Critiquing is part of the process that makes us better writers. It’s a great way to learn where you have lost your readers or bored them, where you have problems with how time works in your story, or what doesn’t ring true with your characters.

But for new writers, this may not be true. Not only can facing a critique feel threatening, it can also damage their writing. Scott Spencer notes in his essay “The Difference Between Being Good and Being a Good Writer” (The Eleventh Draft, edited by Frank Conroy), these writers feel peer pressure to conform to the critiquing group. This is true whether the critiquing goes on in a classroom or around someone’s living room. Says Spencer, “a class of beginning writers, who must read and criticize one another’s efforts, develops an unspoken sense that a well-made story filled with familiar ironies is much less likely to make you look like a fool in the stark light of the workshop than any foray into stylistic risk or personal revelation.”

I must say I have seen this firsthand. When my students have an upcoming reading and critiquing session, I usually get several e-mails about whether they should censor what they are writing. “Absolutely not,” I tell them, as long as what they are writing works with their story [though when I taught 10th graders, the head of the school did not appreciate such advice for the students].

Spencer says what constrains them is the fact the writers knows their work is going to be discussed by other members of the class (or group) as well a professional – the teacher. They move from the private sphere of writing alone with their imagined audience into the public sphere of actual readers who are there to judge their work. So they write what they think people either want to hear or will be willing to accept. Unfortunately, that stifles their voice, their creativity, and their abilities. No one, Spencer reminds us, wants to be ridiculed.

We must counter that, says Spencer, by keeping in mind Gustave Flaubert’s advice: “You must live like a bourgeois and save all your violence for your art.” This, of course, is much easier to say than to do. But try. Try not to censor yourself – let it rip, especially in your first draft. Anything that comes to mind, write it down. Place yourself directly in the scene, in your character, and let what happens happen.

Yes, you can edit it out later – and you may decide to do just that. But if you don’t get it down in the first place, you’ll have lost it forever. And with it, you’ll also have lost an important part of yourself.

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