I love to be wrong; it means I’ve learned something.
If you’re a writer then you know the feeling of wanting others to read your work. Nothing is more satisfying than getting positive feedback on something that you’ve poured your heart and soul into. Why would you ever want to keep your literary brilliance to yourself?
Most people rely on friends and family as beta readers. When I first started writing, I had my wife read my work. And guess who thought he was the most amazing writer ever? Now, that’s not to say my wife couldn’t be critical of my writing (I have the emotional scars to prove it) but she, by her very nature and relationship to me, is not objective enough to be my only source of feedback. The point being, either don’t ask your friends and family for feedback at all, or make sure you’re getting feedback from other, more objective sources as well. Otherwise, you’ll never get all that smoke out of your ass long enough to actually improve as a writer.
In my case, I now attend and moderate a writing workshop where I can get objective feedback from other writers. In the beginning, I brought in chapters from my novel and I received a lot positive feedback on the content, which acted as a huge motivator. However, my grammar, sentence structure, voice, etc. got torn to pieces, week after week, by a group of experienced writers. I accepted the criticism as an opportunity to learn, and I’m a far better writer because of it.
I acquired basic knowledge about conventions such as: passive vs. active voice, maintaining a constant tense, proper use of dialogue tags, sustaining a consistent narrative voice, and effective scenery depiction. If the extent of your experience as a writer is:
Reading + High School English + Maybe A Creative Writing Class In College
Then, these are likely going to be issues with your writing as well.
Undoubtedly, there are many benefits to getting feedback on your writing, but be careful how you solicit feedback, and who you’re getting it from. Sometimes unfinished work needs to be kept close to the vest or else you may risk losing the fuel that ignited the project. Which leads me to…
What are the drawbacks?
First off, as a writer, you need to be open to feedback. If you’re handing over something you wrote in anticipation of praise, then don’t bother. By all means, work your butt off to perfect it before sharing. That being said, “perfect” doesn’t mean perfect. The best part about receiving feedback is growing and improving as a writer. If you’re not interested in criticism then feedback will only hinder you.
Stephen King advocates that a writer should never let anyone read his/her novel until it is complete. He argues that outside opinions can distort the story and hurt your original vision. Far be it from me to disagree with one of the most prolific writers in modern history, but here I go…
If you’re as good of a writer as Stephen King then fine, you probably don’t want unneeded opinions muddying up your vision before it’s complete. However, if you’re like the majority of writers (which you probably are), there are some strong fundamentals that you need to learn, and it’s going to be a lot better learning them up front then during the editing process.
Or worse:during your first independent book review.
Where I do agree with Stephen King is too many opinions on your story can royally screw up your plot. I can’t tell you how many times people told me what they think my character “should have” done, or that they think it “would be cool” if this happens.
As a new writer, I took too much advice and found myself writing 5 different stories, none of which were the one I intended to write. I tried to please my audience, punctuated each chapter with a climactic moment, and didn’t realize how ridiculous that process was in the context of writing an entire novel.
Touché Mr. King.
However, I still think there’s a lot of value in critique if you know what to listen to.
After my confidence grew in my writing, I learned what feedback I should always attend to:
A sction that people were unanimously confused with
Redundant or confusing word choices
Factual mistakes (i.e. having a police officer critique your depiction of police procedures)
And I learned what to politely accept, while secretly tuning out:
Suggestions about how a character should: speak, act, or think
Opinionated statements that start something like this: “I don’t like it when…”
A lot of this is unique to my situation, but there are some key concepts here that are useful for any writer because the process of writing a novel can be a long and grueling one (especially when you get to the editing stage).
If you seek feedback, learn to graciously accept it, but don’t internalize every idea. And never let other people’s ideas de-rail the story you already have in mind.
I love to be wrong; it means I’ve learned something.
When I first started writing I didn’t have an academic background in English. I was not what one would consider "well read". I did what anyone in my position who wants to be a writer would do: I started writing. What I wrote looked correct to me at the time, but it lacked a lot of fundamental components.
I joined a writing workshop in Phoenix, where I communed with other writers (some with editor credentials) weekly to read my writing and exchange constructive feedback. Since then, I’ve become exponentially more skilled at sentence construction. I only wish that as a beginning writer someone would have pulled me aside and given me a crash course on some of the basic concepts that we as writers encounter in almost every sentence we write.
This post will point out 5 rudimentary challenges in a simple way that I hope can benefit any new writer who comes upon it. Editors or grammar masters could write dissertations on the topics I’m going to cover, that is not my intention. The point of this blog is to give some very simple, clear guidance that will make you a better writer instantly (OH! I just used an unnecessary adverb... more on this later).
Passive vs. Active voice
Avoiding passive phrasing will enhance your description of animated, moving things. Always try to avoid using helping verbs (is, was, to be) when describing an active thing.
Active: A red glow lit up the sky as the sun set into the clouds.
Passive: The sky was red because the sun beamed through clouds.
That being said, there is a place for passive phrasing. If something just is and it’s not moving or doing anything then don’t try to use flowery language to make it seem active.
Passive: The chair was in the middle of the office.
Active: The chair sat in the middle of the office.
Congratulations to me! I wrote a sentence without a helping verb! Have you ever seen a chair sit? Unless you’re writing a sequel to Beauty and the Beast, the chair is where it is. Don’t give it an action just to avoid helping verbs. They have their place if you know when to use them.
This is one that gets under my skin when I see it. Don’t tell us what something “seems” to be, tell us what it is! Unless, you’re emphasizing the fact that the character’s interpretation is relevant, nothing should seem to be anything.
Wrong: The red sky seemed like something out of a post-apocalyptic world.
Better: The red sky loomed over me with an ominous presence that evoked images of a post-apocalyptic world.
One correct usage of seem: The red glow in the sky seemed harmless at first, but as it spread so did its ominous presence.
Notice in the third example, I’m using “seem” in a way that emphasizes the characters misinterpretation, which is a more effective (still not the best) use of the word.
Another one that drives me nuts. Again, I don’t need you to tell me the character “saw” something. Just tell me what that something is! Avoid: I saw, I heard, she tasted, he smelled, etc.
Correct: The car sped by, nearly running over an elderly man in the crosswalk.
Incorrect: I saw the car speed by as it nearly ran over an elderly man in the crosswalk.
A highly talented writer I know once told me: “Stop using so many adverbs. Use better verbs.” For those of you who may not completely know: adverbs are those “ly” words we frequently throw around verbs when we’re overly describing something. Not to say never use an adverb, but try to use them sparingly. (I underlined the adverbs above. Notice my overuse of them.)
Example: The man quickly jumped out of the way as the car rapidly sped through the intersection.
So how do I get across the “quickly jumped” and “rapidly sped” without the pesky adverbs? Pick better verbs that describe the action and insinuate “quickly” and “rapidly” without saying it.
Example: The man darted out of the way as the car barreled through the intersection.
This is a tough one. Stephen King suggests in his book On Writing that one should just go with:
He argued that it’s pointless and distracting to use phrasing like:
I agree with his advice, but here’s a little tip that can help you avoid too many tags and enhance your visual description.
Example: “Watch out!” I screamed.
Fix: I lunged off the bench. “Watch out!”
Example: “Your eyes are beautiful,” I said.
Fix: I took a drag from my cigarette and gazed at her. “Your eyes are beautiful.”
You can also write characters that have unique personalities that don't need dialogue tags for the reader to know who’s speaking. For instance:
“Enough of this crap! I’m gonna have your head on a damn platter for this.”
“Why… I… I am so sorry. I am forever sorry for what I have done to you.”
Hopefully this helps. Feel free to comment if you have any additional questions, contradictions or want me to expand upon these ideas. Happy writing!