For many years I had a shameful writing secret. I hated getting critiqued. I hated it so much, in fact, that I refused to do it. I wrote 600-page manuscripts, edited and revised them dozens of times, and then packed them away in a file on my desktop forever. No one ever read my work, and overall it really kind of sucked.
I was locked in this dysfunctional writing pattern because I had gone through horrible experiences with critique in my creative writing classes in college. But I knew I had to “grow a thick skin” and “get over it” if I ever wanted to be a real writer. I heard that line from so many people and I tried to swallow it. You’ve got to know, I really tried to believe it.
But I’m an INFJ and I have insanely accurate intuition. Something felt off. Something just felt…not right. The thick-skin argument felt like a lot of bluster and bravado, with very little substance beneath. It didn’t add up with what I already knew about the great writers of the world, most of which I’ve read extensively. Proust, Beckett, Woolf, Kerouac…my idols were all highly sensitive, introverted, gentle and brilliant idealists. The very thing that made me fall in love with their work was the way they used their gorgeously translucent thin skin to let so much of the hidden side of the world in.
Then the Universe sent me the critique partner I had been waiting for.
She was in the first writing group I started in Seattle, way back in 2009. I had known her for a few years before we started writing together and I knew I could trust her. She was warm, loving, exuberant, and always rushed headlong through life. She had an insatiable curiosity for people and stories. I felt safe around her. When I handed over my 600-page monster baby she didn’t even flinch. She dived right in and a month later returned it to me covered in rainbow ink, happy scrawling notes, and cheerful little funny doodles.
I had never experienced a critique like this before.
For the next three days I lost myself. I read page after page of her notes and felt something inside me waking up. It was clear from the first note that she had been 100% present with my work. She treated the characters as if they were real people. She respected what I was trying to say. Yes, she pointed out places where she lost the storyline or where she stumbled over the wording, but she didn’t do it in a way that made me feel badly about my writing.
She did something that only the best critique partners do, something rare and beautiful:
She didn’t confuse her own personal opinion with what the work needed for its own highest good.
When I put down the last page of my rainbow-splattered manuscript I knew what I had to do. I knew where to go with the story, where the weak spots were and what could be cut. I knew where I needed to add more flesh to the characters and where I could trim the fat. But most importantly, I knew that my book was solid and good, and that I could make it better.
That one critique changed my life. It gave me the self confidence to write another book, and another one after that. And it opened me up to showing my work to people, and even submitting it. I had an amazing reader on my side now, it didn’t matter if other people didn’t like it. I knew there was one person out there who had genuinely connected with it and loved it.
Instead of treating my book like a manuscript that needed to be “fixed,” this person had treated my book like a child who was still growing.
It made a world of difference.
When I became a writing coach I brought everything I learned from my magical critique partner to the work I do with my clients. When someone hires me to evaluate their manuscript (or give it a “beta read”) I’m open and excited to get to know a new writing voice. Then I dive deeper, and that’s where I help the story and the characters to really shine through. I don’t change anything and I don’t push writers to do anything that doesn’t align 100% with their intuition and values.
If you’re interested in learning more about the way I coach, you can visit my coaching page here. Or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to talk about manuscript evaluation.