On Critiques

When I was in high school, I took two Creative Writing classes. Since I’d devoted myself to writing every spare moment I had since the eighth grade, by the time I took these classes in my final two years of high school, I’d honed my craft more than most of my peers. I’m not saying I was better than them—I was just more dedicated than most.

So when time came to give critiques to my classmates, I’d sit down with my colored pen and makes notes all over the page. I underlined, circled, crossed out and made as many annotations as I could think of.

Then I’d receive my work back and look at my critique. Nine out of ten times it said: “Great job,” or “I like it.”

I’d stare at the page and wonder what the hell I could do with that. Great job? Yeah, ok, I was glad they liked it, but “great job” didn’t tell me what needed fixing. “I like it” is not a critique.

High school aside, I think it was that experience that made me appreciate critiques the way that I do today. Do I still occasionally get feedback that although makes me feel all fuzzy inside, doesn't help me edit my work in the slightest? Absolutely. But when I receive a “harsh” critique, I get excited. I tell the whiny, insecure part of me to shut up and turn on the editor. I attack my writing and look over the critique notes until I’m sure I've tackled every issue. 

But I know not everyone shares my competitive nature, so not everyone sees the critique as a challenge like I do.

Does it hurt to swallow an honest critique? Yes. But the most helpful ones aren’t the ones that are easy to take.

If you look at a critique and want to hide, that means your crit partner has done their job.

Let me clarify: I don’t mean that your critique partner should be a jerk; I mean they should be honest. When you get back a chapter or manuscript or whatever it is and see notes all over the page with suggestions, it can be daunting. But it’s good.

Repeat after me: dripping red ink is good.

Here are some tips that have helped me review critiques without wanting to drown myself in confetti and cupcakes:

  • Read it. Then put it away. This is especially helpful if the critique has made you emotional in any way. Emotional editing is dangerous and often unproductive. Read your critique, then put it away. Let it sit for an hour, a day, however long you need. Set your emotions aside, then come back and look at the notes again before you dive into edits. Remember this will make your work better. It will. I promise.

  • Take it in pieces. I know when I read critiques for the first time, with every suggestion or weakness that’s pointed out, I saw it added to this mountain in my head of things that need changing. Don’t let the mountain overwhelm you. When it starts to feel like too much, close your eyes, take a deep breath and if you need to, take a break. Go do something else. Relax. Then come back and tackle one issue at a time. Don’t worry about the rest. Pick one thing to focus on and cross it off the list, then move on to the next.

  • Remember perfection is not the goal. This is a big one for me. If you've read more than two of my posts, you know I’m a perfectionist. I have to remind myself that perfection is not the goal just about every time I sit down to edit. Guess what? Not all good books are well written and not all well written books are good. Your goal should be to make your book the best you can. Tell the story, make your characters alive, make your readers care.

  • Then move on and tell the next story.  One book doesn't make a career. You have more stories to tell. Go write them.

So that's my take on critiques. What tips do you have? 


Hope Collier said...

Excellent subject! This is so true. Oftentimes people don't want to tell you the truth because they don't want to hurt your feelings or discourse you. The thing is, you can't build your writerly muscles w/o resistence. It doesn't mean they don't like you or your work, only that they want you to have the strongest work possible! I LOVE a marked up page. My editor is hardcore, but she gets her point across. I've learned SO much from her honesty!

Michelle Mason said...

I've worked with a couple of critique partners, and I definitely got the most value out of the one who ripped my work apart. I know my novel is so much better because of her contributions. I didn't incorporate everything she suggested, but her comments made me think about how to fix the issues. Red ink is good!

Gabe (Ava Jae) said...

For the longest time I didn't have a critique partner who didn't try to sugar-coat suggestions--now that I do I can hardly believe I survived without one. Honest critique partners are invaluable resources. Hold on to them for dear life!

Jennie Bennett said...

This is amazing advice, and so true that you want your crit partners to be harsh, in a loving way. My fav crit partner told me how much she didn't like my first chapter and suggested I delete it entirely. I was seriously broken up about it. But after thinking, I knew she was right. I didn't delete the chapter, but I completely re-wrote everything. She approved :)

S.P. Sipal said...

I have a critique partner like that, Ava. I get stuff back from her dripping red in track changes. It always makes me cringe.

But after buckling down and doing the work, it's always better. Painful, but better. :-)

Unknown said...

Excellent post!!

I've awarded you the Liebster award on my blog!

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