How to Handle Critiques

After undertaking quite a few first page critiques here at TKZ, it occurred to me that it might be timely to (re)consider the role of critiques and, perhaps more importantly, how a writer should handle the feedback received.

Receiving criticism, even when constructive (but especially when it isn’t!)  is never a pleasant experience (and trust me, I’ve been there many, many times) but it’s a vital part of any writer’s review process. The tricky part comes when the feedback provided isn’t consistent – which quite often it isn’t (Hint: when the feedback is consistent, it’s usually worth considering!). As we’ve seen here at TKZ, reviewing someone’s writing is a very subjective experience. So how should a writer handle multiple points of view, advice and feedback?

Here are some of my thoughts – based on my experience with beta readers, reviewers, writing groups, agents and editors….

Trust the opinion of those you admire and who genuinely want you to succeed in your writing.

I would say everyone who provides feedback here at TKZ is supportive of the brave souls who submit their work for a first-page critique – so this comment is more directed to other reviewers or writing groups, where sometimes the quality of the feedback provided may be colored by differing degrees of experience as well as intention (just saying!) so make sure the advice you’re getting is from people whose honest opinion you admire and trust. This also means not seeking opinions solely from friends or family members who may hold back on giving you an honest appraisal out of fear of hurting your feelings.

Look for consistent themes in the feedback provided.

If everyone has difficulty say with the voice or POV you’re using in your work, even if their advice differs on how to fix that, I’d genuinely consider the issue. If a consistent ‘flaw’ is identified by multiple reviewers, then it’s always worth take a close look at the problem even if, as the writer, you disagree with the solutions offered.

Avoid comments that are vague and focus on the specifics.

There’s not much a writer can do with ‘I just didn’t like the character’ feedback so it’s much better to focus on specifics rather than vague generalities. That being said, if everyone gives you the same (albeit vague) feedback, then fundamentally something isn’t resonating with readers so, as a writer, I’d take that feedback on board and see what I could do to fix it.

Discuss comments and feedback with those your admire and trust

Sometimes, when my agent has identified an issue I haven’t even thought of, and none of my beta readers have identified, I’ll go back to them with her comments – and 9 times out of 10 they will agree…so it’s always worth bouncing ideas and feedback with your reviewers. This often leads to greater clarity and consistency in terms of what may not be working in a story.

When multiple, conflicting, but specific feedback is given, go with what feels right for you… 

This is the trickiest aspect of dealing with inconsistent feedback and, as writer’s gain more experience, it does get easier to identify what rings true and what doesn’t. In one of my writing groups, I’d sometimes get random feedback that I quickly realized was completely wrong for the genre of book I was writing, or which led me down a path that wasn’t going to work for me. It’s extremely hard, though, to sift through all the comments given in a writing or critique group and know what feels right. In that situation, I’d go back to my initial comment about relying on the feedback of those you trust and admire and who really want you to succeed in your writing.

But also take a big step back to see what the heart of the issue might really be…

One of our TKZ alumni, Larry Brooks, identified it best in his book ‘Story Fix’ – where he noted that what brings a story down is often less about the writing and more about the inherent appeal and strength of the story itself. So when digesting the plethora of feedback  you’ve received, I’d initially classify the advice into two buckets (1) feedback on the actually mechanics of your writing (weak grammar, clumsy sentence structure etc.) and (2) feedback that goes to the heart of the story you are trying to tell (POV, appeal of characters, dramatic tension etc.). It’s much easier to fix issues that reviewers identify in bucket number (1). Feedback the falls into bucket (2), may require you to take a long hard look at the concept and premise of your story. That doesn’t mean despairing, it just means going back to identifying the core of story you are hoping to tell and seeing whether it holds up under scrutiny. That could be the first step in identifying what is going wrong and the best way of rectifying it.

So TKZers, what advice would you give, particularly to our brave first page submitters, on handling multiple, sometimes inconsistent, feedback when it comes to your writing?

19 thoughts on “How to Handle Critiques

  1. This is good sound advice for those submitting work to be reviewed. I’ve noted here at TKZ with the first page submissions, feedback is particularly good on honing in on areas of a story that a broad swath of reviewers are having the same trouble with (or are very pleased with).

    As a reviewer, while the majority of the time my assessment falls in line with those of others, it doesn’t always–and that’s where two pieces of the advice above listed are invaluable–trust the opinion of those you admire and go with what feels right for you. Everybody offering critique is at different levels in their own writing experience (and have different tastes). Sometimes it’s a gut call.

    I appreciate everyone who subs their 1st page crits here, and the engaging & learning atmosphere in which they are critiqued. It’s beneficial all the way around.

  2. Excellent advice, Clare. Critiques are never easy to absorb, but I do think they’re necessary. I remember one time Larry got so upset with my submission he had to stop reading it. You know what? He was right. I’d totally missed the point of what he was trying to teach me. If he hadn’t reacted in such a volatile manner, his advice wouldn’t have resonated so deeply. Seriously, I thought the poor guy was gonna have a heart attack from the rise in blood pressure. Hahaha. True story! That said, I wouldn’t be half the writer I am today if it weren’t for Larry Brooks. He cared enough to tell me straight at a point when I was ready to listen. I think that’s key.

    • Great point Sue – as a writer you have to be able to listen – but boy, can it be hard sometimes! I have one project I keep starting and never quite seem to get a handle on…after reading Larry’s Story Fix I realized the issue was I didn’t know what my core story was about yet (this project has been shelved at least three times – maybe one day I’ll work out what it’s actually about!)

  3. When my ugly baby is criticized, I walk away for an hour or a day. After the knee-jerk defensiveness has simmered down, I reread. Almost always, there’s a grain of truth in the critique. Otherwise, it wouldn’t hurt. Deep down, I know something’s wrong but don’t want to acknowledge it. I can’t fix it until I’m able to consider it calmly and dispassionately.

    In face-to-face situations, don’t argue or defend. Just thank the person and say you’ll think seriously about their critique. After emotions cool, give it more thought.

    Even off-the-wall comments can have value. The problem they focus on may not be the real problem, but rather a symptom of a larger, underlying issue. As you mention, it could be the premise Larry talks about.

    Glad you addressed this, Clare! Excellent, wise advice for writers at all levels.

  4. Good points. I’d add that you should seriously consider ALL criticism. Never dismiss comments as “too negative” or “over the top.” That said, you may choose to reject the advice, but only after considering it in context with your ms and your goals in writing that ms.

    • Another good point – it’s so easy to dismiss feedback when it’s really negative or makes you feel uncomfortable but it’s important to take everything on board, even if ultimately you chose not to make the changes suggested.

  5. Anything that makes you stop and think is good feedback, because even if you don’t agree, it’s helpful to know how someone else is interpreting your words. Maybe it’s a case of what my crit group calls “RWIM” – Read What I Mean. What’s in our heads doesn’t always translate to the page.

    I can’t remember who said it, but when you have two opposing viewpoints, “Tie goes to the author.”

  6. I think it’s more difficult for a relative novice to assess conflicting feedback, so to those writers, I say that the more you write and study the craft, the easier it becomes to decide whether you should accept a particular suggestion or recommendation. But be sure to listen and assess all feedback because sometimes incredibly good advice can come out of the mouths of babes.

    As for my personal reactions when I’m giving feedback, I must admit that I can sound very didactic and opinionated, although the award-winning authors I’ve edited seem to find my relative bluntness more than acceptable. But I do find giving feedback to an obvious newbie, one who doesn’t have even a basic understanding of the craft, a real challenge. My first reaction is to say, “Learn how to write, and then I’ll give you my feedback.” I find repeating the same lessons, over and over again, to those who haven’t studied the craft absolutely exhausting. I end up being more tactful than this paragraph represents, however, because some newbies actually do listen, and they are the ones who will go on to produce professional work–sometimes even great art.

    I wish more of your followers would jump into the water and sprinkle or splash more feedback for the brave ones who submit their work for a critique. Critiquing the work of others helps us to improve our own writing.

    • Thanks Sheryl. I love to read your feedback. It is so honest and helpful. Since I am such a newbie myself, I understand what you are saying. When I decided to do a review blog I wanted to do this as a lifelong reader and find what worked for me as a reader and hoping that would help me as a novice. What I don’t understand is why anyone would attempt to write anything, especially a novel, without studying the craft. This makes no sense to me. No one hits the ball out of the court the first time they pick up the bat. I am not a sports fan, so see, I am learning TKZ analogies from others on here. 🙂

  7. As a relatively new writer who has yet to publish her first book, I’d say that a critique from a more experienced writer that points me to a book or class that might help me in a particular area where I’m deficit is helpful (perhaps that’s something we might add to the first page critiques?) i.e. a book on structure if my plot needs shoring up, a class on character development if I’m writing a one-dimensional antagonist. Also there can be such a thing as listening to too many voices at once, particularly when they offer conflicting advice/viewpoints. You have to draw a balance between taking in ideas from others vs. killing your enthusiasm for your project and shutting down, thinking you’ll never be good enough. Lastly, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been reading a best-seller and come across something I know a critique partner would criticize (-ing words, exclamation points, use of excessive adjectives, use of James’ dreaded semi-colon). That makes it doubly harder to know what’s really a rule and what isn’t.

  8. I have a few rules for giving constructive criticism that I try to remember.

    Be kind. The writer is doing their best and wants to do better.

    Give feedback about the actual writing and not regurgitated-amatur-writing-group- wisdom like wanting the main character’s name in the first sentence. Maybe there’s a reason the character’s name is withheld. Early in his career, Clint Eastwood made three or four westerns and the character never had a name.

    Give examples and sources of learning like the excellent books by TKZ contributors so the writer has a direction.

    Point out the good parts as well as the ones that need work.

    Watch you attitude. As a reviewer you aren’t smarter than the writer. No one cares about your ego or your last book. Your job is to help. And maybe you’re wrong.

    • I dunno, Brian. I see your point at one level, but I disagree at another. Let’s take your comments from the general to the specific.

      First of all, I am neither a teacher nor a reviewer. I am a reasonably successful writer who voluntarily gives of my time to help other writers develop their craft. As I have (in)famously noted here on TKZ many times, I don’t believe that there are such things as rules in writing. There is what works FOR ME and what doesn’t work FOR ME. That is the entire spectrum of my quality analysis.
      Recipients of my criticism are free to do with it what they want, but nowhere in my job description am I obligated to “help”, or even to be “correct” (the opposite of “wrong”) in my observations. When writers seek advice from other writers (as opposed to actual teachers), they are asking for opinions and hints, because in my world view, “correct” is a non-existent standard.

      When I teach writing seminars, as I did this last weekend in Baltimore for the Maryland Writers Association, I tell my students in the first few slides that 1) there are no rules, and 2) that everything that follows is the “writing gospel according to Gilstrap.” When the occasional student challenges what I’ve said as being counter to what he’s heard from a previous instructor, I assure him that I still believe in my way, and then encourage him to follow the other path if that resonates louder.

      I agree 100% that critiques should not be about the writer’s ego. That said, a critique is absolutely about the latest book–or perhaps the body of the writer’s work–because the fact of that work is the reason his or her proffered opinion has any value. Experience breeds skill, and skilled craftsmen (craftspeople?) are in a position to offer greater wisdom than the new apprentice.

      One of the reasons those “regurgitated-amateur-writing-group” suggestions exist is because many of them are important. To me. The fact that a writer wants to withhold a character’s name until later in the story does not obviate his need to draw readers–me–into the story. On the flip side, if my personal reaction is not important on the larger scale, that’s fine, too. There are plenty of other books for me to read. If somebody wants to write a 300,000-word genre-bending novel in the second-person present tense, more power to them. I will not, however, be likely to find many nice things to say about it.

      Here’s what I like to tell myself. Because I’m a between-the-eyes kind of critique partner, when I do find something truly special in new writing, my praise is received as valuable. It means something. I certainly hope it does, because all the time and effort to read and give feedback is time and effort taken away from my own business. It’s something I do willingly, but I do it with no obligation beyond being honest. I can point to two occasions over the past two years where I was so enamored of a writer’s talent that I called my New York publishing connections and put them directly in touch with each other. Both got significant publishing deals.

      • The rules I listed are mine and others could and should adopt their own. These work for me because I have from time to time found my words to be bitingly sarcastic and caustic. No place for that in a critique.

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