How to be ripped to shreds with grace (writing reviews)

In college, peer writing reviews never went very well. Either people were too nice or too mean or too vague. And no one wanted to hear it. Usually professors wouldn’t allow us to talk and defend our work, so we didn’t have the option of yelling at our reviewers. Sometimes people couldn’t help it.

I remember a classmate walking out of class after a heated argument with the professor about a point made on his poem. I recall a girl muttering “whatever. Whatever. Uh huh. Whatever,” as another student tried to carefully pick flaws out of her article.

Now, when I am in a peer review group there are no restrictions on who can speak and how or when they can. What have I learned? Adults take constructive criticism even harder than college kids sometimes.

Any why shouldn’t they? As an adult there is more at stake in your work than part of a grade. It isn’t just an assignment you knocked out at 2am that morning after you got home from a kegger. It’s personal. It’s important. It’s the culmination of your expertise, your talent and your hard work.

And someone is telling you things are wrong with it!

But as I have said before, if you want to get better, you have to put your ego aside. We all know this, but damn it is hard when someone is telling you your favorite part of you story should be cut out, or your character who you so painstakingly crafted is acting out of character.

So, if we rationally know that in order for our work and ourselves to get better, we need to let people tear it apart, but we also know we are more than a little sensitive about our work how do we withstand a peer review, a writing critic group, or a creative writing class where we have to endure our baby (manuscript) being picked apart to our faces? And maybe still get something out of it.

I am so glad you asked. Because that is what this article is all about.

Shut up and listen

These two steps are half the battle, and also the hardest to master. You not only have to shut up, that means no arguments no lengthy explanations as to why they don’t understand and no snorts, sighs, or cursing. Mouth shut.

And then…. you have to listen too. You have to endure this awful decimation of your beautiful manuscript by someone who obviously doesn’t know what they are reading.


because they are your reader.

Yes. Your reader. That jerk face across the table who does not get you is your reader, right now, before your book deal and your movie deal and your hbo deal, they are the one who is reading your story and they are telling you, not only why it isn’t working for them, but why.

You can wait for your agent or publisher to tell you, but you don’t have one yet. And you might not ever if you don’t listen to jerkface over there.

Make notes

yes. You should write down what that turd is telling you. But in your own words. Because you’re the writer. So he says he thinks you’re plot point is stupid, you note “confusing plot in certain areas”. She hates your lead character and your story line you write “Twenty two year olds with bad dye jobs who write Disney fan fiction are not my target audience”. Good things to know. And writing will help you keep shutting up.

Ask Pointed Questions when they are done

I don’t mean about their moral compass or their face. Ask questions about why things didn’t work for them. They don’t like your lead character when she is supposed to be very likable. What is it about her that is putting them off? Would clarifying that she got her super powers from a traumatic encounter with a space bat make her easier to relate to?

If you are submitting chapter by chapter this is especially important. Ask them if they would keep reading to the point where you cleared up some of their questions or if they were so put off that they would put down the book if they were reading for pleasure. Ask what they would do.

Ask them because you really want to know, not because you want to fight with them. And accept their answer. It might be helpful and it might not. But now you know and maybe you even have a solution.

Thank them

Thank the godless cretin who tore apart my work?

Yes. Because they didn’t have to read it at all. They didn’t have to give you feedback. They didn’t have to help you out. So even if their opinion really is not helpful to you, they gave you their expertise, their talent and their time to help you be a better writer.

Show them how it’s done

Someone in your writing group really doesn’t get how to do a proper review? Show them. Give them a respectful, honest, and carefully worded review of their work. They will appreciate the consideration and they will try to model their own critiques from you in the future.

or they will throw a tantrum because you didn’t tell them it was perfect and never come back to the group again.

Either way you win.

*Disclaimer, I currently happen to be part of a very awesome and extremely helpful and respectful writing group who helped me see how it should be done.


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