Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Critique Recovery 101

Writing contests: the thrill
of victory...
...and the agony of
critique
         As a battle-scarred veteran of many writing contests, I’ve had my share of wins and, in my opinion, more than my share of losses. I’ve also received my share of critiques. Here are some strategies I’ve developed over the years for dealing with critiques that can make me feel like either a budding John Grisham or a withering writing wannabe.




1. Be appreciative.
 I’ve never judged a writing contest, but I’ve graded approximately two million student essays in my day. I’m thinking the experiences must have a lot in common. Both can be thankless jobs, and, generally, the compensation is minimal. Not all contests offer critiques or comments, so be thankful for the ones that do. Appreciate the people who took the time to read and often comment on your submissions (even the ones who weren’t astute enough to recognize a Nobel Prize winner in the making). And for the record, I've found most judges to be considerate, encouraging folks.
2. Repeat over and over to yourself: The critique is my friend.
While cleaning my desk the other day, I ran across this quote among some notes I’d taken at a conference: “Nobody ever got better by being told how great they are.”
I apologize to the creator of this quote, whose name I failed to record. There is so much wisdom in these words. If you’re fortunate enough to receive feedback, take advantage of it. Read it, digest it, nurse your bruised feelings, and then experiment with the suggestions. If they don’t work, toss ‘em. Not all suggestions are nuggets of wisdom. But some of them are, and if the feedback does work, you’ve taken a big step forward on your writing journey. From personal experience, I can tell you that many critique suggestions I’ve taken to heart have resulted in an award in a subsequent contest.
3. Can you say subjective?
Bear in mind that responses to writing—like responses to all art—are personal and subjective. I recently wrote what was—in my mind—a touching and inspirational short story. In the very first contest I entered it, I won first place (and $100. Yay!). I received the following comments: “Very powerful. Well written. Good details.” But the judge didn’t like my title because it seemed “... at odds with the generosity of spirit that marks the end of the story.” I agreed. I changed the title and entered it in a different contest ... with a different judge. No prize this time. And in the comments, the judge—who obviously came from a totally different mindset than the first one—gave my ending a 2 out of 10, explaining that it showed my main character to be “vindictive and completely delusional.” Huh? What about that “generosity of spirit”? Was this the same story? I promise I’m not bitter, just a little confused. But it proves my point that what can be a love story to one person can be a horror tale to another.  And I know I’m not the only writer to have experienced this.
In my English-teaching days, we addressed the matter of subjectivity by instructing student writers to “consider your audience.” In some contests, you might be fortunate enough to do that. If a contest you’re entering lists the judge(s), do research. Find out what you can about the judge’s background, what he himself writes or prefers to read. If you discover his own writing style leans more toward artsy and experimental and yours comes right out of the Elements of Style playbook, you might save yourself an entry fee and move on to the next contest—there are lots of them out there. Unfortunately, many contests don’t identify the judge(s) in advance. But many contest sponsors publish former winning entries. Give those a read and see if your entry is a good fit. Over time, you’ll start to recognize those contests which in general exhibit a preference for your particular style and/or subject matter, and you can use subjectivity to avoid post-critique stress.
4. Don’t quit.
On one of the most negative (as in downright nasty) critiques I ever received, I got the best advice I ever received: Don’t quit. And that’s what it boils down to. If you love writing, why let someone else rob you of that pleasure? With today’s technology, social media connections, and self-publishing opportunities, there is nothing to stop anyone who wants to from writing. You might not win a contest, get an agent or a Big 5 contract, or make the best-seller list. But you can write. And with that in mind, I’m closing with another quote I love by Florence Foster Jenkins in which I’ve substituted the word write for sing.  In response to her critics, Ms. Jenkins said, “Some may say I cannot [write]; but no one can say I didn’t.
 
        How about you? Have some strategies/insights that keep you writing?

 

4 comments:

  1. Still chuckling over "the agony of critique," Dee Dee! You offer some very good advice here. And I can so relate to the subjectivity of individual judges. A contest entry of mine that was not well-received one year (yes, that is the same as "ripped up") took second place in the same contest (with no changes made) the following year. The lesson is not to take it personally. Just because we don't like a book doesn't mean its author is not talented and it's likely that many others DO like the book. Thus, the variety available at libraries and book stores! The same goes for agents, publishers, editors, etc. Sometimes it's the fit that is off, not the writing.

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    1. Shel, when I wrote "I know I'm not the only writer..." I was thinking of your experience. And you're so right--having choices is what makes reading enjoyable.

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  2. I received less than stellar critiques at OWFI recently. Initially, I was very upset. Considered never writing again. I moved them, I thought, to a folder so I could review them later. One judge suggested I read a specific book to help me. My first reaction was to stop writing. Can't do that.

    Does anyone have suggestions about where those pages could have gone?

    I enjoy your blog, Dee Dee.

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    1. Oh, yes, Winona, I've had those critiques, also. You're smart not to give up. I would suggest you read the recommended book. When I sent my YA book BEYOND THE FARTHEST STAR to the very first agent, she suggested a book for me. I read it and credit it with taking my book from a really nasty critique in its first contest to winning Juvenile Book the Year! Reading about writing can be very beneficial, but I would say regard them the same way you would critiques: Use what works for you, and disregard the rest. Keep writing and keep entering contests.
      Thank you for reading my blog. I enjoy your comments!

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