As an educator, I believe all of us are always learning. As a writer, I can be shy and anxious when sharing my work to a new person or group. I try to remember both these attitudes when I'm a critique partner or a beta reader.
Writers are always learning
When I teach creative writing, I help students take risks and experiment. We know that publishers, readers, and agents are looking for fresh, unique voices. Yet young people today are caught by the expectations for instant success and living perfect lives. Failure is difficult, even though more seasoned writers know that is how we learn.
Writing is messy. It's necessary to try and fail and try again.
Young people are also hampered by social media's value of conformity, which can be the death knoll to the creative process. Much of my efforts as a teacher go into encouraging their unique perspectives: helping them find their voice. What are their individual style and interests? What genres do they like? Tone and narrative voices? What sets them apart from the other students in the class? When they can answer these questions--and not fear being vulnerable and authentic--they can lean in to who they are as a writer and their writing will improve.
A common mistake beginning writers make is to think that their critique partners don't "get" what they're trying to do. That's not a helpful altitude--it infers that you cannot learn from your writing group and it ruins any chance for building trust. It stops you from listening to your first readers. Remember, if you are planning to publish your work, then you are writing for readers not yourself. You need to think about your readers and their experience reading your work, not your experience writing it. Listen and learn. You'll get something out of it, even if you don't agree with everything.
Sharing your work can be hard!
Many writers can have a thin skin or may feel uncertain about a piece of writing--though we can gain confidence as we gain experience, many of us are sensitive artist types who appreciate a positive, encouraging attitude. Some authors prefer tough criticism, while others like a gentler tone--it's worth asking your critique partner if they have preferences or certain needs. I've never forgotten a student who exclaimed, "I love praise!" when we were discussing her work. This was a key motivator for her, and it was so helpful for me to know this information.
Think about the goals of the critique session. Is this a first draft and they need advice on story structure and character development? Or is it a more polished piece and they are looking for more granular suggestions? Does their confidence need shoring up because they're stuck in the muddy middle? Could they use some brainstorming or a sounding board? Are they ready to be challenged and take their writing to the next level? Is it time to pull out the tough love?
Writing is like learning to walk. So many small pieces go together to make up the actions, and not everyone learns them in the same way or at the same pace. It can be overwhelming if we try to tackle everything all at once. Be conscious of where your critique partners are in the learning process.
Critique partners, alpha readers, and beta readers all make our work better, if we respect the process and use it as a learning experience for everyone.