from Complete Creative Writing Course, by Chris Sykes
Criticism and encouragement
Who should you show your work to for a second opinion? It seems natural to show your writing to husbands, wives, partners, family members and friends. It has to be said that these are not always the best people to let see your work.
If you are lucky, friends and family can be very helpful and supportive. They often mean well and have the best intentions for you, but having good intentions and wanting the best for you does not necessarily translate into being the best critic of your work. We all read, or at least most people read, and most people watch television and see films, but none of this qualifies us to be genuine critics of someone else’s creative writing. There are so many things that come into play when commenting on a piece of writing that we writers need to be careful and selective about whom we share it with. It is an acquired skill to judge a piece of writing and, while it is natural to ask, we often expect far too much of those closest to us to imagine that they can do it. While sharing what we have written with those closest to us comes from a good motive, to ask them to criticize it as well puts both them and yourself in a difficult position. You can expect loyal support from husbands, wives, partners and friends; that is what they do. Don’t ask them to be your critic as well.
What all writers aim at is an ideal reader; someone who will read their work with intelligence and sympathy. But that is more when the work is finished. When you are writing a piece or when you are not certain whether it is finished or not you want someone who knows about the writing process and who can spot where something is not working. When you show a piece of work to another person for advice or comment it is because you are not sure of it yet. You have worked on it and got so far but you have got to the point where you would welcome an outside eye on it in the hope that that person will confirm any doubts you have or spot any weaknesses you have missed. Someone to say, ‘It’s great; except for that bit.’ Or, ‘I got confused there, or lost it, or something went wrong there. Can you run it by me again?’ This simple putting their finger on something is what you need. An intelligent, sympathetic reader will pick up on where the work has gone wonky or off the rails or not quite delivered, or is just a little bit confusing, or plain boring. It will sometimes be a feeling that they have and they may not be able to put into words, but your job is to look at what they have highlighted and see if they are right. If they are, then they have been helpful. If you think they are not right, then again they have been useful and confirmed you in your view of what you have written.
If you can find a reader who will do that for you, they are worth their weight in gold. You cannot expect more than that from them, or even from a writing tutor in a class. Reading groups and writing classes can help a budding writer. A class led by a tutor who is skilled and experienced in reading and hearing work and in giving comments on work is a good place to start. It rarely works if the facilitator is someone involved in the group and certainly not if the criticism is savage. Writers groups are there for writers to help each other. But, again, it is no one else’s job to tell you how to write a piece. Someone else may sometimes help you spot where something goes wrong and even know what it is that has gone wrong. Maybe it’s the dialogue; maybe a character is not quite believable. It is your job to put it right. No one can do that but you. To then expect the same person who spots it to know how to put it right is not the way it works.
A critic is not a writer, but a writer has to be a critic and sometimes their own worst critic. But you can also be blind to your faults, hence the value of showing your work to others. But what you don’t want when you show your work to someone is for them to say nice things to you out of loyalty. Your writing, in the end, benefits from unflinching encouragement and fair but unflinching criticism.