sentence reads awkwardly, give your take on how it could be rewritten. If you think the section is doing too much “telling” versus “showing” (think voice-over narration versus bullets flying action), give an idea of an action to replace the narration.
3. Read as a writer. This is hard sometimes, but beta readers are ample; other writers who will read and critique, not so much. Treat the story like your own; edit it as if it were your own, and hope that others will do the same for you.
Getting the most out of having your work critiqued:
1. Listen, but don’t respond. In most in-person workshops, the writer has to listen to the full critique without interrupting. Most of your critiquing might happen online, but cultivate the ability to hear the critique without responding, even silently. This is so hard to do! I know. Believe me, I know.
A mistake that many new writers make is to try to explain. A critiquer might note a section and say, “Why did James leave the bottle? Is that significant?” and the writer will literally respond to the comment and say, “The bottle is a metaphor for his marriage.” Great. Put that in the story. Craft the scene so that the reader makes that connection. That’s what the comment is prompting you to do.
This reminds me of a story – I was at a poetry reading once and an English lit. professor was sharing a few of his poems. He read a powerful poem about his wife surviving breast cancer. The poem was good, and the last line was great — something like “in the shower my fingers find the seams and I smile a survivor’s smile.” But then he ruined the poem – absolutely, positively ruined the poem by pausing, looking over his glasses at the audience and saying, “The seams are, of course, her scars.” Well no shit, professor. So glad you cleared up that mystery! I would have been perplexed for the rest of my life.
2. Don’t get derailed. There’s a phenomenon in critiquing (in any kind of feedback, really) called switchtracking. It’s what happens when you react to the critique by critiquing the critique. (That’s a mouthful!) Basically, instead of hearing and absorbing the feedback about your story, you genuinely focus on how the information was conveyed or on how you think that person could be nicer in the forums or on how they don’t even read fantasy so why are they critiquing your piece anyway? Mostly this is subconscious – you think, “I need to help this person be a better critiquer.” and you don’t recognize the side benefit of no longer focusing on the bad things they said about your story.
3. Incorporate but also reject – not always in equal amounts! I’m not suggesting that every comment is golden and needs to be incorporated into your story – in fact, it’s important to learn to reject some feedback, too. You need to learn to hold fast to your vision of the story. An easy example would be someone telling you to set your story about migrant workers on Mars. That could be either the greatest idea of all time or the stupidest thing anyone has ever said to you. And the beauty is that you decide! You decide who, what, where the story happens.
Hold fast to your vision, but try out suggestions! People love the opening line of Thornbury Confidential (“It might sound ghoulish, but I’d been waiting for a murder case to come along“) but it used to be on the third page. A critiquer highlighted it and said, “This would be a fantastic first line.” Never would have occurred to me, but she was obviously right!
Writing is solitary work; editing doesn’t have to be! Find a group, become a valued part of the community, and get critiquing already!