Find the why of a problematic piece of writing

via Giphy

Getting told your work is not as good as it could be is tough. It’s painful. In the moment, it makes you want to quit. But if you’re committed, if you enjoy the work you’re doing, if you really want to get better, the feedback you receive will fuel you. You’ll get better. But getting that feedback isn’t as easy as it seems.

Let’s start with a hypothetical writer, Sally. She writes a short story. She edits it for grammatical errors (because, fuck, we can all do that at very least, right?). Then, she wants to see how her story does out in the world. She bundles it up in its winter jacket, packs its lunch, gives it a kiss on the cheek, then ushers it out the door to the bus stop.

Maybe she gives it to her mother. Maybe a friend. Maybe a co-worker. In all likelihood, she is not getting her story into the hands of another writer. And if she is, it’s very possible she is getting into the hands of another writer with limited experience in critiquing stories (just like her). But she’s got the story out there, and the feedback is coming in. Oh, it’s coming in. She can hardly look.

But she does look. Her mother LOVES it, is so proud of Sally. Her friend didn’t get it. The writer she knew thought it was well-written.

What did she get out of that?

Not much.

This is where the art of critiquing comes in. It’s not a natural thing, knowing how to critique someone’s creative work. The first workshop of my MFA program was my first real exposure to an expectation of criticism. Yet, I didn’t know what to look for in the stories I was reading. I didn’t know what to critique. The first few stories were just that. They were stories. I liked them, or I didn’t.

But then, we workshopped. We talked about the stories. As a group, we discussed what worked AND what didn’t work. And if something didn’t work, we drilled down to the specifics of why it didn’t work. That’s the important part. Criticism is not about solving the problem, it’s about identifying the problem and finding the root cause of that problem.

And that’s what most writers miss out on. That’s what most people don’t know how to do. They don’t ever get told what that root cause is, or they can’t find that root cause in the stories they read.

This is why it’s an art. It’s learned through practice. Our fictional Sally, she didn’t have that practice. The people reading her story didn’t have that practice either.

Now, this isn’t to suggest that every writer must go out and drop $30k-$60k on an MFA program. By no means am I suggesting that. I will say that I received my first ever exposure to true criticism and learned how to critique during my MFA program, but there are other ways to gain access to this.

  1. Join a local writer’s group. There are a ton of these. They will make you better at both critiquing and at writing (weird how those two go hand-in-hand, huh?).
  2. Get on Twitter. Seriously. Do it. Authors are on Twitter. Publishers are there. Agents are there. All of the people are there. And they’re talking about writing. They tweet links, they make suggestions, they talk. You’ll learn a lot. You’ll become a better writer.
  3. Read everything you can get your hands on, and try to make it better. Just found a literary journal? Read a few stories from them. Mark those stories up with line notes, type up feedback. It’s not going anywhere, but you’ve gone through the process. Repeat that process. It will help.

Writing is only the first half of this crazy process. Giving and receiving great criticism is the second half. I’m convinced you cannot be a successful writer without learning how to critique someone else’s work in a meaningful, constructive way. So, get to it!

via Justin Hunter