I used to hate criticism of my work; not because I thought it was perfect but because I knew it wasn’t and the slightest word of doubt would send me reeling from ‘quietly confident’ to ‘ashamed and disillusioned’. But for the three years I studied creative writing at University, I would have my work ripped apart by my classmates weekly. It was horrible at first and I began to question whether I had any right to be there at all, but over time, I somehow came to look forward to hearing feedback.
I think it started when I brought in an extract from one of my short stories which I was particularly pleased with. The first draft had been well-received by my classmates and it was really coming along nicely. Problem was, I just couldn’t think of a satisfying ending. Everything I’d tried had just left it trailing off without a real sense of conclusion. But in one of our workshops, a classmate came up with a rough idea for where I should go with it and it was like a light bulb had turned on over my head. I spent that whole evening writing in the ending that he had suggested and it finished up being one of my favourite pieces from the whole degree.
I think that experience taught me that the point of work-shopping manuscripts isn’t so that your peers can tear you down and remind you of your failures (although that did happen occasionally, to my horror). It’s so that you can get a fresh eye on your work from someone with as much skill as you. It’s like a having a room full of premium beta-readers and, these days, I actually find myself berating people if they don’t find something wrong with my work.
If you’re nervous about throwing your manuscript out to a workshop, I hope this calms you down a little. I can’t promise it’ll always be fun; sometimes you’ll disagree fiercely with your classmates and other times you’ll end up reviewed by someone who’s just got it in for you. I’ve known a couple of those. But not only will the process improve your work, it’ll also thicken your skin in a safe environment, which will come in very useful if you ever decide to publish.