I’d posted this on an old, now-neglected blog and a recent discussion on Reddit inspired me to continue with something I’ve had on the back-burner for quite some time: a series about critiques. The first will be how to deal with critiques, then, why it’s important for would-be writers to give critiques and finally, how to critique, which some people are leery of doing for various reasons.
How to Deal with Critiques:
I’m on several different writers forums and one skill writers have to learn in addition to is handling feedback from others. It’s always important to get another’s view of whatever you’re working on at some point, whether it be the openings scenes, a couple of chapters or a beta to look at the overall novel. Novice writers make a lot of common errors such as overly purple descriptions, clunky dialogue or too much ‘set-up’ and not enough story, but even experienced writers get too close to their work sometimes. The best critiques often come from complete strangers – people who don’t care whether you’ll like them or not afterwards, since they don’t know you to begin with. That isn’t to say you can’t ever use family or friends, but you need them to be honest. Not just saying ‘yeah, it’s great!’ while grinning through clenched teeth.
So you polish that opening thousand words or some middle chapter or a short story, then find some other people to read it and … then what. If you’re like me, you cringe each time you open up any response and think maybe working in the dreary world of excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations, or being a cashier somewhere is a way more realistic option. Then you spot one paragraph no one commented on. That’s good, right? Unless they stopped reading there … Honestly, I find the best thing to do at that point is close the damn thing up and wash some dishes or go for a walk or do something to distract myself for a bit. Then I go look at it again.
Now. I know how my brain is skewed: towards the negative. I’ll miss any ‘I can’t wait to read more!’ three times but things like ‘this seemed too distant’ or ‘cut this line’ pop out straight away. So my first piece of advice (well, second if you count stepping away for a bit being first) is to be aware of how your own perception trips you up. Some people go too far to the other extreme and see the ‘I love your writing’ while missing any ‘but…’ that follows.
Writers often get attached to their work and as such, it’s necessary to step back from it and weigh both the good and the bad that other people are pointing out. It might be ‘your baby’, but it isn’t perfect. When reading through critiques, it’s also important to make sure your expectations are in line with your degree of experience. A first attempt at a novel will probably get picked apart a lot more than if it’s the tenth you’ve written. And it will have a lot more problems that need fixing.
Next, remind yourself that all forms of art are subjective. What you are soliciting is one person’s (or a few people’s) opinion about the piece you have submitted, not you personally. And no one is infallible. Some things may fall flat for nearly everybody. Those are the most important things to work on fixing straight away. Other parts, some people will love and others will hate with equal intensity. There’s almost nothing that absolutely everybody will love. So keep that last part in mind. You will never please everybody. So don’t worry about it. The ones you really want to please are the ones who already like your writing to a degree, or are tuned into the same wavelength.
Sometimes you know deep down something isn’t right, but can’t figure out quite what. That’s when feedback from others is invaluable. Once you know what needs to be fixed, it can be easy. One thing to keep in mind is that no one is ever completely 100% right about everything (even me, shockingly enough!), and someone is rarely 100% wrong either. In fact, sometimes the most important comments to heed are the ones that initially strike you as so very wrong. I’m not talking about where someone’s been rude or trolling or trying to be clever, but where you just want to grab them saying ‘hey, what the hell??’. Even if after careful consideration you do think they are still hugely wrong, it’s important to know exactly why you think they are. What set off that reaction. Anything that produces a visceral response needs to be weighed. It might be that the writer anticipated some problems already, but not what that person had pointed out. Being blindsided is always unpleasant. But worse is having a blind spot that persists through endless revisions.
Where it gets trickier is when dealing with conflicting advice. In the same chapter I once put up, one person thought the emotional nuances were very well-done, and another person thought it was too distant and wanted a deeper POV. As someone who prefers to be subtle and reads fiction written in first person only reluctantly, I decided to leave it as is. Ultimately as the author, it’s your responsibility to write in the style you’re most comfortable with. Please yourself first.
One more thing to keep in mind is that each person has their own biases and personal tastes or pet peeves they bring to critiquing*. Some people like lots of internal monologue – they like to be told exactly what the MC is thinking each moment. Myself? I prefer it kept to a minimum, and only if there’s not a better way to express it through dialogue or action. Some people will nitpick any description – does it matter if his jacket is red? – while others love paragraphs dedicated to building an entire world they can then immerse themselves in. As a writer the key is to try to strike what feels like the right balance to you. Maybe the person who picked at the description passages objected not because he or she doesn’t like much to begin with, but because the description didn’t work on its own. Maybe it wandered all over the place, lost and in need of directions, or was full of pureed metaphors. In that case it might be useful to seek out a critique partner who is stronger in those areas.
Lastly, thank the person for taking the time and effort, even if you don’t wind up taking a single thing into consideration. Never get defensive, never argue (though asking for clarification is perfectly fine) and never lash out at the person. Most people just want to help and mean well. In my experience, if someone’s really off base, others are usually happy to step in and say so. As for those who gave the best feedback, be sure to thank them too and let them know how helpful you found it. And most importantly, try to pay it either back or forward. My next post will be about integrating critiques into your work-in-progress.
*I plan to bring this up later in a future post about How to Critique