The quickest way to improve your writing is by getting it critiqued. Reading blogs and books is fine too, but it can be redundant—you’re slogging through the same general advice, looking for solutions to your unique writerly problems. We all have them, and they’re hard to spot.
Several years ago, I wrote a story about a single mother taking her daughter to a baseball game. I revised it endlessly, and after a year or so started submitting it. No takers. I set it aside for a few months and re-read it. I thought it was pretty good but had to acknowledge something was wrong. Some minute thing having to do with rhythm and flow in the center of the story, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Finally, I submitted it to a contest for ten bucks and paid another ten for a critique. I didn’t win the contest, but I found out what was wrong. The reviewer pointed out that, for a story as short as mine (less than 750 words), I’d overused the “power of three.”
I knew instantly what she meant, because “Oh come on, how did I not see that?!” I eliminated one of the phrases, changed two sentences from passive voice to active voice on her suggestion, and submitted it to Literary Mama. “Flight” was accepted, and became my first published story.
Another benefit from having your work critiqued is knowing what you’re doing right. It’s never obvious, is it? As writers, we’re repeatedly warned that those passages we love most are the ones that should probably die bloody, red-ink deaths. “Kill your darlings!” But that’s not always true. Writers spend years honing their instincts, so it makes sense that their instincts are often right. How do you know when to trust them? You get an objective opinion. Not a family member. Not a friend.
“But objective opinions are still just opinions and therefore actually subjective.” That’s true, smarty pants, which is why when I revised “Flight,” I didn’t follow every suggestion from the reviewer. I recognized a few of them were stylistic preferences, and I chose not to implement them. You have to find that sweet spot—somewhere between paralyzing insecurity and stubborn arrogance—to get the most from a critique and become a better writer. And you do want to become a better writer, right?
Here are four places to get your work reviewed; I have used all four and fully recommend them. For the first three especially, make sure your work is as polished as can be first, because you’re also submitting it. If you’re looking for feedback before you submit your work, skip to #4, or check out my Classes and Critiques page.
1. WOW! Women on Writing: WOW! runs a quarterly flash fiction contest; it costs $10 to submit an entry and an extra $10 for an optional critique. Sound familiar? 😉 Since submitting “Flight” I’ve paid for several more critiques on contest entries, and each time I’ve learned something new. Feedback is broken down into the following categories: subject, content, and technical, with an overview of your story. Once you start using the feedback to improve your work, you just may earn back your entry fees in future winnings (WOW! pays hefty cash prizes).
2. Blue Moon Literary & Art Review: submitting to this magazine costs nothing, but if you want feedback, you can pay $10. I paid the $10 and although my story was rejected, I received a very nice, thoughtful critique. I applied most of the editor’s suggestions and resubmitted to a magazine called Bartleby Snopes. The story was accepted, and was later nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Money well spent! And speaking of . . .
3. Bartleby Snopes: Nathaniel Tower not only runs a fantastic fiction magazine, he is an all-around cool guy, and super generous. There’s no submission fee to submit to Bartleby Snopes, and every submission receives feedback—anywhere from one sentence to several paragraphs–unless the author chooses the “no feedback” option. In the past three years, I’ve submitted to a whole lot of magazines, and this is the only one I’ve come across that guarantees a personal response from the editor. See? Cool guy.
4. Story in Literary Fiction: William H. Coles is a prolific author passionate about the art of literary fiction. His website is loaded with resources for fiction writers—in-depth articles covering dialogue, characterization, point-of-view, narrative arc, humor, conflict, you name it. Mr. Coles offers the following services for free: a manuscript evaluation of up to 1,200 words, a workshop and a “Mentor’s Corner” where you can ask him any question related to literary fiction. Anything you post under these three services will be on the website. That didn’t stop me, though—click around in the workshop and see if you can find me. 🙂
Note that three of the above accept fiction only. Blue Moon Literary & Art Review accepts both fiction and nonfiction.
Good luck! Keep writing.