How to Take Criticism at a Writers’ Group

First take a deep breath and remember it’s the work that being criticised, not you.  Taking the plunge and offering your work for criticism to people who will not unconditionally praise it isn’t easy, but it is necessary if you want your writing to develop. 

Once you’ve found a writers’ group to suit you, you need to get the best out of it.

Don’t react

At least not there and then.  Take what’s been said away and consider why it’s been said and what the speaker hoped to achieve.  Individuals will all have their own obsessions: with one it will be grammar and punctuation, with another characters, with another dialogue.  But think: are they trotting out the same advice they give to everyone or are they saying something relevant to your work?  One magazine editor used to state “you need to stop writing” on her rejection slips.  That message was like slamming into a brick wall until you realised she said that on all her rejection slips thus it became completely harmless.

Not all Advice will be useful

Some of the advice will apply directly to the piece of work under discussion.  Some advice will be useful but will not apply to the work under discussion, but is worth noting so it can inform future work.  Some advice should be ignored: some will try and re-write your work, resist. 

Some Critics only Criticise

Sadly some cannot bring themselves to say anything positive and will only focus on weaknesses.  Turn your focus to the sections they didn’t comment on: that’s where your strengths are.  Look the sections they did comment on.  Do their comments apply or should they be ignored?

Don’t try and please everyone

You can’t.  Who are you targeting your work to?  Do they like it?  That’ll do.

The problem area might not be the one under discussion

The problems may occur earlier in the work.  If no one likes a particular twist in the story, the problem lies in whatever made the characters follow that twist.  If no one likes stanza three, then the problem’s in stanza two that led to stanza three.

Take Care with Rewrites

Are you rewriting because the work needs it or re-writing to please the group?  Ultimately you should be writing for your target audience, ie commissioning editors, and if the group wants you to take your work in a direction that editors don’t like, don’t re-write.

Are you collecting rejection slips?

There’s little point in simply bringing your work to the writers’ group every meeting if your aim is to get published.  You have to submit work to editors as well. 

The Worst Criticism is silence

That’s not the silence of people gathering thoughts immediately after seeing/hearing your work.  That’s the silence of standard rejection slips.  The silence of no reviews.  The silence of no editorial feedback.  The silence of no readers.  If you want to get published, you’ve got to get your work out there.

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Should Writers read reviews of their Writing?

A subject touched on by both Meg Gardiner and Tess Gerritsen and raised indirectly at a recent poetry reading where one poet punctuated her poems with anxious looks towards the audience, as if seeking approval before reading on.

Three Reasons Not to Read Reviews 


1. The book’s already been published and can’t be changed.

True, but a perceptive, constructive comment could inform future work, especially if it’s part of series.

2. It’s a flame by an anonymous troll on a site such as Amazon.

Then it’s not a review, it’s a flame by an anonymous troll… and not worth responding to. It’s difficult not to take a scathing attack personally, but if the person writing it didn’t have sufficient courage of their convictions to use their own name, then treat them as a playground bully and ignore them.

3. The reviewer said nasty things.

The world would be a very boring place if everyone loved your books. Reviewers don’t really have that huge an impact on sales – most people buy books because:

• they like your books

• their friend likes your books

• your book was on special offer

• they picked it up by mistake

• they were stuck for something to read and a librarian suggested it

• they were bored and a copy was left on the bus/train/etc

• a reviewer they liked, liked it

• a reviewer they hate, hated it.

Three Reasons to Read Reviews


1. A good review is a good ego boost.

It’s also useful publicity.

2. Positive comments encourage more writing because it’s reassuring to know someone’s reading you.

3. The review said good things.

Sometimes unintentionally. One of my stories was described as “an extended myspace confessional albeit better written“. It was meant as a snark but his comment actually said “contemporary, modern story” and he thought the writing was good (“better” implies “good”) so I took it as a compliment.

Ultimately whether a writer reads their reviews or not is a personal decision. I’ve never had a bad review, but, equally, I’ve never had one that’s been pure praise. That’s good: I’m lucky my reviews have been balanced. However, I’ve never self-published. Everything of mine that has been published has been approved by an editor. An editor who has had confidence to say “this is worth publishing”. In poetry, where rejection rates run at 98%, that editor’s approval counts and rates far higher than the opinion of a reviewer. Even so, it’s hard to remind yourself that editorial approval matters, anonymous flames don’t when it’s your own work under attack. Writers deserve robust reviews by reviewers who are constructive. 

But the worst review of all is no review: flamers take note.  No reviews means no one’s reading the book.

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