(Previously published January 2002 in Seasons for Writing, a newsletter for writers now on hiatus)
Several years ago I was invited to join a local writers' group and was told to bring something I had written. I very innocently brought an entire manuscript to the meeting. When the meeting started, I was introduced to the members who suggested that since it was my first time with them, I might consider just listening as they read and critiqued their current writings. Then, as I got the hang of what they were doing, I could join in at the next meeting. But I was prepared to share part of what I considered my masterpiece. When they finished their short readings, which consisted mostly of poetry and very short stories, I boldly plunged into mine.
Big mistake! Or was it? As I began reading, I realized they were getting fidgety and losing attention. I finally skipped to the end of the first chapter, concluding with what I thought was a humorous note. A few people chuckled but most seemed relieved that I had finished. Then the criticism began--my beginning needed a hook, the first chapter was too long, I needed to insert more humor, and so on. I began to wonder if they just criticized for the sake of criticizing. Were they trying to scare me off? Surely there would be no point in that.
For the next meeting I read a personal anecdote that was very short and humorous and got quite a few laughs. No one criticized anything. As the meetings progressed, I continued to bring my anecdotes, leaving my novel at home, I noticed that the others, however, were bringing original works that definitely needed outside opinions and they were getting them. The group, as a whole, picked everything apart--it was nothing personal. Finally, I began bringing excerpts from my novel expecting to be critiqued and, indeed, they tore those excerpts apart. But, I learned how important it is to admit the need for critique and how much one can learn from it. At first I didn't want to learn that my writing wasn't perfect the minute I put my words on paper. I loved my creations and felt pain when it was suggested that my carefully chosen words should be either removed or replaced with others. As one lady said, "I don't want anyone to tamper with my writing. Not! I'll do anything the publisher wants or even let the publisher rewrite it himself/herself." Well, to be honest, I wouldn't go that far.
It took me a while to learn that criticism is necessary; it can be a very good and helpful thing.