Interviewers or blog hosts often ask published authors, “What is the one piece of advice you would give new or struggling writers?” My response, I say, would take an entire blog post in itself. So calling my own bluff, I present my blog post on the one piece of writing advice I offer writers.
Don’t be defensive about critiques and feedback.
What? That’s it? No pearls of wisdom like just keep writing or read plenty of other authors in your genre?
I didn’t say it was the only piece of advice I’d give, but if pushed to choose just one, it’s this: don’t be defensive. Why?
Consider tennis. If you are an ordinary woman who wants to play a respectable game with friends, you sign up for lessons. You practice. You play as often as you can. You may hire a coach. If that coach says your backhand needs work and that your racket is wrong for you, are you going to pout and cry? Call her a jerk? Not if you want to improve your game. Another trick I learned from tennis. When you play with stronger players, your game improves. If your opponents offer no challenge, your skills won't develop.
When I began my fiction-writing career, I participated in a critique group in which we met and read our work aloud then praised each other on the progress of our stories. Not helpful. The last straw for me was the night the host suspended our meeting to watch an episode of Friends. This wasn’t a critique group. It was a girls’ night out.
I found an online group through the RWA Kiss of Death chapter and found three authors who were a good fit. We critiqued each other’s work in a professional manner. I began to hone my craft and even finaled in a contest. Still the writing contract eluded me.
Until I won a first chapter critique in a conference raffle, I didn’t realize what a thorough critique involved. Fortunately, I struck gold. Vicki Hinze, a multi-published, best-selling, award-winning author whose work I read and admired had offered the raffle prize. I submitted the first chapter to RESTORE MY HEART and then waited for her to ooh and aah and tell me how promising a writer I am.
Vicki promptly gave me her feedback, and she didn’t ooh and aah. She actually telephoned me (this was before the days of unlimited text and talk, and it was on her dime) and talked for an hour reviewing such issues as author intrusion and passive writing. It was brutal for both of us because her feedback showed me weaknesses and areas that needed work. Lots of work. She provided me with reference materials and signed me up for her writer’s newsletter (Now The Writer's Zone, which I continue to read). She put many hours of work into my critique, an example I try to follow today when I offer a critique for a raffle prize.
Two years later, when RESTORE MY HEART sold, I asked Vicki for a cover quote. She read the entire book and gave me the quote. I hope I made her proud. I treasure her feedback to this day and continue to learn from her.
Grateful for her help, it never occur to me to feel offended by all her red marks, although she had taken apart my well-crafted chapter and told me it wouldn’t sell as is. I’ve seen writers cry and pout, and I’ve seen them argue and be defensive. Those are the writers I left behind.
I learned a hard lesson about critique partners. They can’t be your friends. Even strangers who match up to critique each other’s manuscript may eventually become friends. When that happens, move on. Find someone who isn’t restrained about giving you the truth to help you improve.
I do know close friends who continue as critique partners, but they are established, seasoned authors. If you’re trying to sell your novel, you need ruthless feedback. You have to take the discipline. A good critique is not a personal attack. It isn’t about you. It’s about your craft, the skills you need to hone to achieve your publishing goals. You can't allow your feelings to be hurt.
Where to find good feedback? Enter contests that include judges' comments. Attend conferences and enter raffles for critiques. Or shop for critique services through a professional organization. I spent $20 in raffle tickets to increase my odds of winning Vicki's critique. What a bargain!
Then when you get your feedback, study it objectively. Work on areas of weakness. Man up. Or woman up. Learn what you need to be your best. Don’t be defensive!