That First Brutal Critique

Earlier this month I got an email from my youngest sister, Katie, who told me she was writing again. She’d enrolled in a few courses at her local university and asked if I’d like to be critique partners.


Another writer in the family! A new critique partner! Katie’s a natural, one of those writers who makes it look effortless. She’s got a lot more innate talent than me. I think she’ll do great.

Still, every writer frets about sharing work for the first time. It puts us out there and makes us vulnerable. That’s what happened to Katie. She’s just lived through her first workshop, in which students submitted a short story for peer critique. The experience left her feeling gutted, like a complete failure. She wrote to me:

After my first critique (which was a very very harsh critique that tore my piece apart) I went home and cried all night and then spent the next week seriously doubting whether I really am a writer or not, and feeling like a worthless pile of sh*t.

Boy, do I know how she feels.

I’ll never forget my first workshop. I went into it with a little too much confidence. Until I read a classmate’s submission. It was noticeably better than the rest of ours (that student was author Kourtney Heintz). Reading her segment, as well as her feedback on my own piece, showed me how much I had to learn. It was good for me. Helped put my ego in check.

Katie and my girls in 2011

Katie and my girls in 2011

I shared this experience with Katie to show her that every writer goes through periods of doubt. Critiques, as hard as some are to swallow, are only meant to help. Every first draft is flawed, but we have to keep writing if we want to improve.

Of all my critique partners, Larry is the toughest on me. Each time I send him a piece I hold my breath, because I know he’s going to let me have it. I typically need a few days to “recover” from his critiques, and even longer to digest his comments, but after some distance I can return to his feedback with some perspective. In almost every case, I have to admit he’s right.

Can you recall your first critique? Do you find it easier to accept criticism the longer you write?


Categories: Writing | Tags: , , , , , , | 61 Comments

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61 thoughts on “That First Brutal Critique

  1. The first cut is the deepest but, unfortunately, it’s all part of the game we play. It’s all part of experience too: critiques should mature as you go on but also your attitude towards them. You should seek it out, no question, but there’s nothing to say everything everyone says is right. Poor Katie. Tell her it gets better and, even though it might not seem it, this is part of making her the amazing writer she is more than capable of becoming.

    • The first cut is the deepest — I like that description, and you’re right, it’s all part of the writing process. A lot of readers have commented on needing a thick skin, and I think it comes with time, practice, and a whole lot of critiques. Thanks for your kind thoughts for Katie. She’s visited the site already today and is grateful for everyone’s encouragement!

  2. After my first critique, I had to put the manuscript away for two weeks before I could return to it. After some distance, I realized that what was said was true, and I was able to make the changes. Luckily, it gets easier to accept criticism over time. Now I welcome it (well, the constructive kind, anyway). Objective eyes are one of the most effective tools a writer has.

    • Putting it away and getting some distance is key for me, too, Carrie. And I agree it gets easier to accept criticism and look at one’s work more objectively the longer we do this. We’re too emotionally tied to the story to see it through neutral eyes. I rely on my critique partners to tell me what needs work.

  3. Please tell your sister not to worry too much about criticism from a group of inexperienced college students. At best it’s comparable to “man in the street” reactions, and at worst it offers advice that might only make her writing worse. The undergrad workshop throws together students with varied writing and reading interests and abilities, who typically judge submissions based on personal preference, rather than literary theory or practical application.

    More important is the negativity inherent in the workshop environment—if you submit a story and ask people to “critique” it, most will take that as a command to find the wrong, even if that wrong doesn’t exist.

    Frankly, I consider the undergrad workshop to be a lazy alternative to actual teaching that is often more harmful to a writer than helpful. If your sister is serious about writing, she should do two things: first, read books by established writers (both books on writing and their fiction/nonfiction work), and second, seek out a mentor—someone whose writing she respects, and who would be willing to review her work with an eye towards improving the areas that need it.

    • I’m so glad you weighed in on this, Joe, especially in the wake of your recent blogs on the SaMoPo. The point I find interesting in your comment is how some interpret critiquing: to find the wrong, even if wrong doesn’t exist. I guess I’m fortunate to have the critique partners I do. I get a great balance of what’s done well and what doesn’t work. I think it’s also important to weigh feedback accordingly. Some suggestions can and should be considered and incorporated, while other suggestions are irrelevant. I have another post in the works that looks incorporating critique feedback, and knowing when enough is enough. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

  4. I was about to talk about the risks of critique groups as opposed to valuable feedback (positive and negative) from a respected peer when I read jpon’s comment.

    What he said.

  5. kingmidget

    It definitely gets easier the longer I write. But I don’t know that I’ve ever had a critique that’s left me feeling miserable about a piece. Maybe it’s my desire to get the cold harsh truth or my readers/critiquers just aren’t harsh enough.

    • Agreed that it gets easier. For sure. I think I’ve only had one soul-crushing critique, which came in an online workshop. The student in this class delivered these types of critiques to everyone. She had nothing nice to say, and every comment was mean spirited. Finally, one of my classmates told her off on the class forum. I loved her guts, and she’s now one of my critique partners. Love your Gravitar photo – is it new?

      • kingmidget

        Picture is a couple of years old but I rotate it in every once in awhile. Now I can’t remember why i was goofing off with the tiara.

        And you’ve identified the reason I take all review with a grain of salt. Frequently the overly negative are always overly negative.

    • Here I was going to talk about some harsh critiques I’d received from a certain KINGMIDGET blogger but I see that he has infiltrated this space and I cannot speak freely ;)

      Okay, okay, he was incredibly helpful.

      • Hehe too funny! Thanks for sharing, Aussa!

      • kingmidget

        Yes “publish the damn thing” is certainly harsh.

      • *curls into a ball and weeps*

      • kingmidget

        Ok. You’re right. I am sorry for liking SSBD so much. I never realized how that would make you feel. Next time I read a manuscript of yours I will make sure to get my heavy duty red pen out.

  6. Francine Prose’s book “Reading Like a Writer” takes a cautious stance against teachers and review groups. She mentions some of the great books, and asks what would the typical critique group say about that writing? The Great Gatsby, for example (my example), might have received all kinds of questioning about the “Valley of Ashes,” and suggestions to make it easier for the reader to grasp.

    Francine took one class that she found to be positive. The teacher “showed me, among other things, how to line edit my work. For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and, especially cut is essential. It’s satisfying to see that sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form: clear, economical, sharp.” But then she gives her conclusion: “But that class, as helpful as it was, is not where I learned to write. Like most—maybe all—writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books.” [I highly recommend reading the introduction to her book.]

    The problem for us novices is that we need feedback. It’s difficult, probably impossible, to write in a vacuum. After all our hard work, we want someone to appreciate it. We want someone to give us direction.
    But where can we find that constructive criticism? Editors, for example, are notorious for giving praise in order to maintain the relationship (we pay and pay for their advice, and they tell us how wonderful our novel is—“just one more draft away”). Students in writing classes may know less than we do, or have a bias or misinformed view (or just a preference for another style).

    I think that we should seek out opinions from others, and maybe, just maybe, every so often, someone will give us a gem that will open our eyes to a fresh path that will improve our writing. But we need a thick skin and the ability to sift through a lot of unhelpful advice, to get there. Try to find one positive idea from each review, and mull it over, and possibly in time, one of those ideas will lead to better writing.

    [After reading Gwen’s comments about my reviews, my wife thinks I’m a real brute. Sorry. I’ll try to be more nurturing.]

    • Larry, you bring up so many good points here that illustrate why you’re such a good critique partner. Nobody knows everything about writing, but every novice writer has read good and bad writing. You’re well read and you recognize what works and what doesn’t. There’s nothing wrong with the way you give feedback and you don’t need to be more nurturing. :) Your comments are always polite, but overwhelming in the sense that it gives me so much to think about, I often need time to sort it all out in my mind. Don’t change. I’m lucky to have a diverse group of critique partners. I rely on all of you to bring something different to the table. Thanks for weighing in.

  7. I think it does get easier – or we learn to grow tougher skins, perhaps. I know that I was very nervous to read anything of mine out in class at first – but I was fortunate to have some very kind folk in the group who were very encouraging. Constructive criticism is definitely very useful – what isn’t useful is personal opinion: not one of us can write a piece that everyone will LIKE – but it is being able to give and receive positive comments and critiques which I have learned to be the most useful.

    • You’re not the first reader to comment on the difference between constructive criticism and personal opinion, Jenny. And you’re right — we will never be able to please every potential reader (I have a post in the works that explores this point a bit). A blend of positive comments and suggestions on what can be improved are the best types of critiques, and I think it can all be done politely without tearing the writer down.

  8. I remember my first harsh critique like it was yesterday, even though it was six years ago. I had a hard time going back to that group for a long time, yet I am glad I did. One thing I have learned is everyone has something to add and their critiques are valid, but not all critiques are given in a constructive manner. We have to develop a thick skin while still being open to feedback.

    • Lots of people have brought up developing a thick skin, and you’re right, it’s necessary if we’re ever going to improve. I rely on my partners to provide me with feedback that will make my writing stronger. Sometimes it’s easy to swallow, other times it takes me a while to come around. But I agree with you, most critiques have something valid to offer. It’s good that you didn’t let that first critique keep you away from your group. Learning how to sift through the comments and use the ones that are relevant or useful is another learned skill.

  9. katiewritesagain

    jpon says it is exactly right about the varying quality of critiques. I have listened to “critiques” of my own, and other’s work and have learned how to recognize constructive criticism as opposed to personal opinion. Disregard personal opinion. You’ll learn to recognize it, too. Keep writing, keep going to workshops.
    READ READ READ. Learn to read as a writer. When you read something that really captivates you, that completely envelops you in that world, go back and read as a writer. HOW did the author draw you in? How did they develop character? How did they describe, dialogue, etc? I have learned as much from my reading as my writing classes and books.
    And yes, you will eventually develop the thick skin all artists must have to survive.

    • That’s a great point, Katie. Reading is so important! I read my favorite books over and over (my husband will often comment “you’re reading that AGAIN?”), because each time I reread I learn something new from the author. A thick skin is certainly necessary, and I think that only comes with time.

  10. I’ve been lucky to never have been in that environment where my work was critiqued like that – I imagine for a young writer it could have quite a damaging effect. Criticism is useful of course, as long as those doing the critiquing have some credentials to do it and they do it with some compassion.

  11. I don’t have a problem at all. I graduated in art and have only been writing for three years. I figure I have a lot to learn and will continue to be a sponge for the rest of my life!!!!
    I have had harsh criticism. In front of 100 people at a writer’s conference when they read my first page out of the slush pile I had added a random chapter right before and hadn’t even proofed it! The chapter was too random and in the wrong place. I just laughed with them and rewrote it!

    • One thing’s for sure: we never stop learning where writing is concerned. There is always something to soak up (to borrow your sponge metaphor). It’s great you were able to laugh along with the slush pile reading. Others would be mortified by the experience. Thanks for sharing, Susie!

  12. I do remember my first critique, Gwen and it was a great experience. It was done by a published author whose work I admire. It was harsh in spots, but in the end, it was worth the cuts and bruises.
    I’ve learned to accept that everyone’s a critic, but I always consider the source.

    • Considering the source is a great point, Jill, and it reflects some of what Joe wrote about, above. You’re lucky your first critique was a positive one. The problem with workshops is the varied experience and skills present in the class. The more we write and learn, the more “qualified” we are to give a good critique. At least that’s the way I see it.

  13. I meet weekly with a critique. We have been meeting for years now. A couple of things that have helped over the years. These are people who understand the writing process because they are writers themselves. I know, in the beginning, I would bring a piece and have it critiqued, then be depressed for the next day or two over the criticism. Here’s some things that have helped me to soldier on.

    First the critique is someone’s opinion, and only their opinion. Usually if I hear two or more people saying the same thing it’s probably something I really need to pay attention.

    Secondly I don’t take the piece to the group until it is ready to be critiqued. I don’t take my rough draft. I take a piece only after I have done everything I can. As a part of this, I usually have a finished product.

    Thirdly, the critique should not be about the writer but about the piece.

    Some critiques can be downright mean. I try to avoid those critiques like the plague. Also I think it is good to look for the things I like first when I am critiquing, then find the things that I don’t like.

    One of the things I have to watch is when the critique changes the rhythm and the voice of the piece.

    Tell your sister not to give up. At least critiques from a workshop or writer’s group is not as bad as getting a rejection or a scathing rejection from an editor.

    • All great points, Don. The one that struck me was watching when the critique changes the rhythm and the voice of the piece. I’ve been guilty of that. A people pleaser by nature, I at one time tried to incorporate all the feedback I received from every reader, until a critique partner told me I may have over-revised, and in doing so, I’d lost the essence of the story. It’s a fine line to walk. I think Katie has bounced back very well from the experience. I had a look at the story that was torn apart, and my critique made her feel much better. The teacher in me likes to point out what’s done well, as well as make suggestions for revisions, just as you said above. Thanks for sharing your valuable thoughts.

  14. I don’t think the sting ever lessens but my recovery time is quicker. And I really try to analyze every comment now to see if they apply. I’m glad Katie has a sister who’s been through it and can guide her. Hopefully that will make it easier for her to acclimate!

    • I’d have to agree with the way you put it Phillip. “What doesn’t work” is never easy to swallow, but I can get on with it much quicker now, too. Writing is a very personal endeavor, but learning to look at one’s own work objectively is a skill that comes with lots of practice.

  15. Hee hee I’ve just looked at a few pages of Kourtney Heintz and she is good! What an experience (good and bad) to be in the same workshop. Glad you learned from it.

    Unfortunately I haven’t got a critique partner yet. I also need to produce enough to be worth critiquing. But when I find a partner, I know I am going to want a hold-your-breath type.

    Good post.

    • Kourtney is a good writer, indeed. I learned a lot when I beta read her latest manuscript last fall. I’ve met all of my critique partners via online workshops. You meet all types in those forums, but I think I’ve got a really good lot. I can always count on their honest feedback, even if I’m compelled to hold my breath. :)

  16. Ah yes. The first critique is a brutal learning curve. It’s funny that we seem to start out with all the confidence in the world yet the better we become at writing the more we doubt ourselves. Ignorance is bliss I guess. I read my first piece of writing (if that’s what you could call it) during a writing class. The silence that followed was more brutal than any kind of negative feedback. I fear the other students had no idea what to make of it. It took me a long time to show my work again! At least we can take comfort that we are all together in this. Tell your sister to keep her head down and write – she’ll look back and laugh one day x

    • What a great observation, Gemma, as that’s been my learning curve, too. We start out with loads of confidence before we know anything about the craft, and the more experienced we become, the more we want to hide behind the computer! Ha! One of my writing friends attended a conference and listened to his work being read out loud. The experience made such an impact on him that he didn’t pursue the piece again for almost a year.

      I got an email from Katie last night. She’s bounced back very well and is keeping this experience in perspective. The brutal critique was hard, she said, but she learned a lot. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

  17. My first critique was on a short story submitted during a creative writing course I enrolled on a few years ago. Looking back at it now, the mauling it received was entirely justified. It never gets any less painful though, every piece of negative feedback is still like a kick in the teeth.

    • It’s easy to look back on work and see how bad it was. It’s also gratifying to see how far you’ve come. You’re right, there’s always a sting with every critique. But I’m finding my recovery time is shortening.

  18. Great post, and great comments, too. When I edit or do a manuscript evaluation, I remember that someone poured his or her heart and soul into the piece, and my job is to point out ways for that writer to make it even better. Just ripping someone’s writing apart is cruel.

    The important thing for a writer to remember—whether the critique comes from a writing instructor, a friend, a critique group, an editor, an agent, or anyone else—is that both reading and writing are subjective. I might love the way you phrase something, and another editor might hate it; as the writer, you need to take the best of all the advice you receive, balance it against your vision, and create a better piece in the revision process.

    I hope your sister has recovered and is writing her heart out again!

    • Thanks, Candace, for all your encouraging comments (and again for the tweet)! It gets tricky when you consider the subjectivity of the reader, though. For a while I fell into the trap of trying incorporate every bit of feedback I received. Impossible. And in doing so, I’d lost the essence of the piece I was working on. Staying true to artistic vision is the subject of a post I’ve got in the works right now.

  19. I really feel for your sister there, and I do think it gets better. I’ve definitely had those critiques – why do I bother, I’m a hack, this is a waste of time – and if the despair is strong enough, a little self-care is always needed. Ultimately, I remind myself that the critiques have made me a much better writer. It’s certainly tough when you’re experiencing it for the first time, but over time she will develop a thick skin and become stronger for it.

    • I think most of us have been there — those soul-crushing critiques. Terrible. Developing a thick skin comes with time and experience. But to get there, we have to keep writing. And you’re so right. Critiques make us better writers.

  20. Thank you for the awesome shout out. I’m glad my feedback helped! My friend was an English lit major and she said the critiques she got in college were beyond brutal. They don’t seem to do the sandwich method where you state what is working, mention what wasn’t working, and then close with some more positive. I think if the end goal is to help someone become a better writer, you do not need to eviscerate them with criticism. We can only work on so much at a time and we all need to hear what we are doing right too. :)

    • There’s something good in every piece, no matter what, and a writer needs to hear what she’s done well. I like what Joe said above — that some interpret “critique” as finding what’s wrong, even if the wrong isn’t there. It’s funny that the answers are usually right there in front of us. But we need to grow as writers, absorb a little at a time, until eventually we’re ready to “see” it. Yes, your excerpt from Six Train made an impression on me, even back then. :)

      • I almost think they need to reframe it as feedback and not a critique because critique implies only negative. Exactly. It’s important to nudge people along and push them to be better writers without destroying their ego. I think it can be done if people remember that being tactful is to everyone’s benefit.

  21. I was told my sentences were too short. It’s definitely easier to accept criticism the longer you write. You just have to know which ones to take seriously and which ones to just thank and move on.

    • Knowing which comments to take seriously and which ones to overlook was a problem for me for a while, Jevon. But like everything with writing, the longer I’m at this, the easier it is to see the difference.

  22. It does get easier, but it always stings. And critiques should always be phrased in professional and diplomatic ways. Savaging another writer is not the way to do things. I feel sorry for writers who suffered through that and come out thinking “that’s how it’s done.” Because it shouldn’t be.

    • Agreed. Feedback should focus on what the writer’s done well, as well as what needs work. Critiques are best if they’re honest, but they can still be polite.

  23. Critiques are brutal. When they’re bad, they destroy you. When they’re good, you’re happy for a bit, until you think “They must be sugarcoating their critique. There’s no way they liked my piece that much. They’re lying!”

    • Critiques are the necessary evil, aren’t they? I have a hard time accepting a good critique too! There must be something wrong…something I need to fix! But then, what would we do without them, good or bad?

  24. Ah, the slings and arrows of writing critiques! We all remember them (and still receive them) and occasionally take a deep breath and actually learn something from them. The lives of writers.
    Excellent post, Gwen, filled with good examples and reminders.

    • Thanks, Marilyn. The first brutal one has stayed with me. I find the longer I do this, the easier it is to separate the emotion and see the critique for what it is. Or maybe the recovery time is just quicker. :)

  25. fransiweinstein

    I’m sure it gets boring when I talk about working in advertising all the time, but the experiences I have had as a result of working in that industry so often dovetail with the subject of so many of your blog posts. As a copywriter/creative director in ad agencies, I cannot tell you how often, and by how many people, my work as been critiqued. Each and every piece, each and every day. And the bigger the client, the more eyes, and opinions, there are. At first it is very difficult. And then you develop a thick skin and stop taking it personally. You become able to take a step back and look at the work, and the comments, objectively. And you realize the revised work is better. And that’s what it’s all about. Doing the best work possible. There is nothing as great as constructive criticism. I look for it now and am always grateful for thise who care enough about my work, and me the writer, to share their talent and wisdom with me.

    • The revised work is always better, absolutely. I’ve also found the more opinions I get, the better. Each of my critique partners brings something unique to the table, and they’ve all helped improve my writing. And I don’t find your ad industry examples boring. You’ve got decades of experience, and it helps to know your take, every time.

  26. The Seven Stages of Taking Critiques.

    1. Shock: Tears sting the eyes. You choke back a sob.

    2. Denial: “They’re not talking about my writing! There must be some mistake.”

    3. Rage: “This idiot doesn’t know a GD thing about good writing!!!”

    5. Curiosity: “They didn’t like my toilet paper metaphor? Hmm, they may have a point there.”

    6. Acceptance: “Alright, alright. I guess a few changes won’t hurt.”

    7. Gratitude: “Wow! That flows much better!”

    After revisions, send it to another critique partner and repeat the process all over again.

    I’m not kidding, but you must do it.

    I am so grateful to all of those who were tough on me. Now I see how far I’ve come with my writing and it’s all thanks to my critics.

    Taking brutal critiques is part of the process of writing. And if you’re like me, you’ll begin to like it.

    Now I seek the most merciless critics in sort of a emotionally masochistic way. The more honest they are with me, the quicker I can attack my manuscript’s weak spots. My writing gets better, faster.

    Thanks for bringing up this subject, Gwen. I know a lot of new writers have a hard time getting past the self-doubt and discouragement, but don’t give up!

    • This is great, and an accurate description of the process — thanks for sharing. And congratulations on your first published work!

  27. Pingback: Everyone can benefit from a critique, but not everyone should get one | Jennifer M Eaton

  28. Hey, Gwen, Good piece. Sorry I have been so long catching up with your blog, but I started a writing course and have been busy critiquing and tearing people to shreds lol. No, hopefully I am more constructive than destructive. Is it alright if I share this blog with the class and a writing group? I have one critiquer who is the equivalent of your Larry. The page is usually dripping in red by the time she is done with me. I call her ‘The slasher’. I have labeled another critiquer in my class ‘The surgeon’, she is so methodical and detail oriented; not my forte.

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