My First Critique

posted in: About Me, Writing | 18

Hi everyone!

I wrote a post for my writers’ workshop and I hope you don’t mind, but I thought I’d let it do double duty since I’m hard at work on my manuscript. We had some newbies at our workshop last night and it made me think back to my first time to read for critique and all the trauma that caused me. 😉 Remember your first time?


A few years ago, I sat at the table amongst twenty or more people. I was so nervous, I had red blotches down my neck and chest. I’m sure had it not been for my clothing, I would have seen those splotches go all the way to my toes. Thank goodness for clothing as I was vulnerable enough. That didn’t stop me from feeling NEKKID, however.

I had put in hours upon hours writing, re-writing and writing some more on that first chapter. I was so sure it was awesome. I loved it. How could anyone not like it? Of course, that was just a small (very small) part of me. The other major part wondered what the heck I was doing. I hated public speaking. I hated being the center of attention. And that part of me just knew I was fooling myself. I could never be a writer. Where did I get off thinking I could even compete with the talent in that room?

Yet when they called my name to read, I picked up those pages with shaking hands. The temperature in the room probably dropped about ten degrees just from the wind I generated from the vacillating papers growing wet from my moist finger tips. I was cold and hot at the same time with the feeling that I might hurl at any moment. I almost asked someone to call for an ambulance; my heart was beating so fast and hard, I thought for sure I was about to have a heart attack.

But, I didn’t have time for that. The moderator nodded to me and clicked the button on his stop watch to begin the countdown of my allotted time. And I began to read. My voice shook and was way higher than normal. I’m sure I heard dogs howling outside from the pitch. There were times I couldn’t draw in a deep enough breath. But finally, just before I hyperventilated, I finished.

The people around the room broke into applause. I was ecstatic for two seconds until I remembered that they ALWAYS clapped for someone’s first read.

Then the real hell critique began… Click here to read more about my descent into the abyss.


Follow Rhonda Hopkins:

The award-winning author of THE CONSUMING, and the zombie apocalypse series, SURVIVAL. She writes horror/sci-fi, paranormal, YA urban fantasy, suspense, and middle grade.

18 Responses

  1. Ken Steinhoff

    I was a photojournalist in a fine arts program, which made me akin to a streetwalker in the eyes of many of my fellow students. I had one tear into me for “selling yourself. I don’t care if my stuff is stuffed under a bed and isn’t seen for a hundred years. It’s art.”

    “I agree. Your stuff is art, ’cause if ain’t, then it’s pornography, and pornography is against the law.”

    I can also remember saying to the class, “The difference between my pictures and your pictures is that you turn your portfolio into the prof, who looks at it and slips it back on your desk with the grade turned discretely face-down. My stuff gets squirted on toilet paper and thrown into puddles in the front yards of several tens of thousands of readers who grade me by deciding if they want to see me splash in the puddle the next morning.”

    I had lots of my colleagues and peers offer helpful (and hurtful) criticism, but I don’t recall ever going before a review of strangers of the type you describe.

    It must be daunting until you get to the point where you are confident enough in your own work that you don’t need external validation.

    • Rhonda Hopkins

      < <<“I agree. Your stuff is art, ’cause if ain’t, then it’s pornography, and pornography is against the law>>> That’s funny, Ken! Yours is more trial by fire. It’s out there for the world to see without that extra layer of eyes. Of course once that particular subject is photographed, you can’t really re-do it. It’s what it is. But with someone like you who just has the eye and the talent… well, I’m sure the confidence comes early on.

      I am a much more confident writer than I was. And I probably did need more of an external validation back then. It’s still nice to know people like your work and think you do it well. But I’m also more confident at knowing which advice to take and which not to for various reasons — the biggest being I don’t want to do anything that would change my voice. Now that I’ve found it anyway. 😉 Thank you for stopping by.

      • Ken Steinhoff

        I’ve always been afraid that folks will discover that I’ve been faking it all of these years. Because I recognized I wasn’t the best shooter in the world, I concentrated on shooting subjects that most photographers ignored. It’s a lot easier to be good if there’s no competition.

        When I was in college, I had a class where we were give a list of 40 or 50 different types of pictures the prof wanted us to shoot by the end of the semester. The idea was that we would knock off a few a week and bring them in for a critique along the way.

        Being a procrastinator and being too busy shooting for the paper to piddle around with the assignment, I put it off until I had to knock off all the pictures in one weekend.

        I turned them in hoping for a C. They came back with an A. I never took a class with that prof again. I figured if my standards were higher than his, he had nothing to teach me.

        I was bike riding with a writer friend the other day and we were discussing this very topic. I told her that I dismiss compliments from all but a very small group of folks I respect. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy having my ego stroked; it’s that it’s easier for people to say they like something than for them to look at it closely enough to tell you why they don’t like it or how it could be improved.

        I’m flattered more by someone who points out my flaws than by someone who says everything is “great.”

        The folks I surrounded myself with were quick to say, “It would have been better had you moved a little to the left or opened up a stop or closed down a stop or used a faster / slower shutter speed.” At some point, you’d say, “You’re right, I’ll keep that in mind for next time” or “Screw you. I shot it that way ’cause I wanted it that way.”

        Both responses were equally valid and accepted.(Unless it was ME saying it, ’cause I was the boss.)

        On the other hand, if one of my peers caught your eye going down the hallway and said, “Nice shot,” you could take it to the bank that it was. Compliments that are given sparingly are the ones that count.

        • Rhonda Hopkins

          < <>> You really crack me up. But I’ve been there before too.

          Well, I don’t know enough about photography to tell you what you should have done. I just know if it’s appealing to me in some way. Maybe it’s not pretty but it may evoke an emotion and that’s the best type of art in any medium in my opinion.

          • Ken Steinhoff

            One last comment (maybe). When I was just out of high school, one of the reporters on the paper had a buddy who was a nationally known photographer passing through town. She said for me to bring over some of my work and she’d introduce me.

            Well, I showed up with two 250-sheet paper boxes of prints, just about everything I had ever shot.

            To his credit, he looked at every photo and made a suggestion here and there. When he was done, he gave me an excellent piece of advice that could also apply to writers: “The difference between a good photographer and a bad photographer is that a good photographer never shows his bad photographs.”

            I’ve never forgotten his kindness, wisdom and diplomacy.

          • Rhonda Hopkins

            But one thing I’ve learned over the past few years….not everyone agrees on what is good and what is bad. 🙂

  2. PJ Sharon

    Great topic, Rhonda. My first experience with critique partners was when I was still a newbie. I was working on my second manuscript, but knew I had a lot to learn. A very well known author from my chapter was looking for a third person to add to her two person critique group and I asked if I could join.

    At the second meeting, I was told, “I wasn’t quite up to par for the group.” Ouch! I realized then that I needed to grow a thick skin or quit. The thing was, she was right. I didn’t fit that particular group and it took me several other partnerships before I found partners that worked for me. I’ve come a long way since then and am on good terms with that author…as a matter of fact, she has even asked for my advice on occasion:-) I’ve learned not to take anything personally, and to just keep forging on, learning, and trying to have some fun along the way.

    • Rhonda Hopkins

      Ouch! is right. One of those people told me and I quote: “It’s boring. But then it’s not a genre I read, so …” I hate that kind of critique. Writing is good or bad regardless of genre. If you don’t read it and you can’t objectively look at the writing without personalizing to your particular genre, you shouldn’t say anything. Of course this guy was just obnoxious to everyone not just to me. Some people are just like that. I did learn a ton from that workshop through the years though. There were some very talented authors. I also have critique partners that I trust to tell me when something sucks.

      And you definitely have to have thick skin for this business. I can’t wait to get my first bad review and get it behind me. Hopefully I’ll have more positive than negative. But if not, I will just try to keep making each one better than the one before. 🙂

      Of course I don’t doubt for a second that author would come to you for advice. You really know your stuff! Thanks for dropping by, PJ.

  3. Patricia Yager Delagrange

    I’ve never experienced this critique process but it sounds so scary. I’d be so nervous I’d want to barf. I’ll have to read about your descent into the abyss.

    • Rhonda Hopkins

      I was absolutely terrified. Different groups are different sizes though. This one just happened to be a really big one. We’d have around 70 for each meeting and split into two or three groups for reading. Sometimes not that may people, but often enough. I started one here in the small town where I live now. We’ve been having anywhere from 2 to 5 show up. MUCH different and more relaxed. Last night we ended up with 8 of us. I actually think that’s a good number. I hope they all come back. However, I will say that I still find it very hard because of that “public speaking” thing. I don’t think I’ll ever get really comfortable with that. But at least I’m trying. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by, Patti!

  4. Emma Burcart

    I can’t imagine a critique with that many people! Or with clapping. My first critique was tough enough at a table with about 10 people. It was really the reading out loud that was hard. I don’t think I was used to the sound of my own voice and everything I read sounded so stupid. But, it’s like anything else. It just takes getting used to. Now it’s even easier than singing karaoke. 🙂

  5. Kiru Taye

    Hi Rhonda, I think you’re one brave woman. I’ve never experienced anything like that nor would I want to do that. However, I did post the first chapter of my first ever novel on the New Voices contest in September 2010 which was open to reader critique. I did cringe at a few comments but learnt a whole lot with that process.

    • Rhonda Hopkins

      As much as I fear public speaking, if I can do it anyone can. It’s always so hard putting your stuff out there for someone else to read and comment on, regardless of the forum. But it makes us better writers and I’m am so thankful for all I learned from not only this group, but also from the contests I entered and others who have reviewed my writings over the years. I’m glad I wasn’t able to publish my first works. They really were not ready. Even now, I know not everyone will like my stuff and am scared of actually publishing it. But this is what I’ve been working toward all of these years. And it’s time to take the plunge. Glad you stopped by, Kiru. 🙂

  6. Rhonda Hopkins

    They only clap for someone’s very first read. to acknowledge their bravery to seek feedback. I don’t remember ever hearing applause again, not even for some things that were brilliantly written. And it was definitely worth it. One of the best things I ever did for myself. I learned so much from what they said about my work and from listening to what they had to say about others.

    I always think whatever I’m reading at the time sounds “stupid” especially when my voice cracks and shakes and gets that ear-splitting pitch to it. Not as bad anymore but still happens occasionally enough that I don’t ever take it for granted..

    Now karaoke…that’s scary!!! LOL I could NEVER do that. I know I shouldn’t say never, but I’m pretty confident that’s the case. 😉

    Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting, Emma. I hope you have a great day!

  7. Jennette Marie Powell

    Oh yuck, I don’t think I could do this kind of critique! I’d dealt with critiques plenty of times in my day job as a graphic artist, and in college before that – creative writing class and art classes both! But we didn’t have to read in creative writing class – we copied our work and read it to ourselves first. Same with my first critique group when I started writing for publication – there were only four of us, and we read the material before the meeting. I can’t imagine working with 20 people! Glad it didn’t scare you off for good. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

    • Rhonda Hopkins

      Hi Jennette! It was tough. But the more I did it the less it bothered me. But I still get those public speaking willies. LOL Glad you stopped by. 🙂

  8. Marcy Kennedy

    My first real critique was in a group setting as well (though smaller). I was in a fiction intensive with four others and the instructor. Only one person’s feedback was really specific and helpful, so I went up to her afterwards and thanked her. We became critique partners, then co-writers, and are still in a critique group together. Critiques are never easy, but I think when you hear suggestions for improvement from someone you trust, it can make a big difference.

    • Rhonda Hopkins

      Thanks for joining the discussion, Marcy! One of the most important things is to figure out whose opinion you can trust. And even then what advice to take. After all, it’s still your baby and it has to fit your voice. Glad you found someone you trust and work well with. That’s always a blessing.