In praise of critics

Good, better, best.
Never let it rest,
‘Til your good is better
And your better is best.

St Jerome

That’s editing for you.

But how do we know whether we’re there yet?

That’s where our critics come in.

They tell us what we don’t want to hear. We want to be told we’re brilliant – that the novel flowed from our mind to the page, word perfect, that our work is done.

Yet we know from Design Thinking that creating prototypes and testing them will make our products better; that ideas and creations that face tough scrutiny and go through several iterations are more likely to be welcomed in the world.

Image thanks to Victoria Naumenko

We don’t want to hand over all of our intellectual independence to committees, but if we are truly writing for the readers and not just for ourselves, some validation is required.

Criticism hurts, and it’s not compulsory. In fact, as Stephen Wright argues in Overland, “Don’t Kill Your Darlings” may be a better approach.

“For writers to endorse the process of rewriting prose as an act of ruthless violence is extremely odd,” Stephen says. “It’s as though when one writer gives another their work to read, the knife comes out, which is a very strange response to a gift.”

But here’s what critics have done for me:

One beta-reading friend suggested I add vinegar to the meringue – my characters were all just too sweet.

My critique groups have forced me to create more plausible plots, to discover back stories that have added authenticity to my characters and added rich layers of depth to their reactions. As with chocolate cake, this can only be good.

Image courtesy Fran Hogan

I’ve been forced to reshuffle scenes to raise the stakes and add tension, making way for more satisfying resolutions.

For all its resemblance to boot camp, and for all the heavy lifting required, criticism has made my work better. Call it tough love.

While I might not react to every piece of feedback, when critics agree, I sit up and listen. This is a valuable warning that intended meaning may have gone astray.

So, if we’re doing this thing called writing, novel by novel, why not make each one the best it can be, at least until we’re ready to move on and nurture the next effort?

The musician tunes the instrument and plays it again. The decorator repaints a wall and adds a cushion. What is the power behind the scientific method? It’s all about criticism.

Image thanks to Tetiana Shyshkina

Constructive critics engage with our work at the deepest levels. We’re honoured to receive their feedback.

If there’s joy in writing it, there’s joy in refining it. All 90,000 words. We can do this!

Rethink. Re-work. Rejoice!

Email me at to share your views.


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