Getting the Most Out of Critique
How to be a tortured artist if you actually have a pretty good life: write something you love, then give it to someone else and ask them to tear it to pieces.
I’ve talked about writing groups and critique before, and you know that I think peer feedback can be really useful at certain stages of your writing, but it can also be incredibly damaging if you seek it out at the wrong time, or from the wrong people. Some of us are more sensitive than others, but no one really enjoys having the flaws in their work pointed out to them. It can be really gratifying to see your work improve, though. The trick is to find the right critique at the right time, and learn how to set aside your writerly ego enough to benefit from the feedback you receive.
Here are a few of my ideas on how to do that:
The Writerly Ego
Writers are peculiar creatures. In order to be good at our craft, we need enough arrogance to think the world will actually care about a story we’ve made up, and enough humility to not treat every word we write as divinely inspired and therefore sacrosanct. Most writers start their writing journeys with too much of one, and not enough of the other.
First, there’s The Newb. This is the wide-eyed, I don’t know what I’m doing, please help me! crowd.
Then, there’s The Natural. Look at this 153,399 page masterpiece I started when I was 14. Isn’t it glorious?
For the first group, my encouragement is this: do not seek out critique. Critique will not be useful to you at this point, and can actually damage both you and your writing significantly. What you need to do is learn. Learn everything you can about writing. Learn from the best sources. Read books written by writers you respect. Study books by your favorite authors, and analyze their writing to see why it works, and how you can apply those lessons to your stories. Write, but don’t just write… write with a plan. Write with an eye to improvement, to become more like what you read and enjoy. Join a critique group, but only critique–don’t share your own work. This tends to be more permissible in online groups (like Scribophile) than in-person groups. Learning how to identify problems in someone else’s writing, and articulate those issues, can be even more enlightening for the critiquer than the person being critiqued.
As a writer, you need to be able to trust your own instincts, and the only way to do this is to hone your instincts through education. Educate yourself before you ask someone else to educate you–this way, you’ll always have a bar against which to measure the advice you’re given.
The closest you should come to critique at this phase is mentorship. If you have a good relationship with someone whose writing you respect, and is similar to what you’d like to do, soliciting advice from them can be helpful when you’re not sure where to go next. However–and this is important–never go into it without a firm idea of precisely what you hope to gain. “Help me make my writing better” is an invitation to be razed to the ground, and just because someone is a good writer doesn’t mean they’re a good teacher. Start small. Ask them how they make time for writing in their day. What is their approach to building a good character? Once you’re comfortable with your relationship, they know where you are, and what you need, share a paragraph or two with them. Maybe a scene. Be specific about what you want to get out of their feedback–make it clear that spelling, grammar, and word choice critique aren’t what you’re looking for. You’re primarily wondering if this is an effective introduction for this character (or whatever).
Whatever feedback you get, weigh it according to your instincts, and learn to trust yourself–not sensitive artist part of yourself, but the part you have thoroughly educated.
I’m not sure how much point there is in addressing this group, because their defining trait is an inability to listen to critique or advice of any kind. This group favors their own tastes and biases so much that any conflicting opinion is immediately dismissed. What is generally considered problematic for most writers will work just fine in their book, because their book is Different. It’s not burdened by the restrictions of normal writing. It’s outside the box. Endings are so passé. Cutting the story off in the middle of the second act–that’s daring! You just don’t understand because you’re too basic.
If you meet every piece of negative feedback with a reason why, yes, that’s generally true–but in your case it’s fine, because XYZ… you may be wandering perilously close to this group. Keep a lid on it.
There’s really nothing that can be done for The Natural. For some, an overwhelming abundance of negative feedback and/or poor sales may convince them to reevaluate their work… but in many cases, they’ll just assume everyone else is too stupid to ‘get it’, and/or it’s all Amazon’s fault (somehow).
Do you actually want critique?
Before you seek out critique, be certain that you actually want critique, preferably before you toss your baby to the wolves. Critique is not praise or validation. The purpose of critique is to illuminate weak points in your writing for the purpose of improving them. I have watched a lot of budding writers (most of whom were Newbs and shouldn’t have been there in the first place) go into the critique process looking primarily for reassurance and validation, and I wince every time. While you can definitely receive these things through the critiquing process, if this is your foremost expectation, it will almost certainly not be a positive experience for you.
If you go into critique with the goal of improvement over praise, you have a much better chance of coming through unscathed and–hopefully–with a more polished piece of work.
You need to have some honesty with yourself when deciding… am I really ready for someone to find fault with what I’ve written? With any luck, no one will hate it outright–and even if they do, hopefully you’ve chosen your critique group well enough to salvage that situation as well.
Which brings us to…
The kind of critique you get, and the value of the critique, can vary wildly depending on who you choose to share your work with. The first decision you need to make is how you would like to receive your feedback. You can get your feedback from an online writer’s group, an in-person group, or from individuals. Here are the pros and cons:
These groups tend to be easier to come by than in-person groups, and you have a larger pool of readers/critiquers to choose from. The negative here is that people tend to behave differently online than they do in real life, and you usually have less control over who (within the group) views and responds to your work. You may be exposed to some incredibly harsh critique from time to time. However, it’s also possible to make fantastic connections and good friends/fans in the process.
These groups tend to be a little harder to come by. They’re a little trickier to maintain because of conflicting schedules, writing pace, and the fact that personality clashes are more difficult to manage in-person than online. The value of these groups varies wildly depending on the makeup of the group, and you should expect to have to go through a few of these before you find just the right fit. The social reward for in-person groups can be higher, though, and people tend to be more tactful as a whole when speaking face-to-face than online–though there are definitely some exceptions. A good in-person writing group will almost certainly net you some fast-friends for life.
When you solicit critique from individuals, you have much higher control over who is reading your work, which can vastly increase the quality of the feedback you receive. The biggest issue here is finding these people in the first place–but once you do, this is the most valuable kind of group to have–tailor made for you and your writing. This kind of individually hand-picked group is a natural outgrowth of participation in the above two groups, but it IS possible to start here and branch outward.
Whatever type of critique group you go into, make sure its an environment you’ll be comfortable in. You’re venturing into a situation that is built specifically for people to disagree with each other. That makes things tricky from the get-go. Personal attacks and a hostile environment never made anyone a better writer.
A good way to break into a online or in-person group, or to ‘test out’ a new beta reader you’ve individually chosen, is to share a short story or fragment of a larger work you’re not especially attached to. It doesn’t matter if it’s an example of your best work, or if you have any intention of continuing to develop it. The entire purpose is to gauge the group/person, and see what kind of critique you can expect.
The Value of Critique
One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard authors voice regarding critique is that it’s often contradictory. Having spent ten years in various writing groups (online and in person), and receiving my body-weight in critique, I acknowledge this is true. This is the primary reason you need to educate yourself before you enter the critique process, and be able to trust yourself to weigh and measure each piece of advice. Here’s the number one principle of receiving critique that will make contradictory advice a non-issue.
critique is most valuable in volume
You need to be able to view the critiques you receive as a whole, rather than placing too much weight on any one opinion. There is no such thing as perfection in writing, and tastes can vary widely. While it’s important to be open to other viewpoints, no good story was ever written by committee, and you will never be able to please everyone. You should never feel pressured to make every (or even any) change a critiquer suggests–if you do, you’re in the wrong critique group. When you receive conflicting opinions on the same material, that’s where you need to be able to trust yourself as a writer and go with what feels right.
Once you receive multiple critiques on a piece, patterns will start to emerge. If one critiquer finds a certain sentence confusing, that might just be them. If three or four critiquers identify the same sentence as being unclear, it’s time to take a good hard look at it.
My method for processing critique goes thusly:
- Read a point of critique (“This character is shallow/This scene has no tension/This sentence is unclear/etc”) and decide… does this critique resonate with me?
- If it does, and my writer-self agrees with the critique.. that sentence IS confusing, and I could completely clear it up like this… then I make the change.
- If it doesn’t, I set it aside for now.
- If I’m not sure, I set it aside for now.
- Then, I wait to receive critique on that same point from a different critiquer. Sometimes I won’t, and at some later time, I’ll go back over that early critique and re-evaluate it. Sometimes, the critique that didn’t initially resonate with me will do so now, and I’ll make the change. Or, I’ll realize it’s completely off base, and I’ll ignore it.
- If I do receive the same critique from someone else, I know I need to look at it a little more closely. If it still doesn’t resonate with me, I set it aside again and wait for further critique. If it’s a real problem, you can bet more people will pick up on it.
- When you have multiple people telling you the same thing, it’s more likely to be valid critique you should address. After many critiquers told me I needed to cut my prologue, I eventually did, even though I loved it. At the time, I told myself it was a temporary cut, while I figured out how to rework it (because I really, really loved it). A year later, I realized I didn’t need the prologue at all, and the book was actually stronger without it. I was able to take most of the prologue’s language and slip it unobtrusively into a later chapter, and no one was the wiser. Win!
Before you edit to critique…
Remember, people are different. Their tastes are different, their skill and expertise vary. While critique is most valuable in volume, the source of the critique is going to play very heavily into how much weight you should give it.
It’s important to get critique from people somewhat detached from you, as close friends and family are unlikely to be able to give you feedback that is unaffected by their social tie to you. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t solicit critique from friends or family, or that their critique has no weight–it just means this shouldn’t be the only source of feedback.
You also need critique from people who are your audience. THIS IS A BIGGIE. People who don’t enjoy the kind of fiction you’re writing are unlikely to be able to give you the kind of feedback you need. This is because few people are able to separate “not my cup of tea” from “not good”. You need critique from people who will help you do what you’re trying to do, only better. If you’re writing noblebright fantasy, and your critiquers prefer George R. R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie, you’re going to get a lot of pushback on your themes and concepts, where you may simply need help making your characters consistent and tightening your pace.
Critique can be hugely helpful, but if you seek it out at the wrong time, for the wrong reason, or from the wrong people, it can also be devastating to your confidence and progress as a writer. Make sure you’re ready. Critique is what you seek out when you’ve gone as far as you can on your own–that includes not just writing, but studying writing and reading about craft. The broader the range of information you consume, the more easily you’ll be able to identify patterns and commonalities, and sift the wheat from the proverbial chaff.