Monday, November 15, 2010

MFA Monday: Conflicting Critiques

The first assignment due this week includes a submission of writing to be critiqued by a group of fellow writers.  I'd like to say this is no big deal to me. I've been in a critique group for over three years, and we do this all the time. I'm used to having my work shredded and put back together with bleeding red pens (figuratively, of course, since it comes back in a Word document with Track Changes that can be red, blue, green, or, my favorite, purple, depending on the critiquer).

I wasn't worried. Which should have been my first warning sign.

The MFA workshop consists of students in all levels of the program, meaning I will likely be in a group that is not only first semester students, but second, third, fourth and possibly graduating students as well. Because of this, there isn't the demand to send in just the first pages of what you're working on. A fifth semester student who's been doing this two years probably isn't going to keep sending in the first pages of their novel over and over again. The only requirement is that the piece you submit be better than a rough draft that doesn't know where it's going, but is also something you want to keep working on (as opposed to something you've already published). 

So I contacted my trusty critique group (my 4Corners gals) and asked: Do I send the first pages, which is what I'll eventually submit to an agent, and work on making that the best, or do I send in what I consider my very best (or favorite) chapter in order to put my best foot forward? If this submission is what an advisor will read to judge whether or not they want to work with me, I want to send the best, right?

My gals said yes, without a doubt, send the best you have.

So then I sent those pages to them to make sure they were polished enough to submit. (I know, they've been saints about this whole process with me, and put up with my endless questions and submissions in my panic that I'm going to humiliate myself in January when I begin the residency).

You know what? About half said they LOVED the submission and DEFINITELY send it in, and they CRIED through it and it was so POWERFUL!!!!!! And the other half.... said, eh. This is a bit confusing. And overwritten. And detached. And not the best thing I've seen from you. Maybe send in the first pages instead.


My guess is that if you are a writer and you have a writing group, this has probably happened to you too. Different opinions about the same piece of writing.... some love. Some loathe. Some want you to keep it, others think it needs an overhaul. What one person thinks is brilliant and genius, another thinks is confusing and obscure.

And this is the nature of writing. Because this happens even in published works. Look at Stephanie Meyers and the Twilight series, just as an example. Big name authors have come out criticizing the quality of the writing, and yet it's spawned a world-wide fan base of people that absolutely love it. Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer for The Road, which is widely acclaimed, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out why. That is one book not up my alley, so to speak.

So what do you do when you place your writing in the hands of people you trust to tell you the truth, and then you get such widely differing opinions?

Listen to them. Read the comments. Try to set aside any defensiveness and see if there is something valid about what everyone is saying. Then follow your gut.

YOU are the writer. YOU alone can make the decision on which side you land. Those people who read and critiqued are not wrong, but they are opinions, not fact.

What did I do? I let the comments gnaw at me and plant seeds of doubt, made me change my mind about what to submit, and worry that nothing I wrote would be good enough. And then I read. A lot. And I realized that many writers in my own genre write that way. That I really still LOVE that section of my book, and that it's that way for a very real purpose.

No matter what I choose to submit - the first 15 pages or a chapter out of the middle - there will be students there who will tear it apart. Gently, hopefully, but all the same... this is their job. To tell me what works and what doesn't. And I'm guessing that there will be more than one conflicting opinion there. What one person likes, another won't. If this book gets published, it will be like that in the big world too. Some readers will like it. Others won't.

Maybe one of the greatest lessons we can learn as writers is to let that be okay. To know who we are, and what we write. To have found our voice and know it is our very own, not subject to the whims of every comment, every blog posting, every book on writing, every author's writing that we admire.

We should listen to others. We should get critiques with open minds.We should recognize that not every reader will love the way we write. But know who you are as a writer. Embrace your voice, even if not everyone else does.


  1. I absolutely love this post. I've struggled with trying to determine what advice to follow when I get a critique. I really need to learn to follow my gut and learn from my critiques, but not be discouraged by them.

  2. Great advice!! I love your post here today. I think the first time it happened to me when I had more than one critique of my work, I was so confused, I almost scrapped the whole story. Good job giving hope!! :)

    This has been forefront in my mind lately since I've been sending my stuff out here, there and everywhere for critiques. I'm getting SO much better at getting feedback and I look over the comments and consider them for a few days before changing anything.
    I generally take some suggestions and leave others. I think that's why it's so important to have a good critique group.

    You also brought up such a good point in that there are certain writing styles that are much more acceptable in some genres than in others. SO - it's a good reminder that it's also something we need to keep in mind while getting feedback.

    Sounds like your program is well worth it! It's going to be fun to learn along with you here.

  4. "YOU are the writer. YOU alone can make the decision on which side you land. Those people who read and critiqued are not wrong, but they are opinions, not fact."

    That is the key.

  5. So true! Eventually, although still respecting all critiques, I'm draw toward listening to certain ones over others.

    How exciting for you that it is all beginning!