MFA Monday: Conflicting Critiques

This post, by Heidi Willis, originally appeared on her And Also… blog on 11/15/10.

The first assignment due this week includes a submission of writing to be critiqued by a group of fellow writers. I’d like to say this is no big deal to me. I’ve been in a critique group for over three years, and we do this all the time. I’m used to having my work shredded and put back together with bleeding red pens (figuratively, of course, since it comes back in a Word document with Track Changes that can be red, blue, green, or, my favorite, purple, depending on the critiquer).

I wasn’t worried. Which should have been my first warning sign.


The MFA workshop consists of students in all levels of the program, meaning I will likely be in a group that is not only first semester students, but second, third, fourth and possibly graduating students as well. Because of this, there isn’t the demand to send in just the first pages of what you’re working on. A fifth semester student who’s been doing this two years probably isn’t going to keep sending in the first pages of their novel over and over again. The only requirement is that the piece you submit be better than a rough draft that doesn’t know where it’s going, but is also something you want to keep working on (as opposed to something you’ve already published).

So I contacted my trusty critique group (my 4Corners gals) and asked: Do I send the first pages, which is what I’ll eventually submit to an agent, and work on making that the best, or do I send in what I consider my very best (or favorite) chapter in order to put my best foot forward? If this submission is what an advisor will read to judge whether or not they want to work with me, I want to send the best, right?

My gals said yes, without a doubt, send the best you have.

So then I sent those pages to them to make sure they were polished enough to submit. (I know, they’ve been saints about this whole process with me, and put up with my endless questions and submissions in my panic that I’m going to humiliate myself in January when I begin the residency).

You know what? About half said they LOVED the submission and DEFINITELY send it in, and they CRIED through it and it was so POWERFUL!!!!!! And the other half…. said, eh. This is a bit confusing. And overwritten. And detached. And not the best thing I’ve seen from you. Maybe send in the first pages instead.


My guess is that if you are a writer and you have a writing group, this has probably happened to you too. Different opinions about the same piece of writing…. some love. Some loathe. Some want you to keep it, others think it needs an overhaul. What one person thinks is brilliant and genius, another thinks is confusing and obscure.

And this is the nature of writing. Because this happens even in published works. Look at Stephanie Meyers and the Twilight series, just as an example. Big name authors have come out criticizing the quality of the writing, and yet it’s spawned a world-wide fan base of people that absolutely love it. Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer for The Road, which is widely acclaimed, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. That is one book not up my alley, so to speak.

So what do you do when you place your writing in the hands of people you trust to tell you the truth, and then you get such widely differing opinions?


Read the rest of the post on And Also….