Evaluating Critique Feedback

So, you’ve mastered your anxiety and have placed your manuscript into the crittery waters of a new critique group. You wait, compulsively checking your inbox for the feedback to roll in. You’re excited, but a little scared, too. Will they laugh-out-loud where they’re supposed to, weep at the sheer brilliance of a certain plot twist, get sucked in by your vivid description?

Ping. In comes a critique. Ping. Another, and another.

You start to read, pleased to see critter A gets your main character, loves the plot. He has a few suggestions, like tweaking your dialogue to sound more natural, but okay, you can do that. He also mentions that while he liked your villain, he felt that something was a bit off. Fair enough, you think.

Critter B loves your Plot. LOVES it. But your characters—that’s a different story. You stiffen at words like, ‘cardboard personality’ and ‘under developed.’ The dreaded ‘C’ word is used to describe your antagonist.

Sure, maybe Lord Elkron, Overlord of the Cannibal Rat Horde isn’t as strong as he could be, your mind shrieks, but cliché? Angry, you speed read the rest of the critique and move on.

Critter C is less than enthusiastic on your plot, baffled by your brilliant twist, and feels that the description slows the pace at certain points. She also mentions the dialogue is a bit stiff and encourages you to make your antagonist more rounded. She likes the tension you created in certain scenes, and thought the writing was sound, over all.

You storm away from your computer, all mixed up inside. How could there be such varied feedback on one story? Everyone seems to have different opinions on what needs work. Worse, you really thought you had nailed this one. Is this a sign from God that you should throw in the towel and try something else, like becoming a contestant on Survivor, or trolling every newspaper, magazine and websites for sweepstakes to enter? You’d probably have more luck with those than this stupid dream of being a writer.

*sound of squealling brakes*

We’ve all felt this way at one time or another. The key is to not give up and to remember you asked for critiques so that you could improve your writing. Don’t be daunted by the amount of suggestions—the trick is to sift through them and decide which ones are right for your story. Not all will be.

But until you’re ready to look at this feedback without emotion, go do something else for a bit. Play with your kids, walk the dog or make a chocolate brownie sundae (and use real whipped cream for goodness sake—you deserve it!) Do something, anything, but don’t sit down at the computer until you’re ready to set feelings aside and evaluate the suggestions.

When you come back, try to keep an open mind. These people gave their time to you, and want to see your writing evolve. They have the best intentions, whether you agree with their feedback or not.

Here’s a few things to remember when deciding which suggestions to keep and which to ignore:

1) Know your story

This might seem obvious, but to some it isn’t. Before you give your work over to someone else, you need to trust in yourself that YOU know your story best. Even if you feel like some of your critters may have more writing/editing experience or are stronger writers, remember you are the author and only you have the complete vision of what the story and its message is. If a suggestion doesn’t sit right with you, don’t make the change. Always trust your gut.

2) Distance yourself from emotion

Reading critiques isn’t always easy, but anger can be your worst enemy. Anger creates the temptation to dismiss a critter's idea (or their whole critique!) right at the onset. If you find yourself becoming upset, take a breath and try to look past the words that hurt and see at the message. Are you upset that someone called one of your character’s cliché, or are you upset because maybe a tiny piece of you suspects that maybe you did go a bit overboard?

3) Compare critiques and look for common themes

At first it might seem like everyone is saying something different. But a closer look will show where two or more critters felt there was something off. Above, there are several mentions of dialogue and everyone seemed to agree that poor Lord Elkron needs some work. Chances are, if several critters mention something very similar, it’s worth looking into.

4) Don’t be afraid to disagree

Let’s say you’ve tried to look at a suggestion from the reader’s point of view but still disagree. This is an opportunity to challenge yourself--run over the reasons why you think the writing is better if left untouched. List the strengths you see by keeping an element the same; prove to yourself that it truly does fit your vision and belongs in the story, as is.

5) Understand your critters

This is something that emerges as you build a writing relationship with your fellow writers. From reading and critiquing their work, you’ll start to see where they excel, where they still need to develop, what genres they write in, what they like to read. This is important, because as you continue along the feedback path, situations will arise where your critters disagree. When this happens, you need to decide whose opinion you feel carries more weight. For example, if your book is fantasy, but critter C reads and writes primarily Historical Fiction, their comment over plot confusion may come from unfamiliarity with the genre. You can take this into account. If one of your critters is amazing with characters, you might want to really pay attention when they give suggestions about strengthening yours, and so on.

6) Solicit more feedback

The best thing to do when you’re unsure about a comment made in a critique is to ask for the author to elaborate. Simply ask your critter for more information, to clarify their position. Often by talking things through in a little more depth, you’ll get what you need to move forward. If not, don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion from another writer. Just be professional when discussing someone else’s suggestion.

Evaluating critique feedback can be difficult, but also very rewarding. It allows you the distance you need from your work and the opportunity to see your story through someone else's viewpoint. The good news is, it gets easier the longer you’re in the critiquing game. Be confident in yourself and your knowledge of your story—this more than anything else will help you weed through suggestions and choose the right ones for you.

21 comments:

Beth said...

This is a great post. Lots of good advice there.

And thanks for stopping by my blog. I really need to get busy and update it...

Kate said...

Some very good advice there, Angela...but it's so much more fun to print the critiques off and jump on them,grind them into the dirt, then tear them into little pieces and...sorry, I'll calm down.

Angela said...

Great advice.
One thing I tell writers when they are getting live critiques / reviews (after I tell them to bite their tongue and remind them to take notes) is.."If you have to explain it, then it is not coming through in the writing."

Love your blog.

Luc2 said...

I often realized that the crits which hurt me the most when i first read them were the crits that helped me the most down the road.

Angela said...

I absolutely agree, Luc. The ones that sting are often the most helpful, cause the truth hurts.

(Not that all 'hard' critiques are automatically 'good' ones. Learning to provide feedback productively is a skill that needs to be learned, and needs to be delivered without ego.)

WordWrangler said...

Yes, yes, yes. Sound advice! When I first joined a critique group, I tried to change EVERYTHING based on the critiques. Before I was done, it wasn't even MY story anymore! :)

I've learned how to use critiques and also how to give them (at least I hope I have!). It's amazing how wonderful my two critique groups are. We all encourage, yet we are truthful in our assessments, too. Fluffy crits don't help at all, do they? :)

Donna said...

Thankfully I got into the critiquing game when I was really young. Actually, I don't remember ever really being pissed off or upset about receiving a particularly harsh critique. I've also held myself to the notion that I've always (well, maybe not always) accepted my faults. So when it came to critiquing, I knew that I was getting critiqued as a means to help me improve so I always went into them with that in mind and it's helped immensely. Yeah, some critiques hurt but they help too. It's a matter of weeding out the constructive from the blatantly nasty that helps as well. Some people are just downright mean. Sometimes it sucks to see a good writer get up in arms when someone gives them anything other than a glowing review but you have to let them learn in time. Hopefully they will.

Anonymous said...

Definitely a good read :) Helped me a lot (sometimes I just need the obvious stated back at me).

Yunaleska

Just_Me said...

My favorite example was a female main character who no two Critters could agree on. She was weak, to dominating, evil, so likeable, fantastic, horrible... everyone thought differently of the character and I began to see her as a personality test because the readers would project their motivations on her ambiguous behaviour.

No problem. Though no one mentioned it I realized that I had (as I often do) started writing around chapter 10 and needed to go back and fill on the rest of the earlier story.

The character still lives in a backburner plot. She will eventually get her time in the limelight. But I want her to be mysterious and hard to pigeon-hole so I fully expect confusion on her until I get the balance of hints and confusion right. Should be fun!

Becca said...

It's a definite learning curve, I think, figuring out what advice to take and what to leave. Like Angela said, it really helps to know your critiquers--they're likes, pet peeves, preferred genres, etc.

And yes, it's totally annoying when everyone's advice is contradictory. *pulls hair*

Mary Witzl said...

This is a really fine post, and very helpful.

I belong to a good critique group and I am almost always amazed at how astute my fellow members are, but there are times that I feel they miss what I am trying to say. I am always amused that when they have opinions I don't share, my first reaction is always to wince and disagree, but eight times out of ten I can see their point -- after the fact. Even when I think they are essentially wrong, I will find food for thought in what they have pointed out. You are right in saying that you and you alone know your own story -- the one you want to right. As long as you don't reject every suggestion and piece of criticism you get, that confidence in your own work is a wonderful thing. I feel irritated when I get the feeling that someone is pushing my story in a way I don't want it to go.

My husband is ironically one of my best reviewers. He can be really mean, but he is also shrewd and perceptive and it always pays to listen to him. Wish I could get him to pick up his socks...

Angela said...

Thanks everyone for all the insightful comments and for sharing your personal stories. I know that even after recieving literally hundreds of critiques (and giving them) I still learn something every time. I'm always grateful for the insight others give. There's always parts in my stories that I know aren't as good as they could be when I ask for crits. Often my critters each offer a piece of a solution that leads me to the perfect way to fix the problem. Sometimes looking at all the critiques at once is what offers that perfect 'ah-ha!' moment.

Roy Buchanan said...

Great article, Angela. Your energy amazes me. Keep up the fantastic work.

Well presented critiques are the most useful tool I have come across after a story is written. They bring one back to reality about their story. I've found that online critiques, with a few personal reviews from established authors, are the best and most useful.

Crits from college course workshops and fluffy crits are the worst. The provide no help, in most cases. People on courses just want to be seen to participate to get a grade and fluffy critters just don't have anything to say.

Sorry about being late to the discussion, but there is just so much to read here. I try to pick up one or two a week to keep in touch.

Trisha said...

Yes, my first piece of harsh critique gave me bad insomnia...but after the hurt feelings died down, I realised the critter was spot on. ;)

Laura Pauling said...

It's not easy to get a tough crit but worth it. I think the most important thing is realizing at what writing stage the critter is at. If they have a different style than you, they might not know to take that into consideration. I love that we have the power over what suggestions we use. But usually, in my gut, I know.

Rosie Lane said...

Having opposite criticisms was a complete nightmare for me the last time I got feedback. I could suck it up and deal with the hurt feelings, but when the crits contradicted each other it sent me into a giant tailspin.

Taught me a lesson about so much being down to people's preferences.

Great post. Thanks.

Pat Bowne said...

Thanks for the post! It's funny but there's all of a sudden lots of posts about critique. I did one on my blog last week, and have seen three others today!

I read an article a while back that suggested that exposure to reality shows like 'American Idol' was teaching people to deal more productively with criticism. What do you think?

Julie Musil said...

This is awesome advice. After I read my critiques, I usually let them simmer for a few days. Almost always I can see exactly what they were talking about. This feedback is priceless.

Angela Ackerman said...

Hi Pat--sorry for the late response--I've been away on vacation. I think on one hand, it probably does help us understand the process and see the value in it, but once again, when it's coming at us, on something we ourselves worked on and created, it can still be difficult to embrace. I think with time it gets easier, especially as we ourselves see those stride of improvement in our own writing. Improving reminds us we still have a ways to go, and rather than resent having our shortcomings pointed out to us, we shift our thinking to appreciation, and having an opportunity to further grow and create stronger craft. :)

Thanks everyone for the comments!

Angela

Jennifer Groepl said...

First time visitor. Love the post. Thanks for the helpful advice. :)

Becca Puglisi said...

Welcome, Jennifer!

LinkWithin

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...