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Monday, April 30, 2012

WSG 11: Making the Most of Critiques

Writer's Survival Guide 11: Making the Most of Critiques

If you've ever received a critique, you probably know the crazy emotions that churn up before you read the comments. Maybe you're holding an envelope with a returned contest entry, or you're staring at the e-mail titled here are your chapters. You brace yourself, wondering why a cyclone seems to be tearing through your gut, and you wipe your clammy hands down the sides of your jeans before opening the document.
Lilacs in Bloom
Photo by plainsartmuseum

If it's your first critique, you may be completely unprepared for the comments inside. You open the file, scan the document, and new emotions roar. Even if most of the feedback is positive, you can't help but be blinded by the negatives. 

Here's a sample of what might go through your head the first time you get a critique:

It needs work? What?? I thought I nailed it!
Craft issues? Too many -ing words? Passive voice? What are they talking about?
How can the pacing be too slow?
Head hopping? But my favorite author does it and she's on the NY Time's Bestseller list all the time.
What do they mean my character is unlikable?
What in the world is GMC?

Then, after you've let it sunk in for a while, you might have different thoughts:

I thought I was writing something really special, and it's not special at all.
It's just one person's opinion.
I might as well give up now. I'll never be a good writer.
I know I'm great. The judge/commenter doesn't get my writing.

A few days or weeks later, you might return to your work and realize:

Oh my goodness. She's totally right. How could I have missed that?
I need to study more writing craft books.
The rules aren't the same for aspiring authors and seasoned bestselling authors.
This book doesn't need to be scrapped. I need to rewrite some areas and revise again.

The difficulties don't end after that first critique either. The longer we write, the more we want to create better drafts. We don't want to hear there's a major problem with our book, because it makes us feel vulnerable.

I made mistakes early in my career that actually helped me receive feedback. For one, I queried my first three books and sent off the requested partials before I had a critique partner. The subsequent rejections softened my delusional heart so that I knew I needed honest feedback before I sent out more books.

I've always learned something from a critique. I've been part of different critique groups over the years, and I've opened the dreaded contest results. Now, when I get feedback from my critique partners, I have a system to apply their advice.

Making the Most of Critiques

**Remind yourself you want to be a great writer. Getting feedback will make your book better. You're not asking for feedback to hear "you're the best." You're asking for it to improve your writing.**

1. Read through every comment in the document. Do your best to remain neutral. Let the comments sink in.
2. If you're upset, walk away for a few hours or until you can be objective.
3. When you're ready to be objective, read through the comments again and ask yourself which ones resonate with you. Write down the overall issues you glean in the comments.
4. If the feedback is from a critique partner, e-mail (or call) them to thank them. If they didn't summarize their overall impressions, you might want to reiterate the problem points in the book to verify you're on the right track.
5. For a full manuscript with multiple critiques, I recommend creating a table of revision notes for the problems you decide to resolve. Go through your book and write the chapter, the problem, and your proposed fix. Repeat until you've made it through the whole book. When you're ready to work on the suggestions, check off the changes as you make them.

Try not to throw out an entire critique because you're upset. Sure, you don't have to take any advice you don't agree with, but that doesn't mean you can't learn something from the comments.

On the other hand, don't blindly take all advice as true. You need to go the extra step and be objective. If you don't agree with the feedback, don't take it.

Certain things will come up in critiques again and again. Pay attention to them. You can train yourself to avoid common problems if you're aware of your weak areas. But try not to fall into the trap of thinking you'll be able to achieve perfection. I struggle with repetition, and no matter what I do to clean my books up before I send them to my c.p.'s, new repeated words and phrases manage to appear! I laugh it off. That's what Find/Replace is for. :)

One thing many writers new to feedback do is rush through proposed changes. This isn't a race. I don't think it's possible to fix a major problem in three hours. Take your time. Don't be afraid to work through changes in a series of drafts.

Feedback is one of the most important things you can receive as a writer. Be gracious. Be patient. And be thankful you've been given one more tool to make your writing terrific.

Do you have a tips for receiving critiques?

Have a fabulous Monday!

47 comments:

  1. I like to have a HUGE vat of chocolate nearby. I tend to shovel that mess in as I see red. Not anger. Red track changes! ;) Great tips, Jill!

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    1. Chocolate and coffee cure a lot of critique woes! :)

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  2. Chocolate!!!! How could you have missed the part about consuming large amounts of chocolate? :D

    If there's something I'm not sure about, I go for a run (have to burn off all that chocolate). The solutions comes to me then. In the beginning, I'm like the little train that could. I start out with a lot of "I can't" until I get to the point when I realize I can.

    I don't rush to open the feedback. It takes me a day or two to build the courage up. My CP thinks I have amazing restraint. ROFL. It's because I'm a chicken.

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    1. Chocolate...duh! How DID I leave that out??

      I think your strategy is really smart. Walking outside churns ideas for me too! And hey, open those bad boys when you're ready! :)

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  3. I know that no matter how few the suggested changes are, or how gracious the critique is, I am still going to want to sob my heart out after seeing all the problems. So I allow myself that time to feel crushed before I jump in to start making changes - it's how I process. I read through all the suggestions, close the document, go do something completely different, and then come back in another day or so (I have sometimes managed to return in a few hours, but usually, it takes 1-2 days before I'm mentally and emotionally read), open it back up, and read through them again, this time more clinically. THEN I can start working on fixing things.

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    1. Receiving criticism is HARD! It is! But you handle it well--taking the time to let the thoughts simmer is a great idea. :)

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  4. Dealing with this right now...have multiple critiques (probably too many) to wade through. Great tips on the revision table. I think I'll do that!

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    1. Making a spreadsheet/outline/or table of changes helps me clarify what I want to change--not just what is suggested. I love it! It helps me a lot. :)

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    1. I had to rewrite this blog post again, I take no writing for granted, especially when I write from my own experience, and this is important, so I don't want a misspelling or poor word choice to cloud what I'm trying to say.

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    2. It took me ten years to start getting all this the way you break it down. I agree with what you're saying. It proves to be true for myself, but I do have some things I want to add.

      First, and for me the most important to tell others and myself regarding critiquing, is remembering the old truism, "Treat others as you wish to be treated."

      Some writers think the only way to critique someone is to focus on your shortcomings to the point where you feel like the world's biggest idiot for even the most minor mistakes, blind to the bigger picture, and the bigger picture in this context is finishing a draft of the manuscript, we shouldn't overlook that.

      Most of us already know, all too well our early drafts aren't (on average) ready for show time now, we just want a little help to see what's tripping readers up, and WHY, and ideas on how to fix it. That's why we critique each other.

      We can't chalk all feedback (However off the wall it sounds) to subjective preference, some things will bug a reader, no matter what the genre or age group, and it's important we learn to tell the difference when we become another writer's "Second eyes" for their manuscript.

      Some of my early experiences being critiqued were brutal, even if the reasoning behind the nitpicks were sound (I eventually did rectify most of them) the way it was delivered seriously did not make me want to "Face the virtual red ink" right away.

      Sometimes, when critiquing the writing of others, some writers think the only way to "Make the writing better" is to be brutal in their evaluation, as if we're so self-absorbed and arrogant, we won't hear the "truth" of their feedback any other way. Not true!

      Being too blunt does more harm than skirting around the issue.

      To be continued...

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    3. Some writers are "bulletproof" and work better with that intensity. I don't. I try to always keep in mind how I'd feel if I were told the truth in the harshest way imaginable, and everyone's definition of "harsh" will vary, just like anything involving taking a hard second look at yourself, and your progress(or lack thereof).

      As people often told me when I (unintentionally) bit their heads off when critiquing got ugly, "Express the negative without being negative."

      So here's my hard-earned advice, "Remember the courage it took for the writer who you're critiquing to share their words with you, and that being as clear as humanly possible about major changes you suggest/demonstrate, goes a long way to avoiding unintended sniping from either side."

      Often people take critiques hard because the critiquer didn't give clear enough reasoning as to why what they advise may work better, or why it's convention, and when it might be better to rail against it.

      The approach will change on a book-by-book basis.

      But out of respect for subjectivity, and to avoid unintended confusion, we need to avoid "Because I said so" type answers as much as we can.

      Jill, in response to what you said above-

      "The rules aren't the same for aspiring authors and seasoned bestselling authors."

      By the same token, you have to also be willing to trust your own judgment, even if it's not the "tried and true" standard issue.

      Sometimes our story demands deviating from normal conventions, and maybe once we fix the non-subjective problems, especially the ones that involve losing credibility with the reader, the unconventional things we do will start working for the way we told our story, as opposed to working against it.

      That's been my experience, anyway. How about you?

      I really believe how you deliver advice has just as much bearing on the critiquer as how the ones being critiqued react, and eventually apply said criticism, especially if you're in a writer's group, it's something you are best served to do, unless you know the writer can handle more intense workshop.

      If you can't adjust your critiquing style to be more palatable, than you should at least be courteous in warning that writer what you have to say will be rough, but you said what you did for valid reasons, and back it up with your own experience when applicable, and that above all, bringing you down(morale-wise) was not one of them.

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    4. Had to delete and re-post again, but I've said what I had to say clearly now, it's safe to reply now.

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    5. Taurean, thanks so much for your thoughtful response. I absolutely agree that as critiquers, we must be considerate. It does no one any good to be harsh, insensitive, or unkind. It's a privelege to read someone else's work, and we need to honor that.

      Great points here!

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    6. Thanks Jill. The advice above was hard earned on my part, and took longer than I like admitting, but like you and others here have said, just tell me WHY what I wrote didn't work, and I'm all the more ready to be better for next time.

      That said, it can just as scary being the one critiquing as it is being critiqued, and I've only just started feeling more confident in critiquing others, I am honest, and if suggest major changes for the writer to think about, I always do my best to be clear and when applicable, share my own experience to aid in showing the problem, without making the writer feel worse, because it does take courage to ask for feedback.

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  7. Very good stuff, Jill!

    I'm talking about feedback today, too. Only not from critiquers, from readers. You're so right about listening to the majority. If the majority of readers hated my protagonist, I'd have to rethink my next book. But since only one has so far, then I can assume I'm on the right track. Same goes for critiques.

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    1. Well, unfortunately, it's not possible to please everyone, try as we might! We're going to get negative reviews. We're going to get negative feedback. It's our choice how we respond to it. I think your plan is wise. :)

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  8. I think these are great tips! Critiques can be soooo helpful but it's always good to look at them and think on them and apply only what you believe needs to be changed. Hope you have a good week!

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    1. Definitely, Cindy. We should always follow our instincts. The person giving the feedback might not be aware of genre-specific requirements or of current trends in the genre. It's up to us to weed out the info we agree with!

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  9. Critique isn't easy to receive, especially after we've poured our hearts and souls into a story, but you're right--stepping back and looking at it for what is it is absolutely essential to growing as a writer. Now let's see if I can keep that in mind the next time I get some... ;)

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    1. Ha! Ha! It's never easy to click on the Open File button! I'm just blessed that my cp's always give the positive with the negative. I find it reassuring to see what I'm doing right!

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  10. I've said it once, I'll say it again...I LOVE your redmarks. Because after all, I want to improve! I want to learn.

    Great thoughts here!
    ~ Wendy

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    1. Same here! And not all red marks are equal, are they? :) Thanks, Wendy!

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  11. Great thoughts, Jill. I've been lucky to have two very good critique partners. They both were honest and picked apart the book, but they had valuable advice as well. I have no problem with someone saying this doesn't work for me - as long as they say why. I want to get better, and I think every writer is still learning. To me, the only bad critique is when the person offers only negative with no way to improve. Fortunately I haven't experience a lot of that.

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    1. I'm with you, Stacy. I want reasons for negative comments. Tell me what I'm doing wrong and why it isn't working! Great point!

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  12. You've hit just about everything, I think! I know my writing would be nowhere near where it is today if it weren't for my wonderful critique group :). One thing I love about in-person groups is that people don't always agree on what is or isn't working in a story. It's fun to debate and brainstorm different story ideas and plot solutions--and although not every suggestion fits my vision for the story, I always walk away with a host of new ideas.

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    1. I would love an in-person critique session! Our group is spread out all over the country, but it works for us. :) I, too, like multiple opinions. More often than not, the critiques agree on big ticket items. :)

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  13. You've certainly nailed this, Jill! Nice to know I'm not the only one, LOL.

    Good luck with your future critiques!

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    1. Thanks, Kathy! I love getting them--it's just opening that file is SO hard! Ha!

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  14. Great tips, Jill. I've received lots of feedback on my stories. The suggestions for improvements can sting a bit at first, but once the feelings bleed off, I enjoy digging in and making my story better.

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    1. Same here, Keli. I'm shocked how often the bleeding feelings lead to a better book!

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  15. It is funny - I just had a totally horrible experience with a critique from a contest. I wanted to throw it away at first. But now, I am looking through it again to see what is usable. I wasn't angry when they said my writing needed to improve. This is why I did the contest - to learn how to improve my writing. I was angry that they seemed to take a large amount of time critiquing certain aspects of my character that were purposefully lacking. They wanted my character to be perfect from the first page. I need him to grow. Sometimes blind critiques are confusing because you don't know if they are a casual writer or an editor on the other end. Oh well - back to the drawing board!

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    1. Logan, I've never entered contests (Not for writing) but I know what it's like when people nitpick things that you did intentionally, and for good reason, and it's hard to figure out these things when the delivery doesn't help. Feel better and keep trying.

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    2. Logan, I've had similar critiques. They made me wonder if I was missing a key element from page one. I find the rule "don't info dump" in the first chapter can be taken too extremely. Sometimes just putting the right amount of motivation in can make all the difference!

      Taurean--some of our books are out of the box, or not as marketable as others. I don't think we should give up on them, just hold on to the original vision and know we'll have a bigger challenge trying to sell them. :)

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  16. Very helpful post, Jill! Too bad I didn't have it to look at in January when I felt worthless because I realized my mss had characterization issues. (Of course, it didn't help that that was the weekend I was trying to assemble my new treadmill all on my own.) But. . . I lived through it and learned so much, like. . . how important it is to see my work from another person's point of view.

    Now I'm trying to figure out how to BE a better critique partner.

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    1. Barbara, I can relate to not feeling like being a good critique partner. Especially if the story I'm critiquing is WAY out of my niche, for me what helps is focusing on the readability first, how clear the story unfolds, and from the macro "Big Picture" stuff, head into the micro "Little Details that matter" stuff.

      That's how I approached a novel excerpt from a writer last week. Hang in there.

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    2. Such a great point, Barbara. A critique can make us question our worth as a writer, but only if we let it! And I'm with you on the BE a good crit. partner. It's important to give honest but kind feedback. :)

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  17. This advice is spot on. I always try to skim through quickly, let the emotions take me for a ride and then focus on what is being said and how I can use it to make my writing better.

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    1. I love how you phrased that--perfect!

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  18. I always learn from critiques.

    Great advice here.

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  19. Sound advice, Jill. I especially agree with the one about the rules being different for new writers and seasoned bestselling authors. It may not be fair that the biggies can bend the rules, but it's just a fact of life. We have to pay our dues.

    My tip on receiving critiques? Remember that it's to better yourself as a writer and to help your career. Don't internalize a negative review. It doesn't mean you're a bad person or a horrible writer. Also, choose your critique partners carefully. It helps to have someone who knows your genre, who you're writing for, and what your goals are.

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  20. Ha!
    I still go through those stages when I get a critique.
    I go from thinking "What do you mean I'm not automatically brilliant?" to "Good grief, thank goodness I didn't just submit this drivel without having them look at it." LOL

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  21. I have to keep in mind I'm in a critique relationship to improve, always. Having tissues for the brief tantrums helps too.

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  22. I put the comments aside for a day...or a month. Then, I go back and read with more objectivity.

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  23. Thanks for this very helpful and thoughtful (and honest) post, Jill. I almost missed it. Glad that didn't happen!! After reading it, I feel better prepared for future critiques.

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