Sunday Writing Discussion #12: Critiques and Beta Readers

It is important to get feedback on one’s art or writing. When I was an undergraduate I spent two years in art school. I studied all the basics and focused on textiles. I participated in many art critiques. One of my professors was very hard core. Her critiques included all her students ranging from first years through graduate students. She was notorious for sending students out of the room crying because her critiques were so brutal. I had a work study job as the lab assistant to this professor, I asked her why she was so blunt in her critiques. She told me that she did it intentionally. Her rationale included many points: 1. once an artist puts their work out to the public, anyone can say anything and the artist needs to be toughened to take it; 2. art is a craft and the artist needs to have distance from their art and not perceive criticism as a critique of themselves; and 3. an uncouched, direct, and honest critique of one’s work is not always available– it is a luxury and it needs to not be misinterpreted. She believed that artists need to know what was what in order to learn what they were doing wrong in order to improve.

A several years ago I returned to doing artwork and took classes in 2 dimensional and 3 dimensional design, drawing, color, and a survey course. One of my instructors I admired greatly. Her approach was very different and very gentle. She allowed work to be redone after a critique to improve one’s grade in order that the student could learn from the feedback that they had been given. She spoke about how artists needed to both develop their own intuition, their inner critic, that could guide them in the production of their work and to have trusted people that could give them honest feedback. She believed that people needed to hear what they were doing correct in their compositions initially so that they could build confidence and knowledge and as they advanced in their artistic studies they needed to refine their knowledge and learn more about what needed to improve. All of this was to gradually build one’s inner critic because being an artist is a solo endeavor. But she always maintained that having someone else who could give feedback was an essential.

Writing is also primarily a solo endeavor. The writer writes their manuscript on their own. It is quite easy to become taken with one’s words and not be able to evaluate easily if one has accomplished the writing goals that one set out to initially accomplish. I have been reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. It is a useful book. In the book the first thing that the authors mentioned is that time helps writers to gain some distant from their writing that will help them to edit their work. They say that this is one of the most helpful things a writer can do for themselves. The book goes on to talk about various aspects of fiction writing and gives checklists of things to consider and be aware of to improve one’s writing. The book is partially a manual to help writers to develop their inner critic that they can trust to guide their writing.

Two other things can help writers to develop their own inner critic and the trust to listen to its guidance. One is simply to practice, practice, practice. It is an old adage that the first million words a writer will write are garbage. This isn’t an adage that I entirely buy into because I think writing rules always have exceptions. Further, I am a teacher and people learn at different rates and in different ways. Some writers may need to write that million words. Others may not because they can read and analyze literature and think of how to apply writing techniques, they can learn faster from their own writing, they may have an innate genius like Harper Lee, etc. But the essence of the advice I think is sound. The more one writes, the better they typically get.

The other thing that can help writers to improve is receiving critiques from beta readers. I have received hundreds of critiques on my work at this point. Not all beta readers are equal. Sometimes it takes either getting many critiques from many beta readers and interpreting what themes come out of all the critiques OR having a few very trusted people who understand one’s writing and can provide useful critiques.

When one is interpreting critiques, it is important to look across the themes of what comes up in those critiques. Very often critiques are provided by other novice writers who do not entirely know what to say about a piece of writing but they are reacting to certain parts. Also, most people do not want to risk offending a person that they are critiquing for and they will often tone down what they are saying or phrase things euphemistically. This means that the writer needs to in some ways decipher what the critiquer has said. For instance, a critiquer might say that they loved a particular character and that the short story felt like part of something larger. On the surface this comes across as a compliment. It doesn’t help the writer who needs honest feedback to improve their writing. This kind of statement needs to be thought about because the critiquer was giving feedback on a short story and what they are expressing is that the story in its current form did not work for them. It might not be that expanding the short story into a novella or novel is appropriate or would be good storytelling. It might be that the character was compelling, but the pacing of the story was off and it did not hit the plot points strong enough to provide a satisfying ending to the story. It might be that the story had an interesting central character but there were too many other elements crammed into the story, it lurched from scene to scene, and then rushed to an ending. That comment that it felt like part of something larger could apply to many different scenarios.

If a critiquer comments that a scene or line really stood out and was well-written, this might not be a compliment to be taken at face value. The writing should not stand out above the fabric of the story as whole. One dynamic scene in a story that gets compliments from critiquers is just that. It does not make for a good overall short story. Same with that one beautifully turned phrase.

Even straight forward comments in a critique need to be thought through. For instance a beta reader might say that they didn’t believe a character would act in a certain way. The character might act in that way, but the writer might have failed to effectively tell the story and “sell” why the character would do that particular action. The character’s motivation may not be apparent. The problem might be with characterization, the described action from a previous scene, or a slight logic problem in the world building. It’s up to the writer to think through what went awry and rewrite the story to make it work.

Beta readers or critiquers that one knows and trusts to be honest and thorough take time to find. If an author is asking for their feedback, it is important to honor what they have to say by contemplating on it. It is still the writer’s decision and responsibility about where to take their writing or how to rewrite a particular piece. If the writer is getting defensive or making statements that the critiquers don’t understand their work or are just being mean, that writer should probably think about why they had people read their work in the first place. Was it to get compliments or to get feedback so that they could improve their writing?

Very few of us start doing art work and produce gilded masterpieces. Very few of us write prose that is magical straight off. Few of us are “special” in that we can skip developing whatever talent we have and go to instant success. Feedback is important. It helps not only with the piece that one is currently working on but also to help develop one’s sensibilities and ability to evaluate one’s own work.

Reaching One’s Personal Best is Rarely an Individual Effort

Recently I had the good fortune to participate in a think tank about coaching, in particular about coaching teachers. We were asked to read an essay by Atul Gawande titled “Personal Best” that had appeared in The New Yorker. Dr. Gawande who is a very talented surgeon came to the conclusion that he wanted to improve his surgical skills. He had the opportunity to hire a tennis professional and in the short lesson with the tennis pro improved his serve and his game. This inspired him to ask a former medical professor to observe him during his surgeries and give him feedback. Dr. Gawande talks in the essay about how his former professor was able to watch him and take notes. The professor made suggestions about small things that could improve the surgeries and Dr. Gawande saw his complication rates edge downwards. He also talked about how by opening up to this type of coaching he made himself vulnerable and how people questioned his competence if he was bringing in a coach.

I have been an artist and a writer for over 25 years. A great deal of learning how to do visual arts or writing simply comes with actually doing the work. Over time one learns how small amounts of bright primary colors can lead the eye across a painting, how to create surface movement with line and contrast, how to create subtext with the minimalist amount of specific details, how to use one character as a foil for another and highlight themes and conflict, or any of the other hundred elements that can make or break a piece. All of this is not enough. No one can look at their own work entirely objectively. It takes time for an artist or a writer’s inner critic to develop and out of necessity the process must include other people.

When a writer or artist first begins to pursue their craft, words and images come quickly and easily. It is all a great deal of fun, but those first critiques of one’s work can feel brutal. While critiques should not be personal and should be about the work, sometimes at first they do feel personal. One’s baby and talent are being scrutinized at the same time. It can be hard to take and an artist or writer needs to find a teacher, class, or critique group that they feel comfortable in and trust. Creating art or writing is a risk taking endeavor and trust is essential. Trust has to be built up first in what the teacher or critique group says so that it can be used to learn and guide the production of new and better pieces. With this feedback from other people, eventually over time one’s own internal critic learns criteria to be able judge the work and the artist or writer learns to trust their inner voice. The inner critic must be trained to do this and other people are needed to make this happen.

Even after an artist or a writer has been creating their work for awhile, there is always room for improvement. Humbling oneself, making oneself vulnerable, and asking for feedback is a way to push one’s work farther and make it better. Artists and writers mainly do their work in isolation but they need community if their work is to become their personal best. This does not make them entirely subject to the opinions of those that are giving them feedback, it gives the artist or writer information to think about and to base decisions on. Writing and the creation of art are thoughtful acts and the decisions to be made about where to take a piece are those of the creator. Just because a teacher or a critique group says that something should be done a particular way does not mean that it must be done that way. It is information to be analyzed and the decision is the writer or artist’s to make. Critiquing can be a dialogue meant to spur thought and discussion. The community of artists that were known as the Impressionists would not have created the movement that they did if they had not had all of the members contributing their individual thoughts and commentary on one another’s work, general philosophy, and techniques.

Whether a person does art, writes, races bicycles, teaches small children, etc. all of us need other people to reach our personal, individual best.