When I was in high school, my absolute FAVORITE thing to do in my advanced English class was to write essays. I loved writing about topics given to me by the teacher that were meant to challenge and inspire. I often heard my peers complain, "We have to write a 1500 word WHAT?". I never, ever counted my words to see how much more I had left to write. I loved it!
I know, I'm weird.
However, there was another element to writing essays that I treasured. It didn't happen all that often, but I really looked forward to the times where our teachers would add, "After your first draft is written, you will exchange essays with the person next to you for Peer Review...". Fantastic! That meant someone who was experiencing the same things in life that I was experiencing, who shared the same feelings that I felt, who could easily give me good pointers because they themselves knew ME, would be critiquing my essay. Yes!
When I was given an essay to review, I tried my best to be encouraging. Even if I could barely understand what was written, I went ahead and gave them the pointers I felt they'd need to get a better grade. Sometimes, I got great feedback, and sometimes I got none. It didn't matter. I loved it all the same.
There was one time, though, where a very intelligent girl (the Valedictorian-type who went on to get several degrees from several Ivy leagues before her 30th birthday) probably ran her red pen totally dry on one of my essays. She ripped that thing apart, and had nothing good to say in the end. Instead of leaving me encouraged and motivated, she left me feeling self conscious, worthless, and stupid.
I am now a part of a critique group with four other INCREDIBLE women. We meet once a month, usually in places that stay open until 9pm- Panera, Starbucks, Whole Foods, etc. We like to submit our manuscripts to one another the Friday before we meet, so that way we can bring our opinions to the table after each manuscript is read aloud. I just joined the group in the fall of 2011, and let me tell you, I. Was. TERRIFIED. I just knew they were all these snooty, refined, perfect women who had their junk together, and had ALL been published. I came to my first meeting expecting my manuscript to be painted in red... four different times.
Know what I was met with instead? Kindness. Encouragement. Love. And truthfully? I have gotten nothing less with each meeting. They are uplifting. No snootiness, no perfection, and believe me, they'd all be the last to say that they have their junk together! I've learned a lot, and have left each meeting with a different feeling. Once I left feeling like I had finally done it! Once I left feeling confused. Once, I even left discouraged. But I can assure you, it wasn't because of what they said.
Look, no one is going to leave any critique "sesh" feeling like they are the all-time, most awesome, king of all things written. If they were that, they wouldn't need critique groups! But what matters is HOW they are critiqued. That makes a giant difference! Ideas need to be bounced off each other instead of forced onto each other.
Here's what I mean:
Instead of- "Look, this sentence makes ZERO sense. I don't get it. You need to change it."
Try- "I think I understand what you're getting to, but, I wonder if we did it this way if it might work
better. What do you think?"
What feels better?
We as writers are in a tough spot, no one needs to tell us that. We are faced with a lot of complications ranging from time to write, to tough markets, all the way to not having much support from the people around us (except for those lucky few, maybe). The best thing we can do for ourselves is encourage each other. Yes, we are competition for one another. But I think the moment we see that we're all out for the same cause, will be the moment we can achieve a lot for the children who want/need new, fresh, inspiring stories!
So, I'll ask you, what kind of critic are you?