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Apr 15, 2019

The Critique That Crushed My Fears

By Alicia McLachlan.

Even though I’ve been writing (with varying degrees of commitment) for over fifteen years, I have only recently started to send my pieces out for feedback. For so long, the idea of sharing my writing terrified me; it felt egotistical to think my writing was good enough to put out into the world. On the flip side, I was also halted by the fear that I would find out that I was, in fact, a terrible writer; that I should give up. Because I enjoyed the act of writing in and of itself, I decided doing just that was enough for me.

Then, at some point in the last year, I was inspired to write more. I had previously only ever been struck by that creative spark on rare occasions, and often during busier times in my life where I simply couldn't see my ideas through to any sense of completion. Now, I seemed to have more stories to tell, and I miraculously had time to tell them. So off I went. But if I was going to put more energy into my hobby, shouldn’t I be doing something with the results?

I used to think that critiquing was about telling someone that their creative endeavour was either great or terrible, throwing in some 'hows' and 'whys' for justification, and it ended there. Like in film and book reviews, the finished piece was presented, and a critic's entire job was to decide whether it was worthy of the general public’s time and money. Because the piece was already finished, the creator really had no chance to respond to the critique. Of course, they could publicly "defend" their work if they felt so inclined, but if the judgments were valid, their opportunity to improve had passed.

There’s one vital difference, though, between a critic and a critique partner. With a critique partner, it's about sharing a work in progress. It’s not their job to tear you down. They want to help. Critique partners are there to help improve your work, offer suggestions that intend to strengthen the piece and to encourage you to keep going. Any perfectionist (like me) should be able to appreciate such a concept.

I became a critique partner by accident. I had become a fan of a particular author in the world of fan fiction, and I reached out to comment on how I felt her latest effort could easily function as a stand-alone piece, if only she hadn’t borrowed the names of pre-existing characters from another writer's published novel. She mentioned that she had toyed with the idea of “scrubbing” the piece—removing all references to the source material—and I (along with many of her fans) encouraged her to give it a try. I then volunteered to beta read her finished draft, not knowing what I was signing up for. As it turned out, helping her work through her editing process was exhilarating. Not only was it a pleasure to cheer on a fellow writer, it also revolutionized how I approach my writing.

For starters, smaller SPAG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) edits I suggested educated both of us on some lesser-known rules of the English language. I don’t feel like I learned nearly enough about this in school, and so whenever a particular phrase looked strange to me, I looked it up and often found myself surprised by the results. Of course, I don't recommend relying solely on random Internet searches to be your grammar guide, but it was a great place for me to start since this area isn't my forte. I've since found some valuable resources and started to expand my vocabulary and experiment more with syntax.

Larger discussions about whether or not certain plot elements would impact the entire story were even more fascinating. At one point, I fought hard with the author to keep one particular character trait intact, but she insisted on changing it. Her reasoning was to further separate her character from the source material, particularly how her two main characters related to each other. I didn't think the change was necessary, as the characters were already wholly original in the "alternate universe" story she had written, as was the setting and the plot. In fact, she'd only borrowed names and minor touches from the source material. This character trait, however, was a major detail that, although similar to the book, seemed woven into her story so deeply that I was worried the whole thing was going to unravel if she tried to change it. But of course, she turned out to be right, and I have never been happier that someone didn’t listen to me. Her solution was inspired and blended so easily into other already existing elements of her story that I now can’t imagine it playing out any other way.

That instance, along with a handful of others, helped loosen up my attitude toward world building and backstory. I have always been extremely detail-oriented in this department, probably too detailed in that it often hinders my progress for getting my stories finished, especially considering I'm not a fantasy writer. But the fact that she was able to change something that seemed so profound in her main character's philosophy made me realize that perhaps I was focusing too much on the wrong things. Since that discovery, I've been able to take a step back from my backstory drabbles and concentrate on progressive character and relationship development and forward-moving plot.

Watching my friend take the editing process in stride and approach her work with a critical eye motivated me and helped me realize that I could do the same. My ideas were no longer so precious that I couldn’t bear to have someone suggest changes to them. I learned that it’s simply part of the writer’s journey. I already understood that no written product should ever go out for public consumption without a few fresh sets of eyes reviewing it—the increasing amount of SPAG and fact-checking errors in the age of the 24-hour news cycle and constant information consumption has made this a huge pet peeve of mine. But before I began critiquing, I used to believe that someone reading over my writing was meant to be a human spell-check and nothing more. Now, I can appreciate that much more can come from the process and that it will strengthen the end result in far more significant ways.

I recently shared my writing for the first time on

I felt like I was going around in circles with a particular piece and really had no idea where to start with the revision process. I needed a new perspective to help jump-start the process, and I finally had the confidence to put the work out. Even though my draft was far from polished (and not even finished), I didn’t want to lose my motivation by waiting any longer. From some of my earliest critiques, I've discovered some of my strengths include my voice and my world-building. It's encouraging that my hours of hard work had paid off in those areas and that I possibly do have something worth pursuing more seriously. I need to work on my structure, but I had already suspected that going in. What I didn't know, and what my critique partners have guided me with, is how to go about my structural editing. Suggestions both big and small from a number of partners have amalgamated into a whole new approach I plan to take with my story, and thanks to their constructive feedback, I'm excited by this new challenge. I'm ready to dive back in, as opposed to feeling dejected or wanting to quit altogether.

I haven't shared any of my pieces with the author who started this whole crazy critiquing adventure for me yet. I still feel like my writing isn't quite polished enough to "match" her level, and she's also busy querying right now. But it's no longer out of the question like it had been before when the very idea of sharing my creative output with her (or anyone) was too intimidating. One step at a time. I have started to develop numerous other partnerships, testing the waters until I find the best match or two. No matter who I end up building a long-term partnership with, I already know that I'll be in good hands and that I'm far better off now than I was as a lonely and untested writer a year ago.


About the Author: Alicia McLachlan
Alicia is an aspiring screenwriter. After attending film school, she maintained a writing hobby on and off through years of traveling and various customer service and office administrative odd jobs. Now settled down and writing full time, Alicia's own life is pretty simpleshe likes to keep the drama on the page for her characters to work out! Her specialty is exploring all kinds of contemporary relationships in a dramatic real world, but she’s keen to give comedy and suspense a try too, and she is also starting to play with narrative fiction in addition to her first love of screenplays. She takes inspiration from her ongoing travels, people-watching, and the often hard-to-believe stories that emerge from the world around her.

You can follow Alicia on Twitter: loves chatting with other writers on the craft and business of writing.