One of the best ways to improve your manuscript and get it ready to submit to agents and editors is to have another writer read it and offer an honest critique. And getting several such critiques is even better. Although most writing manuals tell you that this is crucial for improving your writing, many authors still avoid having their manuscript critiqued. Some believe that only they can judge what is right for their work. Others fear that they will be emotionally shattered by the criticism and it might even cause them to stop writing. Of course, most of us bruise easily, and can’t bear to be criticized. But that’s not the only obstacle. Even if we steel ourselves for criticism and claim that we are ready to accept advice, there is still another problem: How do we determine what is a valid criticism versus that which is purely subjective or even gratuitous? When should we listen to the criticism? And once we do, what steps should we take to follow that advice?
Here are some of the important lessons I learned from the critiques I received while writing my debut novel Come Back for Me.
This guest post is by Sharon Hart-Green. Hart-Green is the author of the debut novel COME BACK FOR ME, a story of trauma, loss, and the redemptive power of love set in the aftermath of World War II. It was chosen as the inaugural fiction offering of The New Jewish Press. Sharon received her PhD in Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and has taught Hebrew and Yiddish literature at the University of Toronto. She is currently at work on a second novel about the mystical inclinations of a young man in search of love. You can connect with her on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or her website.
Listen carefully to your critics
When you get back your manuscript and it’s covered in a sea of red, take a deep breath. It may take a day or two to get over the initial shock of seeing your manuscript torn to shreds. Yes, it’s normal to feel hurt and dismayed. But remember: it is not a personal attack. You mustn’t let those feelings get in the way of all you can learn from a good critique. In fact, in order to get the most from a manuscript critique, it is vital to pay close attention to each individual comment. Review all points carefully before deciding whether or not to accept or reject them. Even if some points seem absurd, there may be others that are relevant. If anything rings true, make note of it and consider what it would take for you to implement the change.
And most important: if you receive the same criticism from several sources, then that’s probably a sign that the criticism is valid. Rather than reacting defensively, consider it a gift that will help you improve your work.
When to say no
If a criticism seems completely wrong to you, of course you should follow your instincts and say no. It is your work and you are not obligated to accept everything a critic suggests. There are certainly times when other writers simply don’t “get” your work. And sometimes readers get tired and misunderstand something that would be clear on a second reading. But don’t be tempted to reject all of their comments just because they might have slipped up here and there. Rejecting a criticism should only be done after seriously considering the point that is being made.
The best approach is to view the criticism as an opportunity to learn. All writers need another pair of eyes to point out flaws in their writing. And the more people who critique your work, the more you will learn. One caveat: don’t ask for a critique from someone you sense is untrustworthy or is overly competitive with you. You may not get an honest critique.
Don’t fear the time it will take
Don’t dismiss criticism because it would be too much work to implement, or because making the necessary changes will take too much time. We all feel overwhelmed when asked to make substantive changes. But remember that every minute you put into editing is worth it in the end. Professional writers edit their work obsessively in order to improve it. One major plus is that the more experienced you become as a writer, the less time it will take to implement changes.
Taking a positive approach to major editing
Small things are easy to change (overuse of words, change of tense, etc.) It’s the big things that make you want to hide in bed with the covers pulled up over your head. But taking the initiative and making the necessary changes in your manuscript provides an added benefit: it helps build confidence in oneself as a writer. It is an opportunity to prove to yourself that you are prepared to do all that it takes to perfect your work—even it if it means restructuring the entire book.
I rewrote my novel completely after realizing that the original structure had been seriously flawed. Yes, it was a scary enterprise to tear apart the entire edifice I had built. But by doing it, I showed myself that I could do it. And the best thing was that I ended up producing what I believe to be a much tighter and more powerful manuscript in the end.
How to begin
The best way to start is to make a list of the needed changes. Seeing that list in front of you helps alleviate a lot of the fear. If the changes are structural, drawing a diagram can also be helpful. It allows you to see the structure of the manuscript as a visual image. Another method is to break the manuscript up into individual sections by writing on cue cards, and then spreading them across a large table to rearrange at will.
Whatever technique you choose, the process of editing always becomes easier after you start. You begin to realize that it can be done. After all, that is what separates the professional writer from the amateur: the ability to write, tear down, and start again.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.