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Nov
18
2014

How to take critiques (aka How to take a punch in the gut) -- by Megan Carney

Critique Circle was not my first choice when I started looking for critique groups. The thought of showing people my writing was nerve-wracking enough. Showing my writing to absolute strangers terrified me. Especially considering the typical level of intelligence and tact shown in the average comment on YouTube or your favorite news site.

Nevertheless, I took the leap. Why? Because I had tried local critique writing groups and it never worked well. Finding people who were a good fit for my work AND lived in my area AND had a matching schedule AND an interest in critiquing a full-length novel was a difficult proposition. Keeping that group together for any period of time bordered on the impossible.

For those who have similar fears, let me put your mind to rest. The vast majority of comments I've had on this site were useful. Very few have been rude. I have no scientific evidence for this, but I do think the points and rating system improves people critique skills the longer they're on the site. And, more importantly than all of that, there are enough awesome people here that it's easy to work around a few bad apples.

The one thing I wish I had gone differently about the experience was being able to read this post before I started receiving critiques. Here are a few rules I've worked out for myself over the past couple of years. If you have others, I'd love to hear them in the comments.

1) You don't have to take everyone's advice.

You will click with some critters better than others. That's okay. Actually, I think it's pretty normal. If there's someone who's giving you comments you just don't find useful, rate them honestly. Maybe they'll improve. Maybe they won't. Maybe you weren't meant to work together. (If you have someone who's being downright nasty, that's a different issue. Take advantage of the tools Critique Circle gives you, and the awesome admins.)

2) Learn how to put your hackles down.

Being defensive will kill the usefulness of any critique you're given. Try to understand that most people are just giving you an honest reaction to your work. Everyone brings their own emotional baggage to the table, and you may have touched a nerve. You can choose whether or not to change things based on their comments (see rule 1!), but taking those comments personally will help no one. My own personal coping strategies for this are to use the lessons I've learned in yoga and meditation. I've also come to understand there are days when I'm in no mood to read critiques. On those days, I simply don't. The more experience I get, the fewer of those days I have.

What works for you might be different. However you find your way here, you must learn this skill. Once I did, I discovered something amazing. If I'm not feeling defensive, my reaction to comments will range from How silly of me, of course that's wrong, I should have seen that earlier to This is the way I need to tell my story, I'm sorry it doesn't work for you.

Which brings me to my next rule.

3) It's your story.

Remember how I said you don't have to take everyone's advice? You don't have to anyone's advice. Ultimately, it's your work. If you're writing for publication, the choices you make will affect the marketability of your work, but it's still your choice. Personally, I think if you try to write in someone else's voice, you won't sell many copies anyway.

4) Show, don't tell is for critters too.

I've found that I need to read between the lines to get the most out of my critiques. For instance, on the book I'm currently prepping for publishing the editor I hired added a line in one scene that said 'I look in the bathroom mirror'. The book is in first person, so there are is a lot of 'I look' and 'I say', etc. I didn't want to add another sentence like that. Still, I reread the paragraph several times, and then saw my editor's point. I needed a transition. Maybe not that transition, but I needed to bring the reader into the physical description of the narrator more slowly.

5) The more eyes you have read your work, the better.

Averaging the comments of several people is a lot more useful than just trying to interpret one person's critique.

Often, I'll have five different people make five different comments on the same paragraph with five different suggestions for fixing it. And as it turns out, they're all correct in pointing out that something is wrong, but the real fix is a change in the previous chapter. As an added bonus, you'll find a delightful range in the expertise of your critters. I've had OR nurses point out errors in operating room protocol, and a ceramics expert point out that blood mixed in a glaze would NOT contain DNA after firing due to the heat of the kiln. (That last one I should have thought of myself, but that's why we have critters.)

Hopefully some of this advice has helped you. If not, in the spirit of rule 1, feel free to ignore me.

Megan Carney

http://www.megancarney.com

Blog: http://openletters.megancarney.com

@SometimesAthena

Posted by Megan Carney 18 Nov 2014 at 00:04
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Responses to this blog

Card 18 Nov 2014 at 09:36  
I like your comment about show being for critters too. When I was first starting out, I critted very generally, but as I did more, I started making more of an effort to give examples behind my suggestions. We have to remember that our ability to communicate in writing is being tested when we crit, just as we're critiquing the author's writing.
Lmdewit 18 Nov 2014 at 09:55  
I too would have liked to read this when I first started receiving crits. I have learned the same as you, that it takes time to build relationships, and that not everyone is your cup of tea. You have to keep searching for those critters that help you, but also as you mentioned, those you don't like also teach you something, no matter how tough is to accept it.
I think the hardest for me as a novice writer is to try to not listen to all advice and just take what it's good for you.
And I totally agree, the longer you're here, the better your crit is. And the longer you crit, the better for your writing, since it's easier to find mistakes in some other's work, and then you say, 'hey, I do the same mistake!'.
Romo_05 18 Nov 2014 at 23:08  
Another "rule" as a critter is that you should point out good things, too. Or reactions to things that happen in the story. If you are shocked by what character Sue says, then add a comment that expresses how you felt and let the author know that part of the story is good because it drew a response from you. Then, even if it wasn't a bad reaction, the author can decide if that's the response he intended at that point.

You made some good points. They are definitely great for those new to online critting and assuring them that this is a great place for it.
Mythjenn 19 Nov 2014 at 14:10  
Good advice, all of it.
I'm a firm believer in adding constructive to a critique, and it seems I've found a place where others do as well.
Deekool 19 Nov 2014 at 16:16  
I think a mixture of pointing out what works and what doesn't is the best. As a newbie writer it helps to know both. Being new to crits, the positive comments also help one deal with the more negative ones.
Upnorth 19 Nov 2014 at 19:27  
I knew I would miss at least one rule.
Auraxx 21 Nov 2014 at 07:53  
Thank you for sharing this with us. It definitely helps me, I've had issues about this subject lately.
Marzipan77 22 Nov 2014 at 06:33  
Excellent suggestions. I'd add that reading a crit, going away from it and letting your thoughts and instant reactions settle, and then going back to read the crit again works for me. That way I can allow my emotional reaction to happen, and then come back to the crit with a clear mind. I find myself saying "Oh, right, I get that now," rather than, "Stupid crit-er doesn't get my story at all!"
Breeze 22 Nov 2014 at 17:29  
As one of your fans and crit partners, I hope I contributed something to your growth as a novelist. Glad to see your website address!
Imjustdru 22 Nov 2014 at 17:31  
Thank you for the blog, ma'am. A great reminder that we're all just starting out in this outfit.
Upnorth 23 Nov 2014 at 22:03  
Would be better if the website were up. Switching hosting providers right now. If the website were up, I could plug this: www.amazon.com/Sarina-Sweetheart-Megan-Carney-ebook/dp/B00P8PVDNA/.

Guess I just did.
Sheridan 24 Nov 2014 at 06:18  
Great post, thanks for taking the time to put it up.
Mayrain 29 Nov 2014 at 22:44  
Very nice post, all great points. And deekool's addendum is also right on the mark - I try to remember it in every critique I submit.
Annehwhite 3 Dec 2014 at 08:18  
A helpful corollary to "Remember that this is your story" is this piece of advice that I give myself when I write a critique: What is the writer trying to do here? And how can I support that?" As opposed to this approach: If this were my piece (and I tend to treat the story as if it were mine sometimes; I think we all do), what I would do is ....., or how I would write that sentence is ..., or what I would delete is ...." Big difference. A difference that is respectful of the writer's personal process.

Also, I suspect we share our work too soon, which makes us vulnerable to "manuscript by committee," or at least a shallowing out, or a nod to laziness, or a wish for praise, or a refusal to struggle with learning the craft. Perhaps we should wish, rather, to shape our work without criticism until we consider it ready. Perhaps we don't really need to confuse our evolving vision by asking too soon "What do you think of this?" I often don't know what a piece is about until the fourth or fifth draft — when it's deepened, found its structure, its heart, its real meaning. And then all I really need to know is, as deekool writes, "Does this work?" Yes or no. When I hear "No", I revisit the draft. I like to figure out for myself why something doesn't work because my solution will more likely fit with "What am I trying to do here?" than would someone's who sees only what's on the page.

I have often been tempted to write one sentence only in a critique: "This draft is not ready to be read. I think you need to struggle with it yourself for a time." But that would be viewed as rude. And it would be.

Bethanne80 3 Dec 2014 at 08:43  
Quote by: Annehwhite
I have often been tempted to write one sentence only in a critique: "This draft is not ready to be read. I think you need to struggle with it yourself for a time." But that would be viewed as rude. And it would be.



There have been times I've been tempted to do that too! I agree, I think we often (myself included) share our work before it's ready. I think that the reason is, as writers, we all long for someone to read our work and tell us it's good. So we share it as soon as possible, because we crave a word of encouragement. At least I do. But then we get stuck in a catch-22, because the Shared-Too-Early work stinks, and we get told about all our errors.

__________________
"A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends, and break all bonds of fellowship... but it is not this day! This day, we WRITE!"

Amyla 3 Dec 2014 at 12:57  
Great points, I concur. Glad I read it, I just logged onto this site for the first time ten minutes ago.
Thanks!
Deekool 3 Dec 2014 at 13:24  

What is the writer trying to do here? And how can I support that?"


Wow. I think this is key. As a newbie writer I find this part hard to determine. I tend to shy away from genres I don't care to read as I feel that my comments will be biased by my lack of interest in what they are trying to accomplish. For example I find a lot of romance melodramatic, but romance readers may actually want that and the writer's aim is to provide that. Or I may like dialogue that is very succinct, and like less description, but that may not fit with the aim of the writer. Then again, the writer may think that readers like more description or effusive dialogue when they may not, and as such the writer may be aiming at something that is less successful. It is much easier to give one's opinion as a reader, than telling someone what they should do from a writing perspective.


Also, I suspect we share our work too soon, which makes us vulnerable to "manuscript by committee,"

As a newbie writer, the manuscript by committee has become a quagmire for me. Since I am not sure if what I am writing is coming across well, and to find out what I need to do to improve it since I don't really know, I am eager for feedback. The problem is once I get the feedback, other than basic grammar/punctuation and other simple tweaks, I stare at the suggestions and don't know what to do with them. One person suggests this, another person suggests that, and I was trying to do something else, and then I am at a loss on what to change and how to change it. I don't have the experience I guess to make a valid assessment of their suggestions, so they all seem to have the same relevance to me, and thus they can be contradictory.

Any suggestions on determining the value of crit suggestions; deciding which changes to make?


Annehwhite 5 Dec 2014 at 15:13  
The best advice I ever heard I pass on: Decide what genre you want to begin to learn and read a couple dozen of the best—the very best—writers in that genre. Spend as much time reading as you spend writing. Read slowly, read the same chapter, paragraph, sentence more than once; read as if you are taking a master's degree in this writer's work; study it; demystify it; make a list of what you are looking for in this writer's method; copy whole paragraphs (literally) and get the feel of the sentences; pick a sentence/paragraph/chapter in your own story and rewrite it in that writer's syntax, word for word. (Nobody said this would be easy.) Experience that writer's method in your hands. How does he/she write tension into dialogue? How does he/she weave in description? Where are the transitions? And on and on. Do this over and over. It's practice. It's hard work. In fact, it's hard labor. But I believe it to be the only way.
Bethanne80 5 Dec 2014 at 19:21  
Quote by: Annehwhite
The best advice I ever heard I pass on: Decide what genre you want to begin to learn and read a couple dozen of the best—the very best—writers in that genre. Spend as much time reading as you spend writing. Read slowly, read the same chapter, paragraph, sentence more than once; read as if you are taking a master's degree in this writer's work; study it; demystify it; make a list of what you are looking for in this writer's method; copy whole paragraphs (literally) and get the feel of the sentences;


And even if you're not willing to put that insane amount of time into reading, at least read attentively. Really think about what draws you in as a reader. It will improve your own writing, too.

Quote by: deekool
Any suggestions on determining the value of crit suggestions; deciding which changes to make?

Know your story well. Know what you're trying to do with it. (This might go back to the whole issue of sharing our stories too soon.) If you can see that there's an error in your text (where people pointed it out), try fixing it yourself. Don't necessarily take their advice. Do what works for your story. And if all else fails, play around with it and try plugging in different suggestions, and see which improves the story and achieves your goal for that scene.

__________________
"A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends, and break all bonds of fellowship... but it is not this day! This day, we WRITE!"

Annehwhite 6 Dec 2014 at 06:19  
I agree. Nicely said. And one more point, why take the advise of another novice? Try "taking the advice" — through the examples of his/her writing — of those who have mastered the craft. One's own voice emerges eventually, and it will be strong and well grounded in craft. Of course, my advise flies in the face of online critique groups. Two, three, or four well chosen, trusted readers is probably the better way to go. But we have available what we have available ...
Whitechief 13 Dec 2014 at 08:40  
Ten Commandments:

1. You have to have a thick skin, period. If not, join some other group.
2. Don't be flattered by false applause; you'll get many, but those are not going to help you.
3. There's always something to learn even from your worst crits, but the same cannot be said about your best ones.
4. Don't get pumped up with: "I-enjoyed-your-story". Good for your ego, but it's not going to do any good to your craft.
5. Never feel offended, even if it is from an opinionated individual, who thinks he's superior. Take what works for you and discard the rest.
6. Take your crits seriously, and learn a thing or two from them. If not, you're wasting your time and that of your critters.
7. Critters have to earn points to post their stuff, so you'll find a lot of crap along with some useful content. Learn to identify what is good for your story and dump the rest.
8. Identify some of your dedicated critters, who're not always favorable, but immensely helpful in the long run.
9. Remember, the best authors are not the best critters, and the reverse is also true.
10. If you do not take your crits seriously, and make amends equally seriously, this is not the right place for you.

Believe me, I wouldn't have been a published author, if I had not taken my crits on cc as seriously. You'll learn here more in few months than any institution in the world can teach you in years.

Cheers.

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