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The Harshest Critic

May 11, 2010

I had a different post in mind for today, but sometimes events conspire to steer our thoughts in a new direction. Yesterday’s post, by Jodi, about Beta readers was still rattling around in my mind when I tried writing the other post. When the Muse wants you to change direction, sometimes it’s easiest just to go where she takes you.

As usual, Jodi’s list was well thought out, and I can’t really say she missed anything. Jodi’s point, that we need to seek out criticism that is constructive, by finding the right readers to offer helpful feedback, is solid.

But sometimes a Beta reader can be vital for exactly the opposite reason.

For far too many authors, we are our worst critics. In fact, the very first hurdle most writers have to overcome, is to shout down the voice in their own head that tells them that their writing is worthless. And many of us never quite overcome the inner voice.

I almost never like anything I write. There are few exceptions. The stories that others tell me are the best, are the ones I dislike the most. I am nearly useless when it comes to self-evaluation. So while for some (like Jodi) it is critical that a Beta reader offer honest criticism without being harsh, for me a Beta reader’s first use is to temper my own inner critic.

That isn’t to say that I don’t want a Beta reader to give me the negative, but more often than not I’m using her to help ferret out the positive.

A little over a week ago I finished a (VERY) rough draft of a new story. I’m completely unhappy with it. Twice, I’ve asked Jodi if it would be easiest just to crumple up the draft and start over. And twice she’s told me that I just need some distance from it. She doesn’t say that it doesn’t need work, just that the heart of the story is good, and we can rework the text to bring out that heart.

Still, I wasn’t convinced. Then yesterday, another author who has read the draft contacted me to compliment me on the story. And what she liked about it, was the premise–the heart. This has alleviated some of my angst about my story. I know it still needs work—but now I know that the point I was trying to get across, did get across. And I’m now able to focus on the idea that I need to improve the story, rather than scrap it.

Many of us are our own worst critics, and sometimes our Beta reader’s most important role, is to act as moderators between us and our own creations.

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7 Comments
  1. May 11, 2010 12:59 am

    I’m wondering if the function of a beta reader for the individual writer is to provide a balanced voice against the worst critic. For me, after being demolished by the ill thought out and careless critic of someone I trusted at uni… for me, the enemy to my work has always been those beyond me who seek to crush and discredit my efforts.

    To counter that I had to create a rather strong inner belief… so although I have moments of doubt, which go from a flutter to crippling… I believe the enemy is beyond me. Which makes it twice as difficult to trust work to others. But at the same time – the assurance from a beta reader that I have a good piece, energises me to keep working at it.

    I’d love to know what others writers feel/think and their experiences.

    As always it goes to show, there are a myriad of ways to look at things and how no one experience is the experience of everyone.

    Thanks so much for writing this Dale. I’m certain it will strike a chord with all who read it.

  2. May 11, 2010 1:18 am

    This is a really good point, Dale. I can totally relate to wanting to hear some comforting words that there’s something of value in what I write, even if it does need polishing to get the most out of the story.

  3. May 11, 2010 2:19 am

    i remained aloof from the writing thing for many years. Reason: the self critic.

    But I m back and have stopped listening to my own voice in this respect. I go on writing and writing. Lastly, I just post it on my blog without much of rereading. I still luk forward to someone who will be the Beta reader for my blog. :-(

  4. May 11, 2010 7:11 am

    “Our own worst critics…”

    Absolutely spot on.

  5. May 11, 2010 9:38 am

    Sometimes you need that distance of perspective. Someone once explained this to me by saying that if you hold a Swan matchbox to your face, all you’ll see are the colours. Move it back, and the picture comes into view. And occasionally you just need someone to point out what it is that you’re seeing!

  6. May 11, 2010 5:59 pm

    I completely agree. When asking beta readers to check out my work, I preface it by asking that they be brutally honest. Whatever I like I’ll absorb, and whatever I don’t I’ll ignore. As for compliments, they get me no where, but are always appreciated.

    Icy: Fantastic analogy! I may have to steal that for a blog post…

  7. May 17, 2010 10:31 pm

    I’m so glad to hear that other writers are like me. I am my worst critic, I usually hate (or at least dislike) almost everything that I write, and I compare myself unfavorably to most other writers. The problem here, of course, is that this over-critical tendency of mine destroys any of the objectivity that I need to honestly evalutate my own work (and edit accordingly.

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