Critique/Criticism and New Writers « Official Author Website of Melissa McPhail

Critique/Criticism and New Writers

I’ve hit my saturation point. It’s time to cast a plea broadly to all new writers who are trying to write a novel or churning their way through short stories and writing to me or others asking for feedback.

Listen, I'm not just trying to be curmudgeonly (or controversial, although I generally do prefer the path less traveled), but I honestly believe new writers should refrain from getting their work critiqued by anyone (except maybe mom, but only if mom is one of those my-child-walks-on-water types) until they've written at least, I don't know…200,000 words.

(Cue rending sound of tearing metal.)

For those of you still with me after that shattering crash of reality…yes, I mean don't show your manuscript to your friends. Don't workshop it. Don't throw early chapters into online critique groups or take it to your writer's club for feedback. Not until you're at least 200,000 words in (400,000 is better). I don't mean you have to write a 200,000 word novel. I mean you've spent at least 200,000 words in the effort of learning the craft. I mean you've toiled and sweated and thrown away more chapters or short stories than you've kept.

Why do I say this? And what does word count have to do with anything?

Well, what do new writers most need and want? Validation. Proof from a viewpoint exterior to their own that their work has merit. A sense of accomplishment at having written something worthy of praise.

But what are critique groups for? Criticism.

Think of it this way: when you're nine years old and learning to play an instrument (let's say violin), you perform a song and it's screechy and out of tune, but your parents clap and smile and say, “That's so wonderful, dear!” So you keep at it, even though you're awful. This is because youth has the great benefit of a lack of awareness of others (the subtleties of expression are generally lost on nine-year-olds), and because when you're nine, the enthusiasm of learning to play an instrument tends to outweigh the necessity to become good at it immediately.

However, reverse this scenario with a set of parents who plug their ears and say, “What in damnation is that screeching?” and that buoyant nine-year-old deflates like a tired old balloon. Down he or she sets the violin, possibly forever.

When you’re new to any art, the ebullient enthusiasm of creation is fragile. If you receive criticism when inflated praise is really what you need, it can completely crush your desire for creative writing. I’ve seen it happen—many times.

New writers fall quickly into the pot of, “Can you read my work and tell me what you think of it?” But that pot approaches a rolling boil far faster than most new writers can endure. You think you’re ready for constructive criticism—you think your story is brilliant—but as soon as someone points out those flaws in structure, or says your protagonist is boring or your dialogue contrived, you’ll find your enthusiasm for writing deconstructing around you.

“But if I never get my work critiqued,” you say, “how will I know my writing is good enough?”

Without opening that subjective can of worms, here’s the simplicity: you will always be your toughest critic.

The writer’s journey has a honeymoon phase—that early creative time when everything is rose-colored and glorious, when the whole gig of writing is new, the prose is flowing, your thoughts are liquid and easily shaped; when you say, “I’m writing this story and I love every part of it!”

Eventually we come down off this high.

Then you look at your story and only see its flaws. If you’re smart, you save what can be saved and scrap the rest. Start anew, this time a little more soberly. This time you’re focusing more on craft.

Eventually, story and craft merge (sometimes around 200,000 words spent upon the effort, sometimes 500,000), so that suddenly (though it’s not actually sudden at all) you’re writing in the fullness of your talent upon a story deeply rooted in craft; so that you hardly have to think of the mechanics of writing because they’re so part and parcel to how you structure your sentences, paragraphs, chapters; much in the way a pro musician learns to read new music and really play his instrument at the same time.

So what do I advise you to do if you’re a writer just starting out? Write. A lot. Write, write, write. Read. A lot. Write some more. Compare what you’re writing to what you’re reading. Read for the purposes of observing how your favorite writers structure their dialogue, how they use metaphor, how they create tension in the scene. Study while you’re reading. Then write, write, write. Use what you observed in your own writing. Hone your craft. Hone your story.

Eventually you’ll have enough words beneath you that you've gained a sense of your own written voice; likewise a sense of your facility with the craft. Eventually you’ll have constructed and deconstructed your own work enough times that you’ve developed a deep understanding of your story’s structure. You’ve architected it upside-down and backwards. You know the strength of its foundation and how well constructed are its pillars. Not only can you take a little beating from others’ criticisms now, so can your story.

So while you may think you’re already there, new writer, if you’re still in the honeymoon phase—if you haven’t put in that word-count—I can pretty much guarantee your story isn’t ready for real critique. And neither are you.

If you’re a masochist, go for the criticism early on. But if you want to cherish and protect your creative impulse, give it time to germinate, grow, flourish, before you prune it all to hell. That way its foundation will be deep enough so that it grows back bigger and stronger instead of withering into something so tragic that even a nine-year-old could yank it out by its roots.

25 Responses to “Critique/Criticism and New Writers”

  1. Rachel Karl says:

    Very wise advice! Daunting to think about the word count but the way you describe the honeymoon phase and subsequently only seeing the flaws once out of that phase is spot on. 🙂

  2. Bob Wagoner says:

    Love this, great words to write by!

  3. Ken Davis says:

    An interesting Blog Melissa.
    Force, but gentleness, truth couched within. I could ‘hear’ echos of Miss Blakey, my English Teacher (and mentor, both spiritual and linguistical) lo these 55+ years.
    It’s not just about budding writers, to whom it was directed, but is an exceptional allegory to life. Learning, exploring, despairing, discovery, and awakening. Finally, sooner better than later, finding your story, accepting you are the protagonist,the star of your life / novel. Coming into your stride with confidence and acceptance, and ‘writing’ your life -as you see it, as you want it, to be yours. Input from others, of course, but taken as comment, out of love perhaps, as your pages /days unfold. Some as planned, some not; alternate forks taken until you reach the point that you can sit quietly and say “I’m glad I wrote (that book) / I’m glad I lived my life”

  4. Laurie says:

    The only person I have exchanged writing with is my daughter, also an aspiring writer. Although probably less for critique and more for bouncing ideas off each other… You’re an inspiration.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      There’s something very special about the mother-daughter collaboration, Laurie. My mother has read every version of my first book – all 13! And loved them all. And inspired future work. That’s what mom’s are for. 🙂

  5. Nevin says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve been writing since I graduated from college. That’s 33 years ago. I write, put it away. Come back to it and add to it. Put it away. Read other authors stories/books. Come back to my book. Add some more. Put it away. And it progresses. I have all told at least 6-8 books going and the content comes at me at different times. I don’t rush it. I let the wiring dictate to me. That’s what works for this unpublished writer. Someday I’ll see the publisher. Now is not that day.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Sounds really smart of you, Nevin. That you’ve maintained your creative drive all of these years is testimony to the effectiveness of your process, I’d say.

  6. Nevin says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve been writing since I graduated from college. That’s 33 years ago. I write, put it away. Come back to it and add to it. Put it away. Read other authors stories/books. Come back to my book. Add some more. Put it away. And it progresses. I have, all told, at least 6-8 books going and the content comes at me at different times. I don’t rush it. I let the wiring dictate to me. That’s what works for this unpublished writer. Someday I’ll see the publisher. Now is not that day.

  7. Heidi says:

    Aww man! That’s a lot of writing. But since you are an inspired genius and I admire you so greatly, I will accept your advice as good and act on it. Thank you for taking the time to mentor. It may be intimidating but it’s actually also heartening. As in: “Oh, I don’t have to be instantly amazing? Phew!” 🙂

  8. Ken says:

    Love it. Lay your foundation before subjecting your house to storms. Build and rebuild your house on that firm foundation.

    And even if the storm is terrible enough to uproot some of that foundation… well, at least you’ve had practice laying a foundation, so setting down another won’t be as hard.

  9. Hanna says:

    Agreed! I’ve been working on my first book, and I’m currently in the stage where beta readers are combing through the chapters. Some of them are surprised when I told them that I’ve given them the sixth draft, and that I plan at least one more after a few people read it. Giving your beta readers the best possible work allows them to focus on the real problems. Instead of letting their comments be bogged down with simple things like typos or missing words they can give real criticism and offer ideas on how to fix them. It’s a lot easier for them, and they tend to get back to you with their comments faster.

  10. Paul VanHorn says:

    One of the points of criticism is editing. As a former TA teaching English Composition, one of the hardest points to drive home was, “Read every sentence Out Loud.” Make sure it says what you want it to say. Then read the sentence within it’s surrounding copy, make sure it belongs where it is. This feat can be especially helpful when working with dialog between folks in your stories. Make sure each voice fits the character, the accent, the knowledge or education. It’s these small things that help your characters bloom into well rounded folks in the story.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Such a great point, Paul. It reminds me, as my publisher was first preparing book one for Audible, I was listening to the reading and thinking how differently I might’ve written the book if I knew it was going to be read out loud. This was more a view on public and medium than your exact editing point, but they’re coming from a similar place. It’s definitely a different style of writing for oratory versus internalization.

      Honestly, I probably wouldn’t have changed anything in the prose – but I might’ve made some names easier to pronounce!

  11. Melissa Bowling says:

    Okay, I’ve been thinking and thinking about this, ever since you first posted it! Here’s the thing: 200,000 words (or 400,000 words!!) is a great amount of work to get done but also a looooooot of words with which to potentially train yourself into bad habits you might not be aware of. I agree that your darlings shouldn’t be exposed to criticism before you’re certain of them, because that can hurt–a lot! But aspiring writers should keep in mind that we can also write and share short stories, dialogues, etc., that are separate from the main creation but can be used to learn. So maybe there’s a middle ground to be had. You could pick whatever you’re feeling awkward about, then practice it outside of your main work and get feedback on that. It also helps with the fact that a writer also needs to learn how to hear criticism without feeling personally eviscerated. (Some of us **cough**me**cough** might need more practice than others….) 😉 I certainly wouldn’t have been able to face anybody reading my Beloved Story (not even the supportive cheerleader types!) if I hadn’t gotten feedback on at least a dozen side projects first!

    So, what do you think of my counter-proposal?

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      I love your counter-proposal, Melissa. I do think workshopping and writing groups can be hugely beneficial. If you’re writing a lot of short stories, it may be easier for your growth to get supportive feedback. If you’re only working on one novel and it’s your whole life’s purpose in those pages…well, I think I might advise getting that word count up there before asking for too much feedback beyond, “Did you like it?” There’s always a middle ground though, and honestly, the only thing that truly matters is what works best for you.

      • Melissa Bowling says:

        Ah, see? I’ve never had one story that meant that much to me (though the latest is close to my heart just because I’ve spent a lot of time on it). I want to tell them ALL, rather indiscriminately. 😉

  12. Suzan Ott says:

    Mel, Nicely written, and a good message that can be used in fields outside of writing. Thanks for sharing.

  13. mark mccurdy says:

    You are so very right in this blog, I have known other writers that have told me the very same thing. And I originally thought how wrong they were until I stepped back and truly heard what they were saying to me. And I have thanked them for there great advice. And it was nice to see that they were not wrong or alone in that advice.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      That’s great to hear, Mark. All we can do is share what’s worked for us, understanding it may not be right for everyone. I’m glad you’ve found use in this perspective.

  14. Josephine says:

    Just read this linked from Facebook . Total sense . I’ve been writing for years , too many now to count lol . Was tempted to try allowing an aquantance to read it but I’m glad I read your blog . I’ve scribbled constantly when life hasn’t got in the way . I’ve just decided to try again like Bloomsbury publishing told me some 15 years ago as overall it was well written to try an agent . I think in the meantime I will keep it to myself . Thank you

Leave a Comment