Ian S. Bott
Published by Dark Sky Press at Shakespir
Copyright 2016 Ian S. Bott
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“I’ve done it!” Ernest Hummingbird hopped excitedly on his perch. “I’ve done it. I’ve done it. I’ve done it.”
His old friend and mentor, Sage, cocked a beady eye, twitched his tail feathers, and settled his spectacles more comfortably on his beak. “Done what?”
“Finished, of course.”
“You mean …”
“Written those two magic words, ‘The End.’ ”
Ernest gave Sage a sharp peck. “Didn’t you hear me? I said, I’ve finished.”
“What? Oh, yes. You’ve finished the first draft of your novel. Yes, well done. An admirable achievement. Let me see, it was a tale of love and betrayal in a Parisian boulangerie. What was it called again?”
“The Bun Almost Rises.” Ernest gave Sage a suspicious look. “You don’t seem all that impressed.”
“As I said, my hopeful young friend, completing the draft of a novel is a big step. Something most people, even many writers, never accomplish.” Sage squinted at Ernest, who clung to one end of the perch, gazing out the window up and down the street. He hooted softly to gain his friend’s attention. “So, what happens now?”
Ernest sidled to the other end of his perch. One wingtip caressed a faded photo of a hammock slung between two palm trees overlooking a sun-drenched expanse of white sand and cerulean seas. His eyes took on a faraway look. “Well, it gets published, of course. I can retire from my job at the nectar factory and spend my days writing. In between book signing events and writing conventions.” His gaze flickered from the window to the telephone. “And maybe the occasional speaking engagement. I’m sure I’ll be too busy for many of those, though.”
“Soohoo,” Sage hooted, “do you have a publisher then?”
“I let all the big publishers know I was about to finish.” Ernest glanced uneasily out the window once more. “They should be here any moment with advances and contracts.”
Sage sighed. “Ernest, my ambitious young friend, I think you and I need a little chat.”
Popular myth versus reality
The popular media has a lot to answer for. There’s a deeply-ingrained stereotype of writers, bolstered by numerous TV and movie portrayals, that make fame and fortune as a writer look all too easy. They gloss over the bits between ‘The End’ and actual publication, the bits that represent ninety percent of the real effort, because they don’t make good viewing.
As a result, many writers start off, and a significant number continue, blissfully unaware that this thing we call ‘critiquing’ even exists. They may have a vague recollection of this mysterious thing called ‘editing’, that presumably happens in a back room somewhere once they’ve graciously deigned to sign up with one of the publishers tripping over each other to ply them with offers.
The reality is that writing sometimes feels like the labors of Hercules. Just when you think you’ve reached the finish line and you’re over the worst, new obstacles loom, each more intimidating than the last.
You slog through the swamps of the first draft. You write those magical words ‘The End’ and breathe a happy sigh, thinking you’ve finally mastered this writing lark.
Yes, ‘The End’ is a tremendous landmark, especially first time around, but then reality sets in and you realize you have to face the critiquing and editing jungle. You plough through it, or maybe are tempted to skirt around it, until your way is barred by the precipitous cliffs of publication. These cliffs you scale, through blood, sweat, and shredded fingernails, and finally launch yourself into the airless interplanetary void of promotion.
Out in those cold wastelands you realize it’s true. Nobody can hear you scream.
There are plenty of books and articles out there on the craft of writing, the mechanics of publication, and the arcana of promotion. Backing up to that critiquing and editing jungle, there’s endless advice on editing techniques. It’s even easy to find advice on critiquing, but mostly how to give critiques. Not so much on how to receive them and make them useful to you.
That’s where this booklet fits in.
Do you need critiques?
Ask yourself a couple of questions.
What is your purpose in writing? Everyone’s goals are different. Maybe you’re looking for fame and fortune, or at least to make a living from writing. Maybe you want to see your book on the shelf of your local book store. Maybe you just write for enjoyment, for therapy, or to share with a few close friends. That’s okay, and if you’re perfectly happy with what you’re doing, then this may not be the book for you.
But if your writing goals include publication, then ask yourself this: are you so good that words flow from your pen or your keyboard in perfect condition, with no need for improvement?
Of course, that’s a trick question. Nobody’s that good. But how do you go about improving your work so that it’s ready to publish? Well, you can study, take classes and courses, and practice, practice, practice … But, if you’re serious about improving, sooner or later you have to get feedback.
And, by feedback, I don’t mean your doting maiden aunt—who still keeps your kindergarten finger-paintings proudly displayed on her fridge door—looking at your work and saying, “That’s nice, Dear.”
I mean genuine constructive feedback. The kind that digs deep into what’s working and what’s not. The kind that will ruthlessly expose cardboard characters and lackluster descriptions. The kind that will drive transit buses through your carefully-crafted plot.
In other words, the kind that hurts.
When you face that reality, this book may help.
Read on … if you dare!
A cook turns raw ingredients into a tasty meal. A carpenter turns planks of wood into a shiny bookshelf. They don’t do this with their bare hands; they use tools to help them.
Dealing with critiques, and turning raw feedback into something that will tighten up your writing, also needs tools. That’s the purpose of this book—to give you a starter-pack of tools to help with this process.
This book is organized into chapters. They do go in a more-or-less logical order but they are not intended as a start-to-finish process. Rather, they are a collection of shelves for your tools, to use as needed. Here is a quick summary of the chapters.
Sometimes it’s hard to get out the starting gate. This chapter looks at some of the reasons and gives some guidance on how to clear the way.
Being critiqued is inherently painful. This is one of the biggest obstacles to subjecting yourself to critiques in the first place, and dealing with this is a foundational ability. Without the skills to face and handle painful feedback you will get nothing out of the process.
A thorough set of critiques can be overwhelming. Without some kind of process you will be in danger of drowning. This chapter suggests some techniques to help manage the flood of information.
Not all advice is created equal. Sometimes the good advice—that which will strengthen your story—is hard to swallow, and the nuggets of gold are buried in a minefield of dangerous and contradictory advice that you should be wary of. This chapter explains some gold- and mine-detecting techniques.
This brief chapter discusses the need to take control of your own story and develop your own judgment about which advice to heed and which to discard.
To round things off, this chapter gives some pointers to finding and working in online critique groups.
Obstacles to getting critiqued in the first place
When it comes to getting the critical feedback we all desperately need, many writers never even get out of the starting gate. Why is that?
Well, simple awareness is a big problem. Back to the popular media myth of the stereotype author, it’s easy to believe that you dash off ‘The End’, drop the manuscript into a box, and ship it off to your publisher to do the rest.
If you have a publisher waiting in the wings to grab your first draft and turn it into something publishable, kudos to you. For the other 99.99% of us mere mortals, we have to do the hard work ourselves.
That means sharing our baby, warts and all, with someone who’s going to be brutally honest about its readiness.
So what’s stopping you?
If you’ve read this far you’re probably past the awareness gap, but beyond that there seems to be a host of obstacles in the way. I’m not ready. My writing isn’t good enough. I don’t have anything complete yet. I’m afraid. I don’t know where to start. I can’t afford it.
These can be summarized as: readiness, fear, and logistics.
These obstacles are real and dangerous. They have the power to stop you in your tracks if you let them. But you needn’t let them. They are all in your head, which is good news because it means it’s entirely within your power to remove them.
So, let’s blast through those obstacles.
I’ll start with logistics, because these points should be quick to deal with before we move on to more serious matters. These shouldn’t be obstacles at all because it only takes a small amount of knowledge to get past them. In truth, they are more likely to be symptoms of fear putting up excuses to distract you.
I don’t know how to go about it
That’s okay. It’s not rocket science and there’s a whole section later on devoted to finding and working with online critique groups.
I can’t afford to pay a professional
Most of the tips in this booklet apply to feedback in the form of professional editing, but this guide was written with online critique groups primarily in mind. Yes, you can pay significant sums to work with a professional, and that’s a decision you’ll need to make sooner or later, but you’ll likely want to get your work to an advanced stage before you go down that road.
Getting good quality critiques on your story need not cost you anything in dollar terms. Many groups are free to join. The biggest cost is in your own time.
I’m not ready
Stop and think for a minute. Just how ready do you think you need to be? You’d be surprised at the answer—not nearly as ready as you imagine.
Readiness angst comes in a couple of different flavors: concerns over quality, and concerns over completeness.
I’m not ready because my writing isn’t good enough
This is a tough one, because it plays right into our deepest fears and insecurities as writers. I’ll return to the topic of fear again and again because it’s so important, but right now I want to deal with an easier target. If you think your writing isn’t good enough, ask yourself—good enough for what?
When you wonder if you’re good enough, what are you measuring yourself against? Other writers? Books on the shelf of your local book store or library? Probably, because that’s usually all you have available to you as a benchmark.
In other words, you’re comparing your first halting efforts with work that has been written, revised, edited, revised again, proof-read at least three times, probably by professionals, and polished to within an inch of its life. Of course your work doesn’t measure up. It can’t.
When you get that first draft on the page, it’s not ready to be published! This is a fact of writing life, the furtive secret that movie and TV stereotypes gloss over, and which beginning writers have a hard time accepting.
So, if you’re comparing your work against a published book and thinking you’re not ready, you’re completely missing the point. The purpose of getting critiqued is to improve your writing. The critiquing process starts from the known and certain foundation that your writing is not ready, and that you have a lot of work still to do.
So, you need to set aside comparisons with published work because you’re asking yourself the wrong question. Is your work ready to be published? Of course it isn’t. That’s why you want a critique.
The question you need to ask is—is it ready to be critiqued?
On a technical level, of course you want to make your writing as good as you can before you submit it for critiquing. At the very least, you should put it under a microscope for obvious typos, grammatical errors, and correct use of words (its/it’s, imply/infer, their/there/they’re etc.) You owe it to your critiquers to have done your homework, and this is all stuff you can research for yourself. Sure, some of these little nits will slip past your scrutiny and that’s expected, but there is no excuse for submitting a typo-laden train wreck for someone to critique. That’s not their job, and you won’t win friends or helpful critiquers with blatant laziness.
Read books on grammar and style. Search for examples of correct usage of punctuation around dialogue. Keep a dictionary and thesaurus by your side. Take a writing course. Learn the basics. If you’re serious about your writing this will be no hardship because you’ll be eager to learn the tools of the trade, the better to get your thoughts onto the page.
Beyond that, though, there is only so far you can go by yourself. Questions of clarity, flow, plot, characterization, need a second pair of eyes because you’re too close to be objective. The one thing you can never do is read your work with fresh eyes.
If you’ve read and re-read it, if you’ve combed out as many of the technical nits as you can, and you’re now going round and round in circles tweaking a word here, a thought there, then the work is probably as ready as it’s going to get.
It’s time to submit it.
But there is also an emotional dimension to this question of readiness.
I first started writing late in life. I don’t know what possessed me to think I could write a novel, but I had a scene in my head that I just had to get down on paper.
So I started writing.
I had not written anything creative since English classes at school three decades previously. What the heck was I thinking?
I struggled to put words down because, even though this was a private activity, I couldn’t dispel the notion that someone was gazing over my shoulder sniggering at my pitiful attempts.
But I stuck at it. A scene became a chapter, then two. By the time I passed fifty thousand words I was a lot more comfortable with the writing part of it, but one question bugged me. Was it any good? Was I producing something that anyone else would want to read, or was I wasting my time?
I turned to the Internet, did some research, and learned about online critique groups. This was clearly the way to go. The thing is, did I really want to know? I could carry on as I was doing, clinging to the daydream of fame and riches, or I could wake up from the Matrix and enter the real world.
I decided I really did need to know. I joined a group and lurked for a while, seeing what was going on. I came to a startling realization: people were posting work that was a lot less ready than mine.
I plucked up the courage—and it does take courage—and joined in the fray. I discovered that there were positive aspects about my writing. Yes, there was a vast amount of improvement to make, but there was hope.
Tip: If you’re worried about how people might react to your writing, if you’ve got nothing other than published works on the shelf to use as a benchmark, try joining an online group and see what other people are putting up. You will see people at all stages. You’ll see that you’re not alone. These people are trying to improve, just like you.
The simple answer is, your writing doesn’t have to be any good at all for you to get useful critiques. Take it as far as you can on your own, get it as technically clean as you can out of respect for your critiquers’ time, then put it out there and learn what you can do to improve.
Rinse and repeat.
Writing, critiquing, and editing is a cycle. It’s iterative. Each round takes you closer to your goal of having something you can be proud to publish.
When you hold back because you fear your writing isn’t good enough, the unspoken question lurking at the back of all this angst, the one you really need to tackle head on, is—are you ready to be critiqued?
Only you can answer that.
I’m not ready because I haven’t finished my novel yet
This obstacle is a lot easier to knock down.
Do you need to have completed a full work before you start getting critiques? No! Not even nearly.
How much do you need finished? Well, look at the group you are working with and see how big a typical submission is. If, for example, submissions are on average four or five thousand words at a time, then that is all you need to have written.
One of the biggest lessons I learned from my first (unfinished) novel was that I needed more conflict and tension to make things interesting. My writing was in ‘flowers and fluffy unicorns’ territory where nothing bad ever happened and everyone was always nice to each other. I needed to kick myself out of that comfortable world and bring on the action.
I tried to envisage how to achieve that with the story I was writing, went round in circles, and got frustrated.
Eventually I snapped. Action? I’ll give you action! A scene sprang into my mind of a crashing starship, and Ghosts of Innocence was born. I dashed off two chapters, tidied them up, and submitted them.
That was all I had.
I had no idea where the story was going from there, or where it was going to end. Nothing beyond those first two chapters.
But I submitted it anyway. Why? To see if I had a gripping opening, and the start of something that people would want to read on. It was a proof of concept.
That is perfectly okay. Critique groups usually work in small snippets anyway, and people just critique the segment you put in front of them. They don’t need to know that the rest is yet to be written. It doesn’t matter.
You do not need to have your complete magnum opus written before you start getting feedback. In fact, it’s often a good idea to test the waters with sample chapters first, and incorporate what you your learn into the rest.
Conclusions regarding readiness
If you’re holding back because you think you’re not ready, the chances are you’re procrastinating needlessly, afraid to take the leap.
The truth is, you will never feel ready.
Choose a piece that you want feedback on, get it as technically clean as you can, steel yourself to face the truth, whatever that may turn out to be, and take the plunge.
I’m afraid of what I’ll hear
Often, we have a story that we’ve kept to ourselves up to now. We’ve developed it and nurtured it. We’ve gone as far as we can on our own and we know it. It’s ready for the next step. We know what we need to do. We know why we need to do it. But one little thing holds us back.
Fear of ridicule, and—most damaging—fear of hearing something we don’t want to hear, of having that bubble pricked, the daydream shattered.
Often, this fear is really behind the other excuses such as readiness. Deep down, you know you’re ready, but you’re afraid.
Fear of ridicule
Earlier, I talked about comparing your unedited work with published stories out on bookstore shelves. That is not a meaningful comparison, because the work is at different stages of the publication assembly line. But inexperienced writers often know no different, and published material is the only thing they have as a reference point, so it’s an easy trap to fall into.
Similarly, when you think about the possibility of ridicule, you are probably thinking of spiteful book reviews heaping scorn on the hapless author. If you base your expectations on reviews you’ve read, then you will naturally be afraid. But this is another meaningless comparison.
A review is not the same thing as a critique. They are written about different things, for different audiences, for different purposes. Writers new to the idea of critiquing easily get the two confused, especially if they’ve never seen a proper critique. On the other hand, most people have seen reviews and are well aware of how brutal and scathing they can be. “Why would I put myself through that?” you ask yourself. “How does that help me improve my writing?”
Well, a review is a person’s opinion of a published work. The reviewer has a right to expect the work to be the best the author can manage, and if it falls short then the reviewer is under no obligation to be kind. A review focuses on what the reviewer liked or didn’t like. It does not suggest improvements.
A critique, on the other hand, is a person’s opinion of a work in progress, and is intended to be helpful. It will certainly cover what the critiquer liked or didn’t like, but it should go further and analyze the reaction and suggest solutions. It is meant to be constructive.
A review is written for the benefit of other readers. A critique is written for the benefit of the author.
Ridicule has no place in the critiquing process, and well-moderated sites will enforce this. Moreover, critiques are often given by other writers, your peers, who are sensitive to the anxiety you are feeling. In my experience, the writing world is incredibly supportive.
That doesn’t mean a blunt critique won’t be painful to receive. It often is. But there is a whole section in this guide with tips to deal with the pain. The purpose of this booklet is to give you some tools to arm yourself for dealing with critiques, and to give you the confidence to move forwards.
Fear of the message
This is more subtle than straightforward fear of ridicule, and is probably the most insidious fear to confront.
We all want to be successful, so much so that any kind of failure is viewed with dread. When we write, we want our writing to be enjoyed and appreciated by other people. But until we show our writing to other people, we just don’t know how it will be received. It might be good, but it might not be. This latter possibility is unnerving.
When you submit a story for critiquing in a serious forum, you will get (mostly) honest feedback. That is the whole point, but it is also a source of fear. Imagine going to the doctor with some worrying symptoms. You want to be told it’s nothing serious, that it’s okay, that it’s treatable. But what if it isn’t? Do you want the truth? Or do you just want reassurance?
In writing, you need to be honest with yourself about what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for validation, for people to say how marvelous you are, and that you’ve got a bestseller on your hands with no need for improvement, then you are not looking for a critique.
If you are not looking for a serious and honest critique, then this book is not for you.
Maybe you’re that one-in-a-million whose raw and unedited talent will be instantly recognized. If so, what are you waiting for? Go! Get snapped up by a big publisher. Fame and fortune await.
If not, then I suggest you go and ponder how serious you are about this writing gig, and exactly what you want to get out of it. What are your goals? Think about that, and come back when you are ready to move on. Maybe you want to keep your writing private, or limited to a small circle of friends. That’s okay. Writing for your own pleasure is a perfectly respectable goal.
But if you are aiming for publication then consider this: when your work is out there for the world to see, people can and will give their opinions. In other words, the message you are shying away from now will come at you whether you want it or not. If that is the message you’re afraid of, wouldn’t it be better to hear it amongst peers, in a constructive environment, where you get the chance to deal with the issues and improve your writing before it hits the streets?
Dealing with the pain
Sage was startled to find his good friend, Ernest, huddled at one end of his perch with his back to the room, banging his head against the wall.
“What’s wrong, my unhappy friend?”
“Why did I ever listen to you?” Ernest wailed.
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Look at this.” With one bedraggled wing he pointed to a heap of crumpled, tear-stained papers. “That’s what they think of my novel. They hate it!”
Sage blinked and picked up the nearest sheet. Being careful not to tear the damp paper, he spread it out to read. “Ah, you’ve got some critiques on your novel.”
Ernest wiped a tear from his eye and nodded.
“Hoo-hoooo,” Sage said. “I see lots of comments. Lots of very constructive ideas here. Why so unhappy?”
“But I thought my writing was so-o-o good,” Ernest sobbed.
“But it is!”
“Then why are they all picking holes in it?”
“Why, Ernest,” said Sage, “don’t you see this is a good thing?” He fluttered up to the back of the couch and settled his feathers into position. “There is a world of difference between a draft”—he waved the page in the air—“and being ready for publication. You’ve done the first part, but you can’t do the second without help. This is exactly what you need to get you there.”
“But they’re tearing it apart. It’s no use, they hate it.”
“Not so, my insecure young friend.” Sage picked up another handful of papers. “Look at this one for example. There are more words of critique here than there are of story. Critiquing takes time and effort. Nobody spends this much time giving advice on something they see no value in.”
“But I thought critique groups were supposed to be supportive,” Ernest said between tearful gulps. “Writing isn’t supposed to feel like this.”
“I wonder,” said Sage, “exactly what do you imagine when you talk about ‘being supportive’?”
“Well …” Ernest shuffled uncomfortably from one end of his perch to the other. “Maybe they’d say nice things? Encouraging things?”
“Like dear old Aunt Agatha?” said Sage. “Gushing over your early drafts like they came from the Muse herself?”
“I … I guess so.”
“It felt good, didn’t it? Gave you the encouragement to keep going. But did it help you improve?”
Eloquent silence answered him.
Sage sighed. “All writers have to face this sooner or later. You put a lot of effort—a lot of yourself—into your work. So when someone suggests it’s anything less than perfect, it feels like a personal attack. For example, when someone says”—Sage squinted at a page—“they don’t understand what you’re saying here, it feels like they’re saying they don’t understand you.”
“Well, in a way, but what it really means is that what you thought was clearly explained isn’t as clear as you hoped. It’s a comment about that sentence, not a judgment about you. This is a heaven-sent opportunity to fix things before you publish.”
“What about here then? One person says they like it, this other one hates it.”
“Aah, yes. Conflicting advice.”
“And here,” Ernest said, “this reader’s confused about something I explained quite clearly in chapter three. And”—Ernest’s eyes took on a manic glint—“if I follow this advice I’d have to go right through the whole novel changing my main character from an elderly gentleman to a snarky mid-twenties black-lipstick-wearing goth.”
“Hmm, that is an idea, though.”
“I hate to admit it.” Ernest slumped against the wall. “It’s actually quite clever. But so much work! I don’t know where to start. All this is so overwhelming. I feel like I’m going mad.”
“What you’re feeling is perfectly normal.” Sage chuckled. “You’re not going mad. But before you try and make any sense of all this, I can see you need something to help with the pain.”
“A triple shot of tequila?”
“I was thinking more along the lines of a dose of techniques to ready yourself to deal with critiques in an objective and businesslike manner. I like to think of them as analgesics for the soul.”
Mental analgesics – mental acrobatics
Receiving a thorough, detailed, and honest critique on your baby is a painful experience. This catches many writers by surprise and the temptation is to doubt your own worth. The first step on the road to recovery, and onwards to getting value from the critiquing experience, is simple acknowledgment.
Understand that this feeling is perfectly normal.
It’s not a sign that you’ve done anything wrong.
It’s not a sign that the critiquer has done anything wrong.
Although there are definitely things a good critiquer can do to lessen the pain, the purpose of this book is to deal with any critique, however badly worded. It’s okay. Pain is normal. Breathe!
Well, that may have helped you feel better about the fact that you’re in pain, but it doesn’t do much for the pain itself. A harsh critique still hurts, dangit. More to the point, as long as reading a critique makes you feel like someone’s poking hot skewers through your navel, you’ll have a hard time picking out any useful advice it contains.
The following collection of techniques, mostly mental gymnastics, can help dull the pain. This is not a process where you start at point A and finish at point B, it is a collection of tools that you can try until you find something that works for you. Sometimes, a small adjustment in perspective is all that’s needed. Sometimes, you’ll need to try several in combination before you can move on to dealing with the critique itself.
Distance – a great healer
This is the go-to staple in my mental medicine cupboard.
When you get a particularly cutting critique, read it but don’t try to respond. Accept the emotion, but don’t try to do anything with the critique just yet. Let it sit a few days (or weeks, or months … whatever it takes) before coming back to it. You will often re-read with a clearer mind and be more able to decide what to pay attention to.
It’s meant to help – a valuable lifeline
Critiquing is all about making your story better. It’s meant to help. No matter how harsh the comments, no matter how offensively they may be delivered, the purpose is to help.
Remind yourself often of this fact. Keep it in mind. Cling to it, even when the critiquer seems to be hell-bent on trashing everything you have to say.
Even when the critiquer has made it perfectly clear that they are not, in fact, interested in helping but only in showing you how much your writing sucks, they are helping nonetheless.
It just may not feel like it at the time.
It’s not personal
This reminder really gets to the heart of why critiques feel so painful. They feel personal.
A critique is only about the writing, it’s never about you.
A good critiquer will make that clear. They’ll phrase comments along the lines of: “This description doesn’t work for me” or “I got confused about the sequence of actions here” or “I don’t believe the character would react that way.”
Not everyone is a good critiquer. Not everyone couches comments in terms of the writing. Not everyone phrases things diplomatically. But when they say “Your writing sucks” or “You suck as a writer” all they are really saying is “This specific example of writing sucks … in my humble and inexpert opinion.”
Remember, they don’t know you. All they have to critique are the words on the page in front of them. They don’t have access to the person behind the words so they can’t possibly be talking about you. Even when they make comments directly about you as a person, it’s still not about you.
Caveat: If the critiquer is actually known to you personally, if they are that high school bully who snarked and sniped at you at every opportunity, then maybe it really is about you. In this case, the answer is easy. If the critique is truly not about your words then it’s no use to you as a critique, so toss it.
It’s one person’s opinion
Another key reminder, but this one needs to be treated with caution.
When you get a critique, the critiquer has voiced an opinion on your work. That doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t mean everyone will share that opinion. Their opinion only counts as much as you choose to let it.
Now, this is great from a dealing-with-the-pain perspective. It’s good to remind yourself that a stinging critique has no intrinsic power over you. You can choose to take it or leave it.
The caution is to beware of simply ignoring every comment that hurts, or even that you just disagree with. Too far down that path, and you end up rejecting valuable advice and you negate the whole point of the critiquing process.
As an analgesic, all you need do is keep in mind that you have the power, the final say in what happens to that advice.
Alter the language
This is a more active technique to handle an especially badly-worded critique: rewrite it!
There is nothing stopping you from editing the critique in any way you like. Remove everything that’s purely abusive. Remove personal references, alter the language to refer to the words rather than to you. Replace “Thou shalt” imperatives with gentler wording: “I think it would be better to …”
In doing this, you can lay bare the meat of whatever the critiquer was trying to say in neutral and objective terms, then get on with the job of deciding what to do about it.
This is probably best coupled with some distance. Give yourself time to calm down before tackling the rewording, then give yourself more time before coming back to the edited version.
Alter your perspective
Picture the following scenario: You pull into the parking lot of a local shopping mall. A cloud of dust obscures the clear sky, rising from the remains of the entrance. People are milling around, some with bloodstained clothing. It looks like the roof has collapsed. From the rising chorus of pain and panic around you, it looks like this has only just happened scant minutes before you pulled in off the street. Brick dust coats your tongue. In the distance, sirens wail faintly, but getting closer …
You were going there to meet a friend for coffee before hitting the shops.
You were running late.
You know your friend is always punctual …
How do you feel right now? Not the ‘you’ in your imagination, I’m talking about the real ‘you’ sitting there reading this.
Maybe anxious? Confused? Guilty? You likely feel a very real echo of whatever you imagine you would feel in that situation.
Okay, let’s change things. Picture the same scenario, the cloud of dust, the destruction, the people milling around, except this time you are a journalist. You’ve made a small name for yourself in the local media and recently started work for a larger network. You realize you are probably the first journalist on the scene of an unfolding drama.
Now how do you feel?
Or, switch it up again. Same scenario, but now you’re an off-duty paramedic, realizing that people out there are hurt. Your colleagues are on their way but meanwhile you are on the scene and could make the difference between someone living, or dying.
Each shift in perspective shows you the same scene through a new lens. With it, comes a new set of feelings as you view the scene.
That is the power of storytelling.
You are a storyteller.
So, now look at that painful critique, dripping with red ink all over your priceless manuscript. What perspective will help you deal with it? The victim of a brutal and unwarranted attack? Or the professional sifting through a scene of carnage looking for something to salvage?
As you sit down to read a critique, you have the power to set your own perspective, your own mental approach to the work in hand. Tell yourself a story. Position yourself as someone who can cope, who routinely laughs off insults, who is ready to rise to the challenge. Then go kick some critiquing butt!
Another trick of perspective
The previous technique altered how you view yourself. But how do you view the person who gave the critique?
If you see them as an adversary, you’ll have a much more jaundiced view of their words than if you view them as an ally.
Again, it doesn’t matter who they are, or what their motivation really is. What matters is how you choose to view them. This is another perspective you can consciously alter before you dive into the work.
One more perspective trick
As well as your view of yourself and your critiquer, you can choose to adjust your view of the work under discussion. Pretend the writing being critiqued is someone else’s. Read it as though you were eavesdropping on someone else’s discomfort.
A common theme
All these techniques can be summed up in one word: objectivity.
Critiques are inherently painful to read because they strike at the heart of our writing, like they strike at us personally. This makes it hard to be objective about what needs to be done.
Some people can simply flip a mental switch and choose to be objective. Sometimes, though, we need to trick ourselves into achieving objectivity, which is where this little toolkit comes in.
And finally …
Have you ever looked forward to a birthday, or Christmas, fully expecting that one special gift … which then didn’t materialize? How disappointed did you feel? How crushed? No matter what else was good about that day, the one overriding memory is of that thing you didn’t get. It hurt.
When you submitted your chapters for critiquing, what did you expect to hear? The chances are you had daydreams of gushing praise with maybe just one or two teensy little things to set straight.
Go on, be honest. It’s only natural, especially when you’re new to this critiquing lark and haven’t yet had the stuffing knocked out of you.
It’s natural, but it’s setting you up for disappointment.
You can go a long way towards neutralizing the pain of critiques before it even happens if you set yourself realistic expectations at the outset.
Shatter your own delusions before you start. You’ve done your best, but you know your work is not perfect, otherwise you’d already have published it and be making a fortune. That’s why you wanted critiques in the first place.
No matter how thoroughly you’ve reviewed your own work, you are too close to it to be objective. Others will have different perspectives—they won’t see it how you see it, and that’s a good thing! They don’t have the same investment in the work, or the rose tinted spectacles. Again, this is exactly why you wanted critiques. You want those other perspectives, so why feel hurt by them?
Treat this writing adventure as a business. Getting critical feedback is something you have to go through. Expect your work to be ripped apart. That’s just a part of the process, so treat it with the same cold detachment as filing your taxes.
Go into the process expecting the worst. Expect criticism. Expect harsh comments. They will be there, but the upside is you are on the road to making your story shine.
Developing a process
“Ah, Ernest.” Sage looked up from the ‘Letters’ section of the Little Twittering Daily Hoot. “You wanted to see … me … Here, let me help you with that.”
Ernest Hummingbird was entirely invisible behind swaying towers of paper. The only hint of his presence was an agitated humming and a breathless panting as he maneuvered a wheelbarrow with its tottering load through the door to Sage’s study.
Sage hurried from his perch and steadied the nearest heap before it could collapse.
“Thanks,” Ernest puffed.
Sage clicked his beak thoughtfully, and settled back at his desk. He picked up a blackened briar pipe and began to fill it. “So, I sense that you’ve successfully overcome the pain barrier and that you’re ready to tackle your critiques objectively.”
“Good. Well done. That was no easy step, you know. So how can I help you?”
Ernest fluttered to the top of the heap. “I think you can see my problem. How do I even begin to deal with all this?” He gestured with a weary flick of his wing.
Sage glanced up at the unsteady pile and surreptitiously slid a fragile Tiffany desk lamp out of harm’s way. “Yes, it can be a bit overwhelming.”
“A bit? I don’t know where to start.” Ernest sighed. “I thought I could just work my way through from start to finish, but I keep getting lost.”
“You need to develop a process.”
“A process. A method for taking in all this, and breaking it down into manageable pieces of information that you can use to improve your story.”
“I knew you’d have an answer. How does that work?”
Sage puffed on his pipe. “Imagine you are making a car. You have a big pile of car parts lying on the ground. If you reach into the pile, grab the nearest parts and start bolting them together, how well do you think you’d do?”
Ernest grimaced. “Rather poorly, I suspect. Even I know you probably want to start off with the chassis, and work on up from there.”
“Right. And a proper car factory has assembly lines that bring the right parts together in the right order, and with all the right tools on hand to deal with them. If you think of all the lines of comments in these critiques as your car parts, you need an assembly line to work on them in the right order.”
Ernest cocked his head to one side, his beak agape with rapt attention. When Sage didn’t elaborate, he gave an impatient tweet. “Well?”
Sage puffed again. A perfect smoke ring drifted towards the ceiling. “You want me to tell you how to process these critiques, don’t you?”
Ernest nodded, eyes glinting.
Sage shook his head. “This, my eager young friend, is something you will have to figure out for yourself.”
“But … but you have an answer for everything, why can’t you just tell me what to do?”
“It’s not as easy as that.” Another smoke ring circled through the air. “When you sit down to write, do you start off with plots and outlines?”
Sage chuckled. “And yet some writers swear by plotting, while others, like you, swear it constrains their creativity. So who’s right?” Ernest opened his beak to answer, but Sage hurried on. “Get ten writers in a room and there will be at least eleven different writing processes in use. And they are all right. The only thing that matters is to find a process that works for you.”
Ernest closed his beak with a snap.
“It’s the same with processing critiques. Everyone approaches it differently, and what works for one won’t necessarily work for someone else. So, I won’t attempt to prescribe a ‘right’ process for critiques.”
Ernest’s wingtips drooped.
“In fact, I’ll go further and caution you that lots of people will have advice, and they will insist that theirs is the one and only best way to do this. In reality, all they know is what works for them.”
“So, I’m on my own then?”
“Not at all.” Sage smiled. “I will suggest some techniques that you might find helpful. Just remember, any particular technique may work for you too, or it may not. It’s up to you to make up your own mind.”
Classify the comments
Critique comments come in all shapes and sizes and you often need different techniques, different approaches, to handle different kinds of comments. The trouble is in a typical critique these comments come at you all mixed up.
If you’re going to tease them apart and deal with them appropriately, it helps to recognize and classify them.
There’s a few ways I find it helpful to sort comments. These methods work well for me. You may find others that work better for you.
Classify by type of comment
If a critiquer is confused about a physical or setting description, how I go about fixing it is very different from fixing problems with, say, plot holes or character development.
My mental preparation is different, so I typically handle these types of comments separately: technical issues like typos, grammar errors and clunky wording; clarity issues around descriptions and conveying concepts; atmospheric issues, such as too much or too little description; consistency issues like timelines, cause and effect, plot holes and continuity errors; developmental issues around plot and character, action, tension, sub-plots and making the story interesting.
In practice, I don’t go as far as labeling comments with their types, but I do pay attention to things I can comfortably do together in one sweep of the document, and things best set aside and done separately.
Classify by scale of impact
Another obvious dimension to consider is scale of impact. Is it a minor tweak, a word change, or simple rewording of a sentence or paragraph? Is it going to involve reworking an entire scene or chapter? Or is it a global comment, something that permeates the whole novel?
Working on changes at different scales requires different approaches and levels of focus. I am comfortable making small changes there and then. For more significant reworking I need to bring in techniques to keep track of what’s going on.
Caution: A simple single word change can have effects far beyond the immediately obvious. Maybe you swapped one word that you realize you overuse, and picked another overused word in its place. A subtle problem I encounter is the use of proper names and pronouns. Pronouns help move the prose along, but you need to drop names in from time to time. It’s a delicate balance. What seems like a simple local change can upset the balance for many paragraphs before and after. After even the simplest change, I find it essential to re-read the whole scene to ensure the balance and flow is maintained.
Classify by ease of correction
Some issues, like obvious typos, are easy to correct. Some changes, such as a persistent misspelling or incorrect punctuation throughout the manuscript, are wide in scope but the correction is still a fairly mechanical search-and-replace.
Some issues, however, need more thought. For example, if a critiquer has exposed a glaring plot hole that needs reordering the events in the story, how you manage this will depend on your writing process. If you are a strong plotter, you’ll likely start off from the outline you already have. If you pantsed the story, maybe you can wing it, or you might need to create the outline in order to sort out the mess. Switching the order of a set of events can be mechanically easy, but can give rise to a host of knock-on consistency and continuity issues to sort out.
However you go about it, having an understanding of the difficulty of making a given correction will help in choosing how and when to deal with it.
Harking back to the factory floor analogy, in the same way that you have different machine tools to handle small versus large jobs, you’ll likely want to develop a range of techniques to handle revisions of different magnitudes.
Edit in situ
Good for handling small tweaks from single word edits up to reworking a small paragraph. Simply bring up the manuscript and make the change then and there.
Create white space
If I need to rewrite something more than I can easily keep track of in my head, I find it helpful to create some white space in the document around the section I’m working on. Three or four blank lines before and after helps to isolate the section, a bit like taking a part out of an engine and bringing it onto a workbench.
I sometimes find it helpful to print the chapter out, maybe double-spaced, and mark up changes before going back and editing the electronic document.
Sometimes the change needed is too complex to do comfortably by editing the words already there, and it’s more effective to make a fresh start. For small sections, you might do this directly in the existing document (e.g. create some white space, draft your replacement text, delete the old text). For bigger revisions, you might start completely afresh in a new document. In either case, I recommend completing your redraft before deleting anything.
Some people go as far as to treat their first draft in its entirety as a throwaway, with the intention of rewriting the whole thing on their second go around.
Applying critical feedback in layers is useful to avoid getting overloaded and confused. When you’re carrying out house renovations, you don’t decorate until the electricians, plumbers and carpenters have finished making a mess of the house. Similarly in writing, you might find it best to deal with issues of plot structure before adding in the descriptive touches you know are needed to bring the scene to life.
One of the dangers in a complex set of edits is losing track of where you are. What have you edited? What is left to do? More damaging, have you omitted something, or left duplicated text in place while shunting things around?
Here are some techniques for keeping track of where you are.
Use your word processor’s capabilities
While a finished manuscript will typically have minimal special formatting, there’s no reason not to make full use of your word processor’s capability if it helps during the editing process.
Set up a construction zone
On any given pass through a document, as well as creating white space around the section I’m working on I like to set up something akin to a ‘construction zone’ banner (I happen to use a row of ‘V’s with a bright yellow background). This shows me where the active coal face is. Everything above that has been dealt with, for this pass at least. Everything after is still to be edited. When I’m happy with a scene, I cut and paste the banner down to the start of the next scene. As well as keeping place, it’s a good psychological boost to put a scene behind the barrier.
When rewriting a chunk of text, I like to leave the old text in place for easy reference, but I color it so it stands out. That not only makes it easy to refer to while I’m drafting its replacement, but also makes it easy to remember to delete it when I’m done.
Taking this technique further, the rewritten portion usually has to do some equivalent work that the old text did, and there may be key phrases or ideas that I need to incorporate into the revised version. These can be highlighted, then changed to some neutral color like grey when they’ve been included. This ensures nothing gets either missed or duplicated.
At a macro level, I happen to keep my manuscript split out into a dozen or so separate documents, each a more manageable size than keeping everything in a single three-hundred-page document. I also work with a critique group that works in chapter-sized chunks, so I might end up with dozens of separate critique documents. That gives me a new issue of keeping track of which documents I’ve dealt with and which are still to be done.
Maybe you use writing tools that help you keep track of all the parts of your work, but if you, like me, are dealing with bare basics then the onus is on you to organize yourself. Here are just a few suggestions to spark some ideas that you can develop into something workable for you.
Use of folders
An obvious technique is to create separate folders for documents at different stages of the production line, for example: “Done”, “In progress”, and “Pending”.
If, like me, you’re not keen on having too many layers of folders, document naming conventions can achieve the same end result within a single folder. This involves tacking a prefix or suffix onto the document name to denote its status. For example, add an “X” to completed documents, or “W” to documents still to be worked on. There are endless variations on this technique.
Regardless of what tools you use to draft your work, it’s always good practice to take a complete backup copy of your manuscript before embarking on a major revision.
Editing is often about cutting away the excess, trimming the fat. That vivid description that you reluctantly cut because it just slowed the pace too much at that point of the story, it would be a shame to lose it forever but it has no home in your manuscript right now. If you’re nervous about cutting it in case you find a need for it some time in the future, try pasting it into a separate ‘Dustbin’ or ‘Cutting floor’ document. It’s no longer in the way, but it’s not lost. You can now cut, free from fear.
Initial impressions and summaries
Even with an awareness of different kinds of critique comments, of scales of impact and difficulty, with an array of decision-making tools at your disposal (to be discussed in the next chapter) and a well-organized computer workspace, simply reading a critique can still be overwhelming. Here are some tips to help manage the flood.
Try reading the critique through without making any attempt to fix anything just yet. For now, focus on what the critique is telling you. Get an overall sense of the message. Is it largely positive or negative? Primarily minor nits, or are there major issues surfacing? Are there any dominant themes emerging, maybe themes you’ve already seen in earlier parts of the story or in other people’s critiques? Try summarizing your overall impressions in a few sentences, then you can start to think about which tools to deploy out of your toolkit.
Often, a critique will contain a lot of individual comments that are really all pointing to one common underlying theme. For example, I’m very sparing with dialogue tags but in scenes with more than two people this can lead to confusion. A set of critiques might come back with many ‘Who said this?’ comments. The trouble is, tags need to be balanced carefully through a section of dialogue, and adding one here might suggest the removal of another one further down. This makes this issue difficult to address comment by comment. Instead, I make a summary note to work through the whole scene paying special attention to the identification of speakers.
The advantage of summarizing comments like this is that you can choose a more measured response than knee-jerk reactions to piecemeal comments.
If you’re getting several critiques, it’s often a good idea to deal with them collectively. There may be disagreements or alternatives to consider, and several people may reinforce key themes. Try bringing them all together into one cohesive summary.
You might choose to keep a separate document with your summary notes, which you can check off once you’re satisfied that you’ve worked through that particular aspect. This approach lends itself to changes that will affect widespread parts of the story. For example, if you decide to strengthen a character trait in chapter three, you may already be thinking ahead to situations in later chapters where this trait should emerge. You can make a note there and then that those edits need to be made. Nothing detailed, just the fact that it needs to be taken into account. You can then work out the details when you tackle those chapters.
On the other hand, localized notes that apply just to the scene or chapter could be dropped directly into the text for easy reference. In this case, it’s a good idea to highlight your notes in a different color so they don’t get missed, or (worse) left in by accident.
Make a plan
An initial read through will help you decide how to handle a critique. It’s useful to develop a range of strategies to handle different kinds of feedback. A critique that points up major and far-reaching flaws will call for different strategies than one that predominantly consists of minor technical nits. I mentioned this earlier in talking about classifying comments, but now it’s time to decide not only which tools to use in this particular instance, but also what order to use them in.
Once you’ve got an idea what the critiques are telling you, now’s the time to plan your attack. It may be as simple as ‘rewrite the darned scene’, or it may involve layers such as ‘fix out-of-character reactions, emphasize traits to deepen main character, clean up dialogue tags, fix typos.’
Having a plan will help you focus and not get overwhelmed by trying to keep track of a multitude of changes simultaneously.
Wrapping things up
A few final suggestions to build into your revision process.
Once you’ve finished editing a chapter, re-read the whole thing for overall flow and consistency. When you’re making a series of changes, it’s easy to disrupt the logical integrity of a section without realizing it.
Re-read the critiques you’ve been working from, to confirm you’ve addressed the comments you decided to act on (more of that in the next chapter) and haven’t missed anything important.
Finally, remember to update related documents such as character notes, outlines etc. that you want to keep in step with the story.
Filtering the feedback
Sage pushed through the crowded tables of Tim Bucks, his favorite coffee shop. He spied Ernest Hummingbird perched in a window seat sipping a double-sweetened caramel apple cider. “Ernest, my elusive friend, glad to see you’ve emerged from your hidey-hole at last. Glad to see you out and about, in fact. I’ve been worried about you.”
“It’s been a tough few weeks. I think I’m making progress but I need your advice.” Ernest had a determined glint in his eye, and a harder, more businesslike expression than Sage had seen before. “I’ve been doing everything you suggested. All that feedback on my writing was a shock, but I can see now why it was necessary. I’ve been running it through my mind and can be quite objective about it now.”
“I read every critique thoroughly. I sorted and classified the comments, cross-indexed them and assessed them for scope. I’ve set up a filing system and catalogued everything so I can keep track of where I’m up to, which comments I’ve dealt with and which are still to be done.”
Sage hopped up to the table. “Sounds … very thorough.”
“I laid out plans of attack. In theory, everything should have been smooth sailing from there”—Ernest gave Sage a calculating look—“but it seems to me that there’s still something you haven’t told me.”
“Well,” said Sage, “when you were just an egg, your dear Aunt Agatha confided—”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Oh! You mean about the critiquing process, don’t you?”
Ernest nodded, and took another sip.
“Well, why don’t you start by telling me how things have been going since all this excellent groundwork?”
“Badly. I’ve been going round in circles, writing and rewriting. Each time around seems to take me further and further from the heart of the story.”
“Well, you asked for feedback. You got feedback.”
“Indeed, but how can I possibly please all these readers?”
“That’s simple. You can’t.”
“Then I’m doomed!”
“Not so-hoo,” Sage hooted. “Tell me, Ernest, what is the purpose of getting a critique?”
Ernest cocked his head to one side. “To tell me what they think of my story?”
“Close, but think about why you want to hear that.”
“Umm … so I can put things right and turn it into something they will like?”
“That’s where you are going wrong! The purpose of critiquing is to make your writing stronger. It is not about pleasing your critiquers.”
“But if someone’s given me advice, why would I ignore it? Won’t they be upset?”
“They’ve ventured opinions and advice, yes, but whose story is it?”
“Exactly! So who has the last say in how your story reads? You, or the critiquer?”
“Well, me, but—”
“Or, to put it another way, when your story is published whose reputation is on the line?”
“Okay, when you put it like that it’s obvious. Mine!”
“So, it’s your story, and it’s up to you—and no-one else—which pieces of advice to use and which not to. More to the point, if you try to please everyone, you’ll end up pleasing no-one. If you try to act on all the comments you received you will kill your voice and your story.”
Ernest took a pensive sip of his drink. “Sounds to me like this whole critiquing thing just turned into a minefield.”
“Nobody said it would be easy. You have to choose—and choose carefully—which advice to follow, and which to set aside.”
“I sense another list of tips and techniques coming up, don’t I?”
Nuggets of gold
Most filtering works in one of two ways: identifying points you want to filter in, and those to filter out.
Let’s start with the positive—how to watch out for those nuggets of gold in the tidal wave of information.
The bleeding obvious
Sometimes the critiquer says something that you instantly recognize as obviously right. Maybe it’s as simple as a typo or grammatical slip, or a word choice that’s been bugging you all along. Maybe it’s a plot or character suggestion that resonates so strongly you just know it’s the right thing to do.
These are *facepalm* or *lightbulb* moments. They are no-brainers.
Sadly, they are also often trivial. It’s quite rare for anything deep and substantial to be so blindingly obvious, so cherish it when it happens.
The bad news is that once you’ve checked off the easy comments the ninety five percent remaining, by definition, are not easy. You now need to deploy more sensitive gold detectors.
If several readers make the same observation, that’s a good indicator of something to pay attention to. Just on the basis of probabilities, if (say) three out of five critiquers are having a problem with some aspect of your story, then a large percentage of your eventual readers are likely to have a similar problem. That’s worth knowing.
What to do about it, is another matter. Critiquers often—in fact good critiquers should—make suggestions for improvement, not just point out defects. That’s great. It gives you ideas for ways forward. But you are under no obligation to take any given piece of advice. The most valuable thing you’ve learned is that there is something amiss. You might come up with your own solution that fits better with your story.
One of the benefits of having several pairs of eyes on your work is that one person will often pick up what others miss. The trouble is, if only one person out of your critique group makes an observation, how much weight should you give it?
Here, you’re in uncertain territory. They may be a lone voice and nothing you need to worry about, or they might have hit on that one deep insight that no-one else saw, that will lift your story to new levels. How do you tell? There’s no formula for that. You have to hone your own judgment—more of that in the next chapter.
This is a common occurrence when you have several critiques on a piece of work. For example, in my opening chapter I once had three different people insist that three different paragraphs should be promoted to the start of the chapter. Each suggestion had its own merits.
If different critiquers are leading you in conflicting directions then it’s often a sign you’re in territory where there’s no clear right answer. This is bad news if you are looking for definite advice, because you’re on your own. The good news is, you’re on your own. If you aren’t doing anything clearly wrong, then you are free to carve your own path.
Rather than actual advice, comments that identify how the critiquer is reading and reacting to the story are pure gold.
These are comments where the reader simply says what’s running through their head at that point. A good critiquer will identify them clearly as running observations, but they aren’t always so clearly labeled and may simply come across as criticism. Either way they are worth looking at. Whether the reaction is what you wanted or not, it is a window into how your story is landing in someone else’s mind. That kind of feedback is priceless.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to do anything about it. The reaction may be exactly what you want, or it may be clear that the reader is too far removed from your target audience to give a worthwhile reaction, but discarding comments should be a reasoned choice on your part, not a knee-jerk reaction.
Similar, are comments that give you a new perspective on your work—I didn’t see it could be read like that! Again, a window into another world. If a reader mis-reads your words, you don’t get to beat them over the head and say, “That’s not what I meant, dummy!” All you have to play with are the words you choose to put on the page, and it’s useful to know if they are not conveying what you intended—whether you like it or not.
Treading the minefield
Sadly, along with the comments that cry out for close attention, there are also whole categories of feedback that you need to treat with utmost caution.
There is an important dynamic in the relationship between writer and critiquer or editor that newcomers (on both sides of the fence) often don’t understand. The writer often imagines that they are handing their work over to someone who will professionally polish it until it shines. In other words, they think they’ve handed over responsibility for finishing off the job. That is not so. Even with a professional editor, the onus remains entirely on the writer to decide which edits to accept and which to reject.
This is doubly true when you work with critique groups, because often you’re being advised by people who are no better informed than you are. The value they bring to the table is a fresh pair of eyes, but not necessarily expertise.
This is one of the downsides to many critique groups—they consist of writers helping other writers, so everyone has to take their turn at giving critiques regardless of their knowledge or qualifications. Incidentally, the upside of such groups (apart from a ready supply of fresh pairs of eyes) is that the act of giving critiques can be a tremendously valuable learning tool, It forces newcomers to greater levels of maturity faster than simply being on the receiving end of advice.
This makes the critiquing world a minefield of pitfalls. Here are some tips to help identify and quarantine some of the most obvious things to avoid.
The compulsive rules junkie
A.k.a. the grammar police, this is the critiquer who likes to wave the rule book at every opportunity. Some ‘rules’ seem to acquire inviolate tablet-of-stone status: no adverbs, no passive voice, no telling.
The rule book is often espoused most vigorously by other newcomers to the writing world who are, themselves, trying to find their feet.
I’m sorry, but adverbs and passive voice have their place, as does (gasp!) telling. If I see someone embarking on a relentless mission of adverb annihilation then I can see that actual critical thought—the point of a critique—has flown the nest.
More insidious than the blatant rules junkie is the ‘wrong rules junkie’—the critiquer who insists on some rule that simply isn’t true.
I once had someone tell me that every piece of dialogue absolutely had to start on a new line, even if it was in the middle of a paragraph that was exclusively focused on the speaker. He’d clearly misunderstood the rule (which itself isn’t actually a strict rule of grammar anyway) where someone new is speaking, but he was most insistent. He then went through my MS pointing out every single instance of my ‘error’. The trouble is, that was the sum total of his critique.
Not every example of inaccurate advice is so obvious. The onus is on you to double-check reliable references—preferably from multiple sources to verify consensus—before accepting any advice on grammar, spelling, or other conventions.
Just saying “this is boring” or “this sucks” is simply not helpful. If you make no effort to explain why something is not doing it for you, I’ll probably make no effort to listen.
Some advice amounts to little more than personal preference. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worthless—it is a genuine reaction from a reader, after all—but neither is it gospel.
Trying to rewrite your story
Personal taste taken to extreme can lead the critiquer to try to rewrite your entire story how they would have written it. Note, giving examples of possible solutions is good critiquing style, but there is a grey borderline between helpful illustrations and wholesale rewriting. This is far more dangerous. Write your own darned story and leave me to get on with mine!
Wrong audience/just doesn’t get it
Personal taste is especially dangerous if the critiquer is clearly far removed from your target audience. There’s no problem with someone critiquing outside their comfort zone, you can get a fresh perspective as well as general writing comments, but if they don’t ‘get’ the specific conventions of the genre then be wary. If this is a hard military sci-fi story, bleating endlessly about the technology or the lack of a mushy love triangle isn’t helpful.
Didn’t read the story
This is a strange thought—after all, why would someone critique something they haven’t read?—but it does crop up in a couple of guises.
First, if you’re working in a group that works on novels in short segments, maybe a chapter or two at a time, then someone may be offering a critique on a later chapter without having read the earlier chapters. That’s perfectly normal, but it does mean you need to filter any comments that might simply be a result of missing essential context.
A more subtle issue is if the critiquer has read—but not very carefully—and is commenting based on a misunderstanding. In this case, the comment itself is probably not useful, but you might want to go back to the part they mis-read and see if it needs to be clarified.
Wrong advice for your story
This is very hard to detect, and needs great confidence and judgment to stick to your guns. Sometimes none of the above is true, and the advice might even be good in its own way, just not right for you in this particular case.
It’s always good to be told nice things about your story. The trouble is that if the critiquer is overly complimentary then you probably aren’t getting any worthwhile advice. I am more inclined to pay attention to odd bits of praise if the critiquer has also shown no qualms about shredding the bits that needed shredding. Then I know it’s genuine, and not just empty cheerleading.
Incidentally, this is one gripe I have about in-person groups. Giving and receiving highly detailed comments needs a certain detachment that’s hard to achieve in a circle of people. These groups tend to be supportive, which isn’t a bad thing in itself—we all need support and encouragement after all. But if a group is little more than cheerleading then one thing you are not getting is a true critique.
In between the nuggets and the landmines there’s a whole grey no-man’s-land. Here is where the grunt work of revision lies, sifting through comments that are neither blindingly brilliant nor evidently inane. Here is where you’ll need to develop your own judgment. More on that in the next chapter, but first a couple of final thoughts …
Not all critique comments need be bad news. Not all are criticisms.
Sometimes, comments just make you think, maybe lead you to new ideas, new avenues to explore in your story. Those are exciting moments, where it feels like you’re working in partnership with your critiquer to develop an even better story.
And sometimes, you get to hear what people actually like. As long as you can trust this is genuine, and not the dutiful gushing of a doting relative, it’s invaluable to know what is working for that reader. These comments are pointing up things that you should think about preserving, rather than changing, through the revision process.
When you put up a story for feedback in a respectable writing forum, the good news is that you’ll get lots of impassioned feedback.
The bad news is—you’ll get lots of impassioned feedback, and you’ll have a hard time deciding what to do about it.
Once you’ve got past the initial pain and uncertainty that the critique process often brings, the hardest part of receiving critiques is developing your own judgment about what advice to accept, and what to set aside.
You’re the boss
Regardless of all the tips and techniques for sorting the wheat from the chaff, there is one fact that you need to engrave in granite and hang on the wall above your writing space, tattoo on the back of your hand, and scribe on a large sheet of paper in mirror writing and staple to your forehead so you see it every time you gaze in the mirror.
This is your manuscript!
Don’t ever forget it.
Regardless of all the critiquing, the end result is up to you.
Whose neck is on the line if you publish garbage? The critiquer’s? Or yours?
Yep. You guessed it!
This means what happens to your manuscript is your responsibility. The buck stops with you and you have the final say.
You’re the boss.
Okay, maybe I’m belaboring the point somewhat, but it’s an important point and one that is in equal measures liberating, daunting, and dangerous.
Don’t be bullied
Some folks will tell you that you have to kill adverbs, make the main character more likeable, cut the description, throw in a love interest, rewrite the whole chapter … You must, must, must follow their advice because otherwise your manuscript sucks and they know best because you asked them for their opinion, didn’t you?
Yes, you asked them their opinion, and what they gave you is exactly that—their opinion. Not law. Not inviolable edicts that you are bound to follow to the letter. They gave you an opinion, and it’s up to you to decide what to do with it.
No matter what the critiquer says, no matter how emphatic they are that you need to do things their way, remember—always—that you’re the boss. You are not obliged to pay any attention. They’ve given you their opinion, but they have no say in how you choose to use it. The next part is up to you.
This can be really hard to do, especially if you’re new to this lark and if the critiquer is a multi-published author. Yes, they may have valuable advice well worth following, but when you follow advice it should be because you see its worth and have chosen to follow it. If it turns out badly after all, remember—it was your call.
On the bright side, if you get an especially obnoxious critique, remember that you have the last laugh. Print it out and use it as toilet paper if it will make you feel better.
But don’t ignore genuine good advice
Here’s the flip side of that coin.
If you ignore advice just because it isn’t what you wanted to hear then there’s no point asking critiquers to waste their time on you, because you are not looking for an honest critique. Put this book down and come back to it when you’re ready for more than just cheerleading.
In order to use critiques to improve your manuscript, you’ll have to make conscious choices to accept advice that hurts like heck because that scene you were so proud of got universally canned, because it’s taking you in directions you never envisaged, because it’s going to involve you in a shedload of painstaking work …
But you accept it because, deep down, you realize it’s the right thing to do.
If that scene you so loved really isn’t working, then it isn’t working. Maybe it can be salvaged, but sometimes it just has to go, and that’s hard to do. It might help for you to keep it in a “cutting room” folder so it’s not actually lost. It may not be in the final manuscript, but why not post deleted scenes to your blog or website as added-value features to entertain your readers?
Maybe that new direction is exactly what your story needs to bring it to life. It may not be what you originally intended, but is it telling a better story?
And, yes, revising is a ton of work. That’s the ugly secret that fictional writers in movies and TV shows don’t ever talk about!
In the end, you have to exercise judgment and discretion and make hard choices about what advice to follow.
Easy to say. So hard to do well.
Working in online critique groups
Many of the tips in this booklet apply to any kind of critical feedback, whether from friends, other writers, or professional editors, but I really wrote this for the intimidating jungle of online critique groups.
This last chapter contains a few tips to help newcomers make their first forays into the undergrowth.
What to expect from a critique group
Variety! There are huge numbers of sites out there, and a corresponding variety in rules, cultures, and effectiveness. This means that generalizations about what to expect are largely meaningless. However, there are a few fairly common threads.
There are exceptions, but many groups are free to join. This is one thing that sets them apart from professional editing services. The cost is often measured in your own time. Be prepared to invest time helping others in order to get feedback yourself.
As a consequence, many groups consist of writers helping other writers. This means that the quality of advice you get may vary wildly, which makes it all the more important to develop your own judgment on what feedback to act on.
Many sites have some formal or informal conventions for writers to earn their place at the table, anything from free-for-all post your piece while everyone else does likewise, to rosters where each member gets a set turn in the spotlight, to systems of queues where you join the back of the line. Whatever the system, people who expect critiques while themselves giving nothing back to the group will quickly find themselves frozen out.
Many sites cater for specific genres, or have specialist queues or groups.
Sites may focus purely on critiquing, or they may offer discussion forums, groups, and other means of interacting with other writers.
How to find a critique group
Do a few Internet searches for things like “Critique groups”, or “Critique groups for writers”. These will throw up a list of leads, including groups themselves, plus blog posts and articles on critique groups that will expand greatly on everything I’ve said here.
The online world is vast and ever-changing, so seek out sites that work for you.
What to look out for
Sites often publish rules and FAQs as an introduction. Seek these out to get an idea of what the site is about and how it operates. You should be able to spend time exploring a site before making any commitment, so check out the kinds and quality of content and feedback.
Here are a few things to think about as you explore sites looking for a good fit.
Does the site have some member registration and login procedure, or are submissions openly visible to the Internet? If you’re worried about plagiarism or (a more likely concern) writing towards eventual publication, then look for sites where you have to enroll before you can see other writers’ work. Even if registration is free and easy, keeping work private to members prevents it from being considered ‘published’ by the publishing industry.
Does the site cater for your genre? It may look like a great, informative, and vibrant site, but if it deals exclusively with hard military sci-fi then your period romance might not get the attention it deserves.
Does the scheduling process work for you? There are likely to be limits on how big a piece you can post at a time. If you have a whole novel to submit, will you have to do it chapter by chapter or is there a mechanism to have the whole thing critiqued? Check out what others are doing. Is it mainly short stories or are there lots of novels in sight?
Does the critiquing commitment work for you? Some sites expect regular ongoing contributions just to keep your membership alive, some allow periods of quiet lurking. Your own lifestyle and schedule may constrain what you can commit to.
Check out the quality of writing being submitted, and critiques offered. Does it feel like a good fit for your work and for what you want to get out of it? Do critiques appear to be well-informed, helpful and constructive?
Is the site active, or does it resemble a digital graveyard of years-old posts with only a handful of die-hard ghosts still wandering its forums?
Whatever group you decide to take part in, go in with a businesslike attitude, deal with critiques objectively, process feedback methodically, sift through the comments and use your own judgment. Remember, when it comes to your work, you’re the boss.
These tools are meant to give you confidence to seek feedback and deal with whatever comes back and make it work for you.
And finally …
There is one thing you never, ever do with a critique. No matter how tempting it may be, never argue with the critiquer!
Depending on the forum etiquette, it may be okay to ask follow-up questions. It may be okay to clarify their position, or start a conversation about possible solutions. You need to find out about the ground rules and expectations of the forum you’re working in. But getting into an argument is a pointless waste of your time.
Remember the purpose of a critique is to help you improve your story. This is not a competition to see who’s right.
In fact, very often there is nothing wrong with what a critiquer says even if you vehemently disagree. They are expressing an opinion and they are entitled to it.
At one end of the scale, they may be expressing a subjective impression. This is how the story reads to them. That is a statement of fact, not something you can argue with. If they didn’t ‘get’ something, they didn’t ‘get’ it. End of story. There’s no use pointing out how stupid they are because you foreshadowed events in chapter three and laid everything out in chapter seven so everything should be clear when events unfold in chapter eight. If they missed your clues, it’s fruitless asking what that says about the critiquer. Instead, ask what it says about your story.
It’s worth cultivating the view that the critiquer is always right, even when they’re wrong. If a comment is blatantly, factually wrong, just make yourself a note that it’s wrong, and move on. This is not the time to get into heated argument over points of grammar. This is not about you versus them. It’s not a competition to see who’s right. From your end of the deal, the only purpose of the critique is to improve your writing, not the critiquer’s.
Of course, it is always good to double-check your facts too. I’ve been surprised from time to time with things I was sure were correct.
Ernest Hummingbird gazed hungrily at his revision schedule. Only three chapters to go.
He paused as his attention was drawn for a moment to the folder labeled ‘Draft 1’. He kept it in one corner of his desktop as a reminder of his younger, less experienced days.
He smiled a slow, predatory smile. One wingtip reached casually towards his keyboard. “C’mon, critters,” he murmured as he clicked the ‘Submit’ button. “Bring it on.”
About the author
I am a science fiction author who successfully avoided all forms of creative writing until rather late in life, when the writing bug finally caught me napping. In hindsight this should not have been a surprise; trained as a software developer, the switch from business requirement documents to speculative fiction was only a small step.
In my journey as a writer, I’ve learned to value the critiquing process as a forge to strengthen my writing. That process was (and still is) painful. Over the years, I’ve made full use of the tips and techniques presented in The Critique Survival Guide, and resolved to share it to help other writers on their own journeys.
I live in beautiful British Columbia with my wife, two children, and a steadily expanding menagerie of pets.
Other work by me
Science fiction, published 2014
Master assassin Shayla Carver has killed many times. That’s what assassins do, nothing to lose sleep over, but this mission is different … she’s never killed a whole planet before.
Science fiction, published 2015
The virtual world comes alive and reaches out into the real world with deadly results. University professor and devout technophobe, Charles Hawthorne, confronts technology full on to end the hidden threat to humanity.
Connect with me online
When you pen those magical words, â€œThe Endâ€, itâ€™s really only the first step on the road to publication. That first draft needs polishing, revising, editing, but you are too close to your work to do this alone. You need independent, thorough and honest feedback. The kind that digs deep into whatâ€™s working and whatâ€™s not. The kind that will ruthlessly expose cardboard characters and lackluster descriptions. The kind that will drive transit buses through your carefully-crafted plot. In other words, the kind that hurts. The trouble is that even amongst friends a detailed critique can be hard to take, but blunt and honest critiques are a necessary growth pain for any writer. Venturing into the anonymous jungle of online critique groups in search of tough love is both terrifying and exponentially rewarding. The Critique Survival Guide shares practical tips for surviving - and thriving on - the harshest of critiquing experiences.