How to Harness the Critique Feedback Loop to Become a Better Writer

As I write my novel Grim Curio, I’ve been sharing excerpts on /r/DestructiveReaders  and my development diary to get feedback. At first I did this just to get an idea of what people thought of my work in progress. Then a pattern emerged, and through it I found myself becoming a better writer.

I’m calling this pattern the Critique Feedback Loop. It’s nothing revolutionary, I’m sure, but it’s been incredibly useful for me, so I thought I’d take a little time to share this pattern with you.

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Phases of the Feedback Look

  1. Write a draft (1000 – 4000 words).
  2. Share the draft with a critique good group. Emphasis on good. For me it’s /r/DestructiveReaders.
  3. Make changes based on feedback.
  4. Submit again.
  5. Repeat 3 and 4 until changes are no longer significant.

Like I said, nothing revolutionary here, but it’s been immensely helpful. Not only does it make my drafts higher quality, it informs my green field writing, giving me areas of weakness to focus on improving as I write new content.

Why it works

Every round of criticism has been focused on one of my weaknesses. First was character, then setting, now structure. It’s amazing to see my previous weaknesses no longer getting mentioned as new ones emerge.

If you want to see proof that your writing is getting better, there’s no better way than submitting the same piece over and over after each rewrite. But this only works if your writing community is: 1) blunt, 2) informative, and 3) has a culture of 1:1 critique ratios.

Let’s break down what a constructive community looks like.

How constructive /r/DestructiveReaders can be

/r/DestructiveReaders is the best feedback loop I’ve ever found. Better than in-person writers workshops. Better than any other message board or online community I’ve been a part of. But why is that?

1. The attitude

When you submit your work to /r/DestructiveReaders, you are fully aware that people are there to give you unfiltered feedback without much regard for your feelings. They’re not being dicks, but they will tear your writing apart if they don’t like it. They’ll mention line by line what bothers them, what you can improve, and what you’re missing all together.

Nothing makes you a better writer than having your flaws bluntly pointed out to you. Often this will come with a suggestions for improvements, and it’s up to you to filter through the suggestions and choose what to work on. Of course if someone is pointing out a weakness, it’s also up to you to consciously improve it.

2. The 1:1 ratio, aka don’t be a leech

If you submit a piece to critique without first critiquing someone else’s work of equal or greater word count, you’ll be labeled a leech. Don’t be a leech.

But you know what? That’s how it should be. First it keeps the critiques coming, keeps the tone civil (even when the critique is brutal), and it teaches you as a writer the clear line of what you like and don’t like in a piece.

As I read others works, I have to think hard about why I don’t like the sentence structure, or why a pieces character development doesn’t work, etc. When I then turn to write my own work, the critiques I wrote for other writers is fresh in my head, actively forcing me to cut out the passive voice, build the setting, and make the characters feel real.

3. Line edits

There are two phases to most /r/DestructiveReaders critiques: 1) line edit, 2) critique essay. Both are very useful but cover very different things.

We use Google Docs to share our work, and line edits come through the built in commenting feature. Line edits tend to focus on style, grammar, dialog, confusing passages, etc. This will lead to a lot of quick fixes to your text, but I don’t think that’s where the real value comes from.

The real value comes when you sit to write the next day. You know for a fact what you’re struggling with now. Your weakness might surprise you.

4. The Critique

First let me say that I have not received a bad critique. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve received fairly brutal ones, but they have always led to significant improvement in my work. The amount of work /r/DestructiveReaders users put into their feedback is staggering.

Most critiques begin with a short paragraph on what the reader liked and didn’t like. That’s followed by an in depth, point by point essay that often exceeds the length of two pages or more.

Everyone critiques slightly differently, but there is a trend to focus on title, style, plot, character, pacing, etc. individually. This format in particular is so helpful, because it helps you as a writer see the boundaries between these skills, and inform you of what techniques you’re using incorrectly and how they affect the reader.

The feedback loop

Sure, you can submit a piece, make changes and move on. If you’re goal is to get the most words critiqued over the shortest period of time, then this makes sense. But if your goal it to improve your writing, then submitting the same piece after making significant changes will be much more informative.

The reason for this is simple. Most pieces have one pronounced weakness, and several less obvious ones. The first round will likely focus on that weakness, which allows you to go back and improve it. But if you don’t re-submit your work after the changes are made, you’ll miss out on discovering the next pronounced weakness that’s been lurking just a layer deep.

Submit a piece to get critiqued, wait at least three days for the critiques to come in, make significant adjustments, then submit again. Once your critiques only point out minor mistakes, then move on to your next segment to get critiqued.

This is a slow and deliberate process, so you can’t let it hold back you’re overall progress. Keep on writing green field words, reading your critiques, and adjusting your writing process accordingly. In this way your entire work benefits without your progress coming to a halt.

What if I want to submit, but I’m too nervous.

That’s normal. I’m terrified every time I share a piece of writing. Terrified but excited. I know my writing isn’t for everybody, there are plenty of people who don’t like my genre or my style, but that’s fine.

You can’t please everyone, so don’t try. Instead focus on writing what you like to write, and then take the criticism with gusto. Even someone who hates your piece will give you valuable advice. And if it’s brutal, if people just rip your work apart, be thankful and start making changes.

On the flip side, if you’re lucky, people will actually enjoy your work. You may gain a small group of authors who regularly read your writing because they genuinely enjoy helping you.

So, yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s natural to be scared or nervous. Power though, it’ll be worth it.

Closing comments

I hope you found this blog post useful. If you’re new to this development diary and want to follow along my entire writing process as I write Grim Curio, consider following me here or on Facebook or Twitter. Finally, I’d like to hear what you think of this. Have you ever submitted your work for critique? How was the experience?

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