Justifying Your Writing

Reminder: The January round of Critique Corner has been changed to a February round. Click here for the revised submission deadline and critique date.

I’ve been thinking about a topic that may be timely as we gear up for our February Critique Corner round. But it’s kind of a touchy subject. It has to do with putting your work out there and receiving feedback gracefully. It also has to do with reading another writer’s work, and giving honest, constructive feedback.

I had the privilege of reading a friend’s chapters recently and was entrusted to give my honest feedback. Now I don’t take this request lightly. I know how difficult it is for any of us to put our work out there, even those of us who have been playing this writing game for quite some time.

Usually it goes something like this…We hit the send button, but take a deep breath first. We wait by the computer, refreshing our email—wondering if the reader thinks our stuff is any good. We secretly hope that our words are received the way we picture them—a work of art destined to be the next Newberry Medal winner.

And then reality sets in—in the form of “I love your writing and you’re off to a great start but…”

The truth is, most of the time our critique partners see flaws in our work. They may not understand what we’re trying to say; or think that we need to clarify; or think we’re starting our story in the wrong place; or think our dialogue is flat…the list is endless. And no matter what the less than sparkly feedback we get says, it stings a little. We even might have the urge to explain our work, or justify what we’re trying to say. I mean maybe if they just read a little further they’d…

Okay, stop right there. It is never a good idea to justify your work. It’s never a good idea to explain to your reader what you were trying to say. And the reason is simple. The reader will not have you sitting next to them when they read your book. You will not be there to explain your words. Your words will need to stand on their own. I’m not saying you can’t brainstorm with your critique partners about ways to make your chapter stronger. That’s the point of having a critique partner! I’m talking about the times when you consider keeping your work the way you love it, even though it’s not perfectly clear or strong, just because you love it the way it is. I’m talking about the times you may be tempted to explain what’s really going on in the scene, secretly hoping this will make a difference or pull your reader over to your way of thinking.

See here’s the thing. Your writing needs to speak for itself. If a reader does not connect with your character, they will stop reading. If they are confused, they will stick around to have their questions answered, but they won’t stick around for long if they can’t follow the action. So my point is, if a critique partner or reader has questions, think of them as golden opportunities to make your story stronger.

On the flip side, as a reader or crit partner, we need to be careful to send the right message when giving feedback. We all know we need to be kind and constructive, I’m not actually referring to that. I’m referring to giving feedback at the right time.

Confused? Maybe this will help…

About six years ago, while I was drafting my second manuscript, I came across www.kidlit.com. , a blog written by then agent (now freelance editor), Mary Kole. It’s not an exaggeration to say I lived and breathed every word she wrote. Her site was (and still is) full of golden writing and publishing information. Check it out if you haven’t already! Back then, I was especially eager to learn the craft of writing—to hone my skills. I will forever be grateful for not only Mary’s fresh take on the publishing industry, but also on the nitty gritty of writing a novel.

So all while I drafted this MS, I was actually taking what I learned on her site, and using it to revise the MS too. It seemed no sooner had I written a scene, I read something that made me realize I had done it all wrong or at minimum, not as well as I could have. I also devoured writing books and took webinars during this time, so I had multiple sources giving me the same advice. Needless to say, it took me forever to draft that MS—like two years, in fact. But you would think after all that time my MS draft would be perfect, right? I mean surely I read these writing tips and applied them to my writing, right? Well, not really. Not at first anyway.

It took me several years of reading and meeting with two critique groups to make that novel passable. You see the problem was, I had to learn for myself where the problems were. I had to find them in my story. There were times my crit partners made suggestions, but I didn’t agree with them. There were times I read things about show/ not tell and didn’t think I had done that at all in my MS. I understood the concept, but I didn’t recognize it all the time in my own work.

It takes us a long time to master the art of writing well. We all learn at our own pace. And although I’ve improved immensely over the last seven years, I have still not mastered the art of writing well all the time. I’ve probably mastered the art of writing well sometimes.

So what does all this have to do with giving honest, constructive feedback to another writer and giving it at the right time? Well, we have to remember that in the end, it is their story, not yours. They may eventually come around to see it the way you do, but they may not. They may not be at a skill level where they see the issues in their own writing. The good news is, these are golden opportunities for discussion. I mean what better kinds of conversations are there, than ones that revolve around books and stories that we’ve written?

In my quest to master the art of writing, I have to say, the most important and helpful information I’ve received through the years, has come directly from my critique partners. And though it has taken me awhile to take their words to heart, I owe them more than thanks than any words I can skillfully write. And that’s why I believe it’s so important to be generous and honest when giving another writer feedback. You never know how you’ll impact their journey. Mine sure have made my journey an experience I’ll never forget- even if I have tried to justify my chapters a few times along the way! 🙂

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