Having your work critiqued by other writers, agents, or editors can be daunting to face and harrowing to experience, but it’s something just about every serious writer will have to go through at some point. Getting critiqued can be tough, but it’s an excellent way to learn – not just about the project under scrutiny, but also about your writing in general.
Before I get into some do’s and don’ts for receiving critiques, let me first set out a few guidelines for what a helpful, professional critique looks like:
- Clear, specific information is useful. Generic statements like, “I don’t like it,” don’t give a writer much to go on. What didn’t the reader like? Why? “The pacing dragged in this chapter for me,” or “I thought this scene seemed really out of character for your protagonist,” is better.
- Many, many books about critique groups advise that the readers start out each critique with any positive feedback they have for the writer – and, yes, it is important to know what you’re doing right! Otherwise, you might cut scenes, characters, chapters, etc. that are stronger than you realize without some positive commentary from outside your own head!
- Criticism needs to be constructive. Just tearing down a story is no way to improve it. Examples and suggestions are often useful, even if the writer chooses a different fix for the problem (more about that in the section on receiving critiques!)
- A critique is not a hostile takeover by another writer – the idea is to make the story that’s there, or the story the writer is trying to get there, the strongest that story can be. The idea is not to make the story be what the critiquer wishes it was, or what the critiquer would write instead, if it were up to him/her.
I have learned that the best critique groups have a diverse set of voices, styles, genres, and outlooks. Their stories don’t all sound like they were written by the same author, but are strong, well-written, and eclectic pieces full of individualism. See previous point about critiques not being a way to hijack a story.
And now, for some tips on how to graciously receive critiques:
- Before you hand your story over for critique (or read it aloud to a group of critiquers), be very clear about what kind of feedback you’re looking for. Are you just looking for big, general issues like plot holes in the storyline, or do you want to know where the language is awkward or the grammar is wrong, too? Do you want just a proofread, and are happy with the story itself? Let the critiquer(s) know that at the outset, so they know what to focus on and so you know what to expect.
- Make your grammar, punctuation, and spelling as good as you can before you hand anything over for critiquers to look at, and have a nice, clean copy of your printed manuscript. Nobody wants to wonder what made that weird stain on page 2 of your story.
- Don’t argue with your feedback. Even if you disagree, listen, thank the people who read over your work, and make up your mind for yourself later. Hopefully, your critiquers have the best intentions for helping you out – so take it in the spirit it’s intended, and don’t take it personally.
- Get clarification on comments you don’t understand. You shouldn’t argue with feedback, but you should make sure you know what was meant by the comments your critiquers make. If a comment is vague, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “Can you tell me what it was about this scene that didn’t work for you?”
- Be open-minded. Sometimes I get comments and think, “What the heck is that about? This part is great!” And later, I read over it objectively with the comments in hand, and think, “Hm. That really would read better if I followed [this] advice.” Also, sometimes I disagree entirely with a particular suggestion as to how to fix something, but the suggestion still helps me find a solution that I like – eliminating things you know you don’t want can help you realize what you do want.
- Don’t be discouraged. Just because your story/poem/chapter isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it doesn’t have potential. It can be disheartening when you look at all the notes scribbled in the margins of your manuscript, telling you what’s wrong with your beloved work, but once you’ve had a good mope in private, it can be really exciting to start looking at how strong the piece can be if you change this or that.
- Just because you don’t argue with your critiquers does not mean you have to follow their advice when it comes to rewriting. Now, ignoring everything everyone tells you is probably foolhardy (unless you’re some kind of Mozart of writing), but even the best-intentioned advice can sometimes be wrong. Maybe one reader just didn’t pick up on your intentions for the piece, maybe it’s not a genre one of your critiquers ever reads, or maybe you just plain don’t like the changes being suggested. It’s your story. You get the ultimate say.
- Tempering open-mindedness with self-confidence can be tough, but you can’t please everyone – in writing, as in life. The best thing to do when you after getting feedback is to take a little time to clear your mind and get some distance from the piece, think things over, and get yourself in a place, mentally, where you’re very clear about what you want out of the piece you’ve had critiqued. Don’t start making changes – or start assuming you don’t need to make changes – until you’ve taken some time just to think.
So there you have it. THANK YOU, Sara D!
Sara Deurell writes a most excellent blog on the writing life and the writing process, called Sara D vs. Reality. She also does freelance editing: details can be found at Sara Deurell, Freelance Editor.