Unearthing the Clay: Pros and Cons of First Draft Critiques

The only hard-and-fast rule of creative writing is that there are no hard-and-fast rules. For every writer who swears that you must have an outline to organize your ideas before you begin a story, another one says that outlines are useless. Organizing your ideas is what a first draft is for.

A first draft is the clay from which the finished work is molded. It’s not supposed to be any good; it’s for the author’s eyes only. The author must have the freedom to write a first draft without a critical eye challenging the flow of ideas. For most writers, the notion of showing a first draft to a critiquing group is counter-intuitive. But some beginning writers working on the first draft of a novel may benefit from the feedback of a critiquing group. Whether the benefits outweigh the risks depends on the author—and the critic. Here are some things to consider before sharing your raw manuscript.

What are your goals?

A critiquing group is not a support group. Yes, providing support is one of the critics’ roles; but their primary job is to give constructive feedback, identifying what’s working and what’s not in your manuscript. In the beginning, hearing this feedback can be traumatic. The first time I read through critiques of my work, all I saw were the negative comments. On the second read-through, I noticed that there were positive ones as well. Yet my brain hadn’t even processed them: it was as if I were reading them for the first time.

Your primary goal when seeking critiques should be to learn how you can improve your work. If it’s praise you want, show your manuscript to your mom or your best friend. Members of a critiquing group aren’t doing their job if they’re not honest.

What does your inner critic sound like?

Many writers are plagued by an inner critic who whispers, “This is garbage. What makes you think you can write a novel?” Others have the opposite problem. Their inner critic is convinced that their first draft is the best thing ever written. I fall into the latter category. When reading through my first draft, I wouldn’t see what was on the page, but rather what was in my head when I wrote it. It was the most vivid reading experience of my life. But it was an illusion.

A critiquing group can help you break through your illusions, if that’s what you suffer from, and help you see the manuscript from the reader’s perspective. But if your inner critic is harping that you’re a hack, negative comments from others—however gentle or well intentioned—might overwhelm you. Creativity can be fragile, and too many naysayers talking in your head can leave you blocked. Until you’ve gotten through your first draft, you may not have enough confidence in your own vision to hear what others have to say about it.

What energizes you?

In Jungian psychology, extraverts get their energy from the outer world of people and things, while introverts get their energy from the inner world of thoughts and ideas. This isn’t how the terms are used in popular culture—according to the Jungian definition, extraverts can be quiet and reserved, while introverts can be talkative and outgoing. The important question is whether you make better decisions by discussing your ideas with other people, or by mulling things over on your own. If you’re an introvert, you may not find it useful to share your first draft with others. But if you’re an extravert, you may crave the interaction that a critiquing group offers.

What are the potential benefits?

Showing a first draft to a group of fellow writers can help you identify bad patterns early. For example, if you have a habit of adding description to convey something you’ve already successfully communicated through dialogue, a critiquing group can give you the confidence to leave the unneeded descriptions out.

Critiquing groups may also notice stumbling blocks that you wouldn’t. Suppose, for example, you’ve got two brothers in your novel named Dave and Steve. These characters are very clear in your mind. The critiquing group, however, gets the brothers confused because the names Dave and Steve sound too much alike. You’ll need to change one of those names to, say, Jared. The earlier in the process you do that, the easier it will be for you to adjust.

But names can be changed through a simple find-and-replace operation in your word processing software. What if the problem is larger? What if the protagonist that you find quirky and delightful strikes your readers as manipulative and insecure? Maybe that pivotal scene you’ve got planned, where your protagonist gets a big assignment by flirting with her boss, won’t go over the way you intended. That doesn’t mean you should panic or change everything. But maybe you can explore other facets of the character and bring them to the forefront, while at the same time downplaying those qualities that the critiquing group finds puzzling. This could save you an enormous amount of rework later. Another possibility, though, is that your instincts are right, but your execution is lacking. If your heart and your gut tell you that you’re on the right path, keep going. Once your execution improves, you may be able to pull off the effect you intend.

What are the potential pitfalls?

Sharing your work before you’re ready—especially with an unsupportive audience—can be disastrous. It can suck the energy out of your creative process, leaving you unable to write for weeks. Some people never recover from having their work shredded by a self-serving, insensitive critic. They take this as confirmation that their inner voice is right, and they don’t have the talent to fulfill their dream of becoming a published author. The fact is, if your first draft sucks, that’s probably a good thing. It probably means that you’re listening to your unconscious mind and letting the story flow. You’re saving the editing for later, once the story is more fully formed, when you’ll know better what to leave out and what to keep.

Learning the craft of creative writing is a long journey, and you won’t master everything at once. How should you react if your critiquing group says that your dialogue is cliched, you plot lacks direction, and your characters are fuzzy? None of that really matters in a first draft. But to address the concerns of your critiquing group, you might waste time worrying about what readers need, when you should be focusing on what you as the author need. At this point, you’re still unearthing the clay. You’re not ready to sculpt it yet.

Finally, a critiquing group will inevitably give you bad advice. Everyone’s creative process is unique, and what works for one author might cripple another. Much writing advice is based on generalizations that may not apply in your specific case. For example, I once read a book on dialogue that opened with the sentence, “Dialogue is conversation, nothing more and nothing less.” Wrong! Dialogue is conversation distilled. It removes the irrelevant small talk and homes in on plot, character, and conflict. But the book’s author was writing for an audience of beginners who thought they had no talent for dialogue. She was trying to convince them that if they could speak, they could write dialogue. For a different audience, however, her statement, taken out of context, could lead beginners to write very poor dialogue indeed. So it’s incumbent upon you, the author, to resist the pull of advice that feels wrong to you, regardless of the source.

Seeking critiques of your work while you’re still in the first draft stage poses risks. If you’re confident in your ability and your vision, and you’re eager for the camaraderie and advice of a critiquing group, it may be worth a try. But if you find yourself stymied rather than energized by the critiques you receive, you may not be ready—or the group may be wrong for you. Even though you’re ultimately writing for an audience, you must first be true to yourself.

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One thought on “Unearthing the Clay: Pros and Cons of First Draft Critiques

  1. Writing creatively is indeed hard work. It must be developed upon and requires passion.

    I intend to write a novel one day. There’s nothing more powerful than having faith in yourself and persevere despite discouragement.

    Failure is a failure, unless I learn form it.

    Life is short. I want to be the best of what can I be. 🙂

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