Monday, September 12, 2011

How To Get The Most Out Of A Critique, Part One

I realize this is a huge topic, so I won’t even try to cover it in a single blog post. It’ll be a series of posts (just to give you fair warning :) ), and I’m going to break it down to what I see as the key elements:
  1. How to get what you need from a critique.
  2. How to critique others’ works.
  3. How to incorporate feedback into your work.
Today, I’ll start with how to get what you need from a critique.

The serious writer knows that feedback is essential to writing a good story. But any ol’ feedback won’t do—you need usable feedback. The stuff that will push you and propel your story from pretty good to great. Right? Right. There’s a pretty big problem with that, though.

Feedback is dependent upon another person, and that brings up a host of questions. Did this person ‘get’ my story? Does she know anything about writing or the publishing world? How much experience does he have? And, the ever-popular ‘who does she think she is, anyway?’

These questions certainly have an impact in what kind of feedback we get for our stories, but you can still get what you need even if it sounds like it’s way off base. There are some things you absolutely should do, and some things you absolutely should *not* do.

  • If you have concerns about certain aspects of your story, prepare a list of those areas and include specific questions with your manuscript when asking for a critique.
  • If there is something in the feedback that doesn’t make sense, ask for clarification. The information might be a gem if phrased in a different way.
  • If the critiquer has issues with the characters and you don’t quite understand why, see if he would be willing to look at it from alternate viewpoints to provide additional details. This way, you can to determine why the critiquer had problems. Then you can fix them.
  • Take a step back and pretend to look at your work as though it’s someone else’s. This will help you to see the flaws more clearly. And, it won’t hurt as much. :)
  • If you’ve asked for clarification on an aspect of your feedback and it still feels wrong, don’t try to convince the critiquer why his advice won’t work. Just let it go.
  • Never, never, *never* go into a conversation defending your characters. This always ends badly, for both of you.
  • I know this is easier said than done, but never take a critique personally. Nine times out of ten, the critiquer never intended personal harm to you. Instead, try to look at it from his perspective so you can understand what he meant to say. If he did intend personal harm, then his opinion is worth nothing because it’s likely filled with untruths.
  • That said, never summarily dismiss an entire critique, even if it’s harsh and tactlessly shreds your work. There are likely a few gems hiding in there. I’ve experienced this one, and it’s hard to deal with. But it actually made me feel better that I fished at least a couple good things out of the vitriol.
Critiquing is a difficult business because, as writers, we pour our hearts and souls into our work. We need to, because that’s what makes it come alive. As a result, it’s hard to hear criticisms. But it also comes with the territory. What starts with a critique partner is just going to continue with an agent and editor, so the sooner we know how to deal with it, the better.


Kelly Hashway said...

I have a few CPs who give me feedback on my feedback--in a good way. They let me know what was really helpful and they answer questions that I might have had while reading. It's actually kind of fun. And it's never defensive or attacking in anyway. It's really two writers have a good conversation about a piece.

Katja Weinert said...

Thanks Tabitha. I think when we ask for an opinion we have to set sensitivity aside so we can get the most from it. I find crits really eye-opening.

The main problem I struggle with is doing edits with conflicting feedback. It's so confusing when someone feeds back that they loved a particular sentence and another person suggests deleting it, and they both provide fairly convincing reasons for keeping/deleting :-/

Unknown said...

When I critique another writer's work, I do it as a reader and not as another writer. I mainly critique flow and voice. Never do I waste time pointing out grammatical errors that I know will be taken care of in another draft. I always leave that task to the editors in our group.

When I receive critiques, I'm always thankful that the person took the time to read my work. We tend to forget that they are there to give of their time and feedback, not to worship our masterpieces. But then again, the positive feedback is always welcome!

Christina M. McKnight said...

Great blog. I look forward to reading more.

angel011 said...

Great post, Tabitha. It can be difficult to deal with critiques, in many ways - it can hurt pretty bad, dammit! - but critiques are priceless when trying to improve our work.

BK Mattingly said...

Great tips. Can't wait for part 2 :)

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I particularly liked what you said about not being defensive -- if you disagree about something, you can just let it go. That doesn't mean you need to incorporate it into your manuscript, but there's also no reason to argue about it either. I think it's so important to remember that, at the end of the day, this is YOUR project. Crits are great -- and hopefully you're lucky enough to be in a group with people who are insightful and understand your genre -- but you are the one who is ultimately responsible for the words on the page. I believe knowing when to smile and say "thank you" -- but NOT make the changes -- is just as important as being able to recognize the truth in someone's critique of your work, no matter how painful it may to be hear it... or how many hours of revisions it will entail!

Tabitha said...

Kelly - that's fabulous!! It sounds like you all have the perfect balance of feedback. It can take years to find that, so I'm really happy for you! :)

KR - conflicting feedback is a big problem, and I'm going to be discussing it in length in future posts. :)

Diane - I find this kind of feedback to be the most helpful. I like to know how the story unfolded to the reader, plus his reactions. It's the best way to find where the story flows well and where it needs work.

Tabitha said...

Christina - thank you!!

Angel011 - they sure are! Especially when the feedback gives you a clear direction for revisions.

Bethany - thanks! Part 2 is in the queue for next monday. :)

jenkleinbooks - exactly. Defensiveness just creates unnecessary stress and can potentially burn a bridge between you and a good critiquer. Just because you don't agree with this person in this instance doesn't mean all his/her feedback is bad. We need to learn how to choose the suggestions that ring true to us (I'm going to cover how you can do this as a part of this series). :)

Logan E. Turner said...

Great points! I love getting critiques, and it's so important to keep that open mind and use it as the opportunity it is. I can't wait for part 2 since I always struggle the most with how to give the advice I try to wrangle out of everyone else! :)

Vanna said...

I've been struggling with this question lately, so I'm glad to have found your post. Hope there's more soon ;)

Mirka Breen said...

I always take a week off after receiving and reading feedback. The time to let it settle is helpful.

cleemckenzie said...

I always read my crits through, and then wait a while before taking any action. First, I want to find out if others are nudging me in that same direction and also I want to give those comments a while to settle in. So far I've benefited a lot from my readers/critiquers. They haven't pulled any punches, they've given me honest comments and guided me to producing better work. Of course, I don't take all of the suggestions, but I never dismiss any of them without careful consideration. I admire the writers in my crit groups and I respect their work. That is essential to me. Great series, Tabitha.