Looking at Your Writing with a Fresh Eye: Bob Burke Explains

One of the really nice things about being an aspiring writer celebrating the successes of other writers you meet along the way. Many years ago I was a member of the online writer’s forum YouWriteOn, where I got to know several writers who are now successfully published. One of these was Bob Burke, author of the Third Pig Detective Agency series.

It’s strange to think that by providing feedback for early drafts of Bob’s first book, I helped in some small way. So I thought I’d ask Bob what he thought about writers’ feedback and critique groups.

Here’s what he said:

All writers write in a vacuum. In our own heads we may think we’ve written the next great Irish, English, American etc. novel (delete as appropriate) but in reality most of us have no idea whether what we’ve written is any good or not. Showing it to friends or family is an exercise in futility as, no matter how appalling our work is, they certainly aren’t going to say anything that might hurt our feelings and, in fact, may extol its (frequently non-existent) virtues so much that we end up believing that our dodgy first draft is a sure-fire bestseller. Only when we take our courage in our hands and send it out to be eviscerated at the hands of agents, editors and publishers do we finally get a true picture of how good our masterwork actually is.

Criticism isn’t a huge amount of fun. It’s easy to accept praise but when someone tells us exactly what’s wrong with what we’ve written it’s much harder to take in – regardless of how accurate the critique may be. How dare they mock my work, we howl, outraged. Can they not see its magnificence? It’s only when we re-read the critiques objectively we finally begin to acknowledge, however grudgingly, that they may have a point. Here’s where the bona fide writers are truly separated from the rest of the herd. We analyse the critiques, re-examine our work in the context of what’s been said and then we rewrite and rewrite and…slowly our work gets better.

But where do we get these critiques? Joining a local writing group can be useful – if they are willing to be open about everyone’s work and take what they do seriously. In my case, the only local writing group I was aware of met at 11 am on a Friday, which was of no use to me as I worked full-time. Anxious to get feedback on my work, I trawled the internet and found a few online critique sites. Some were just writers massaging each other’s egos but two stood out as providing an opportunity to get proper critiques and (as an added bonus) a chance to get feedback from professional editors (YouWriteOn and Writelink). Both had an evaluation system to weed out the dilettantes and the feedback seemed, for the most part, to be honest and objective.

On the basis I had nothing to lose, I joined both sites, tentatively threw my opening chapters to the lions and waited. Soon the feedback began to arrive and, for the most part, it was incredibly constructive. Writers far more experienced than I spotted weaknesses in my work and, more importantly, suggested ways in which it could be improved (a really positive thing to do when someone finds fault with what’s written). Critique by critique, the feedback slowly built up and my opening chapters improved dramatically. Of course, not all critiques were useful but it became easy to weed out the ones that offered no feedback other than the generic ‘it was brilliant’ or ‘it sucked’ variety. As a side note, it is worth mentioning that the best critiques I received (positive or negative) were from members who went on to secure publishing deals of their own.

Did the critique groups make me a better writer? Absolutely.

Was it easy to accept the negative critiques? Not initially, but I learned that the best critiques are never personal, they’re there to make my work better and once I realised that, reading and understanding the feedback became (a little) easier.

Can a writer get by without this kind of feedback? Not unless they have an ego the size of a small moon or are the greatest writer ever to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard!).

In reality, whether we realise it or not, feedback is what makes us better as writers so it’s vital that anyone who aspires to improve needs to be able to accept criticism, however negative, and the only way to do this is join some form of writers’ group – whether local or online. They’re there, they’re willing to help and they’ll make you a better writer than you could ever imagine.

But bear this in mind: no matter how tough these groups’ critiques may be, they’re only a light tickling in comparison to the kind of flaying you’ll get when your publisher hands your precious manuscript over to their editor to knock into shape!

About the Author

Bob Burke is originally from Ennis. He now lives in a small village with no pub just outside Limerick, with his wife and three sons.  He has spent over twenty years working with computers, most recently as an IT Manager in Dell.

Bob has dabbled (badly) in writing since he was very young but recently not only managed to finish something he’d started but actually succeeded in getting it published.

His first novel The Third Pig Detective Agency is a winner of the CBI 2009/2010 Eilis Dillon, a prestigious award for Irish authors or illustrators of children’s books.

When not writing and being an unpaid chauffeur for his three sons, Bob enjoys reading lots and lots of books and supporting Munster in rugby and Chelsea in football.

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