Wednesday, 13 May 2009


I blogged here about why writers do what they do. Most feel they have something to say, some just want to entertain. Implicit in the process, though, is presenting the finished product to a reader or, ideally, readers. (Does fiction, like a tree falling in the woods, exist if there’s no one there to read it?) So who do you show it to first? Who can you trust for that initial appraisal? Friends? Family? Online writing group?

In my experience, none of the above. Or at least if you do, pay no attention to the effusive praise or damning criticism (especially the former) you receive. Unless your sister or best friend is a published writer, a literary agent or editor, their opinion, I’m afraid, is next to worthless. Sure, they may be voracious readers, know a good story when they see one, even write a little themselves. But this does not qualify them to play any part in your next draft.

Think about it. You’re a trainee plumber just finishing the elaborate pipe-work in a large house. Your great aunt, who has lived in many fine houses in her time, all with expertly working water systems, turns the hot tap on and waxes lyrical about the way the water comes out so quickly, and so hot. Does that make you a great plumber? Well, it’d take a precise inspection of the work to know.

And even if your friend regards your work as unadulterated tripe, are they really going to tell you? Family will be even less objective; they’ll find something nice to say about it. As for writing groups, they can be good for motivation, but members might have their own agenda (indulging in mutual appreciation or enacting revenge), or simply be unqualified to give apposite feedback.

The solution. Until you have a trusted agent or pay a reputable editorial service, in the absence of your best friend being a successful novelist, there’s only one person who can do the job. You. It’s not easy judging your own work initially. The only way I know is to read those who have done it well. Read the masters of your genre. How have they achieved that effect? Why did you love that book? How was character revealed? Tension and conflict created? Look at the structure and style of your favourite novels. Why is the dialogue seamless and authentic, the events plausible? What compelled you to keep turning the pages?

Eventually, you will become your own best critic.


Barb said...

A great blog post, Tom. And a very timely one for me. I wrote a post on this recently, but form a different angle:

You have confirmed what I have been thinking.
Thank you.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Not entirely true, don't think. Sure, at some point you have to be sure of what you do.

But precise, analytical, unbiased feedback from strong writers, preferably on anonymous work so they dont 'see' the writer, just the words... in my experience, that's good stuff.

Difficult with a novel, maybe. Easier with short fiction.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Thanks, Barb and Vanessa.

As you say, Vanessa, feedback from strong writers is to be welcomed. The difficulty comes if you're new to a writing group to know if you're getting appraisal from strong writers. Mostly, though, I think asking friends or family to tell you what they think about your work is unhelpful.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Spot on, Tom. I know lots of writing groups where the 'he who shouts loudest' rule usually indicates the weakest writer, unfortunately.

Thats why I invented The Workhouse. Where everyone is already a strong writer before they join, so feedback is good. Hopefully!

I agree 100% about friends n family. My husband tells me everything is 'good'. (If I show him any writing, which is rare).

TOM J VOWLER said...

The Workhouse looks intriguing, Vanessa. Can't wait to have a look around.

One point I forgot to make was the wonder of finding someone whose opinion you DO trust/value/respect.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Yup. I agree with that. Someone who chimes with what you are trying to do. Gold dust!

CathM said...

Hmmmmm... very bizarrely this post has proved to be a timely nugget of insight/wisdom in my life today... reminding me to have the ‘right perspective’ in terms of handling feedback from writing groups. Thank you - very helpful and oh so apt!

TOM J VOWLER said...

Thanks, Cath. There's often a temptation to show a piece, especially if we regard it as strong, to a someone. It's important to choose wisely. And then regard the appraisal as something you may or may not want to consider.

Vienna Maurel said...

Very good point. Trusting yourself and your writing should be the way forward. However, how difficult is that sometimes! I suppose it's a process and something that you learn...

Rogue said...

I agree with not taking comments on your work too much to heart. I doubt I will ever be a true "writer" I do, however, enjoy telling a story and spinning a web for the reader. And so, I welcome comments on my work in progress; especially from Cath, whom I trust implicitly to give me an educated view of how I might improve it. Most great writers could paper their walls with the rejection letters they have recieved over the years. One persons diamond is anothers lump of coal. Keep it simple; simply tell your story.