Friday Speak Out!: Can We Take the Criticism?

Friday, January 31, 2020

by Ashley E. Sweeney

It’s that big red X in the middle of the page or that “NO!” that screams from the blue bubble on Track Changes that makes us cringe. She really doesn’t like it, we say to ourselves. Self-doubt creeps in, and with it, the door opens to a flood of self-criticism. Some days, those days when we’re really discouraged with our writing, we ask ourselves: Is it all worth it?

The answer is a decisive “YES!”

That’s the attitude I adopt when I offer my own work up for review. I have a system: as I write my first draft, two beta readers read and comment serially as I write. Then I send the WIP out to a handful of general readers who read and offer overarching comments: What works/doesn’t work? Where are holes? I take their comments and roll them into the second draft. When I think the manuscript is ready for deep dive critique, I send it out to sister authors for review before the final draft.

You’ve got to grow a thick skin! But my mantra is that any comments made are not a reflection of my persona—or, in many cases, my writing—but a vehicle to take a good manuscript and make it shine. I partition the comments into the category of product, not personhood, and that makes all the difference.

I’m in debt to authors Ellen Notbohm, Karen Jones, and Mary Volmer for massaging Answer Creek before the final draft. Their comments were often pointed, but, more importantly, needed. Trash your opening, or you risk losing your reader. Use more dialogue instead of narrative. No, she doesn’t have to take the easiest route placed in her path; make her sweat.

In the paying it forward category, many published authors take on manuscript critiques of up and coming authors. This past year, I’ve evaluated three manuscripts: one from a critique partner I know through a professional writing organization, one from a woman in one of my book clubs, and one from a slightly younger alumna of my alma mater.

To say yes to critiquing means time away from our own works in progress, public relations campaigns, research time, and pleasure reading (let alone life). It’s a solemn pact that we’ll take another’s work and massage it, sometimes roughly, to transform the work into a much better version of itself.

And that’s when the process really works, when we’re open to the ideas and know-how of others. We get so close to our own work that we don’t see the proverbial forest from the trees. Info dumps (parcel it out breadcrumb by breadcrumb throughout the work). Less telling than showing (turn narrative into dialogue). Speaking of, addressing awkward dialogue (read it aloud!)

Of course, the final say of whether we accept or reject suggested changes rests with the author herself; we can accept or reject comments. But I’m an advocate for taking as many as we can. It truly takes a village.

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Award-winning author Ashley E. Sweeney received the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for her debut novel, ELIZA WAITE. Sweeney is a former journalist and educator. A native New Yorker, she now divides her time between the Pacific Northwest and Tucson, Arizona. ANSWER CREEK (May, She Writes Press) is her second novel. Find her online at the following: website:, twitter: @ashleysweeney57, Facebook:, and Instagram: ashleysweeney57
Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


KSJones said...

Ashley has the perfect "take" on why critiques are so important! Great post!

Angela Mackintosh said...

Ashley, I simply love this: "I partition the comments into the category of product, not personhood." That's what we all need to remember! We want to create the best possible product, and feedback is crucial to that process. It does take a village.

Congratulations on your books, and your forthcoming novel! I love She Writes Press, and your title, Answer Creek, sounds intriguing.

Thank you for your post! :)

Janis Robinson Daly said...

I am honored to be one of the upcoming authors Ashley is working with to pay forward the gesture of helping other authors. I have embraced her critique, and criticisms, of my manuscript knowing she truly wants to help me write my best story. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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