I believe it is alright to keep your writing to yourself. Some words are written for ourselves alone. But if you want to communicate with readers other than yourself, the time will come when it is necessary to share your writing.
Who do you choose? Why do you choose them, and what do you hope to receive from them when they comment on your writing?
I am fortunate to have someone I call my writing partner. It is a mutual arrangement, born out of friendship and intense regard for each others’ writing. My writing partner’s style is wholly unlike my own. She is a gifted short story writer with a darkly distinctive voice. Her writing makes me squeal and shudder with delight in equal measure. Whenever a new piece lands in my inbox, in whatever rough and ready form and with all her usual protestations of its probably inadequacy, I cannot wait to read it. She is making the transition into novel writing and I feel privileged to have followed her progress from the early spark of ideas, through drafts and redrafts to the final, polished text. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read.
Along the way we have drunk tea and wrestled with issues of plot and theme. I have fired questions at her about characterisation (‘What does he keep in his toolbox?’), and I have pushed her to solve the problems she would be able to spot herself were she not so close to her material. When I wrote my first full length book a couple of years ago she did the same for me; pushed me to find the structure, tone and words that served the topic. I could not have done it without her.
It takes courage to offer up your work-in-progress for critiquing, whether by a trusted individual or within a group. There is a skill to getting it right. It lies somewhere between empathy for what the writer is trying to achieve, and the technician’s ability to spot a part that needs fixing. It is not about praise or damnation; it’s much more constructive than that. It won’t come from your nearest and dearest (‘Darling, it’s wonderful!’), but it may come from a gifted teacher, mentor, editor or friend; the sort who does it too and knows what they are talking about. Trust is the key.
Here are some comments that do not help:
- It’s too long/short
- You’ve started in the wrong place
- I don’t get/like the main character
- I wouldn’t do it that way.
These are statements that leave the writer wondering what to do next. They offer a dead end, not a path ahead.
A more constructive approach might go like this:
- I’d like to know more/less about…
- This chapter is really powerful. Could it work earlier/later in the story?
- I’d like to know what the main character is feeling when she…
- I was intrigued by your decision to…
The difference is subtle (sometimes), but the successful critique always gives the writer-in-progress somewhere to go. It focuses on them and not the critic. it offers food for thought and alternatives. It does not say ‘this is wrong’, but ‘have you thought about…?’
A good writing partner – or a teacher, mentor or coach – will stand by while you work to get it right. They will never judge you, but ask you questions and gently prompt you.
Choose yours carefully. I’m sticking with mine.