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Dec
15
2017

The 5 Commandments — How To Digest and Utilize Constructive Criticism -- by Ayana Gray

Even the thickest-skinned writer will admit that criticism isn’t always easy to take in good spirits. For the newbies, it can be a soul-tearing, heartbreaking process that leaves you questioning why you ever picked up a pen. For the more seasoned, it can be a humbling, frustrating reminder that—despite how long you’ve been at this—you’ve still got a lot to learn. As neither a newbie nor a seasoned writer, I find myself in the happy middle valley of these two mountains and have learned, over a few years, how to ask for, digest, and use criticisms of my work to improve the piece and, more largely, my writing. These are my “5 Commandments” of the critique process.

 

COMMANDMENT I: THOU SHALL ONLY USETH AN ODD NUMBER OF CRITTERS

I fervently advocate using an odd number of beta readers/critters to review your work whenever possible to ensure that you always have a majority (no ties).

COMMANDMENT II: THOU SHALL LISTEN TO THE MAJORITY, FOR BETTER OR WORSE

Speaking of that aforementioned majority—while they’re not always right, most of the time when a lot of people say the same thing after reading your work, they’re usually onto something that’s worth heeding. If, for example, 5 out of 7 trusted critters like story’s pacing, but two tell you it’s too fast/slow, chances are your pacing is okay and the two naysayers simply have a different reading preference. Conversely, if the majority of critters find a plot point implausible but one person loves it, you can’t latch on to that one favorable critique for validation (no matter how much you love them for loving your work).

COMMANDMENT III: THOU SHALL NOT IMMEDIATELY EDIT AFTER A REVIEW

Here on CC, you have usually one full week for other members to critique your work. If you’ve submitted something for review before, you know that it can be tempting to begin adapting your manuscript with changes the minute you get one or two really good crits back. But it’s much more efficient to resist this temptation and wait until the full review period is over and look at all critiques collectively. Digest the comments over a day or so, and then decide what changes you’ve decided to apply to your work. It might even be good to keep an original draft for future reference.This method is not is only more time-effective, but less tedious than consulting back and forth between an ever-changing draft.

COMMANDMENT IV: THOU SHALL USE CRITTERS (MOSTLY) WITHIN THY TARGET AUDIENCE

Is your juicy Mediterranean-set Romance novella ideally written for female readers in their mid-thirties who love Nicholas Sparks? Mm, yeah, maybe the twelve-year-old boy up to his ears in Sci-Fi sagas isn’t the best person to crit your work. While there is undeniable merit in having the occasional “outlier” critique at your work, you’ll get the most authentic reactions when you are critted by people who enjoy/prefer your style and genre of writing. That said, anyone who's willing to read your work is an extra set of eyes, so it can't hurt to let them read too!

COMMANDMENT V: THOU SHALL NOT CATER TO EVERY MORTAL’S WHIM

Criticism is an intrinsic part of the writing process, but always remember that your work is yours. There will always be someone who absolutely, inexplicably hates what you write and the way you write it. You will want to summon gods of doom to destroy this person’s souls and future lineage, but don’t. It’s okay. Understand and accept that most literature isn’t meant to be universally-loved. That said, while it’s important to know how to accept constructive criticism, you have to draw line. Don’t try to cater to every whim and appease every single person who crits your work. Doing this will not only ruin your story, but it will drive you insane and leave you perpetually unsatisfied.

 

*Disclaimer: These “commandments” are what have worked best for me. I fully acknowledge that some may not work for everyone, and that there are about fifteen billion more rules out there, but in the hopes of being concise, these are my most important. I hope they’re helpful!

Posted by Ayana Gray 15 Dec 2017 at 00:12
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Responses to this blog

Mareonet 15 Dec 2017 at 11:09  
This is exactly what I was looking for. I'm new here and I'm struggling with the desire to rewrite everything I ever touched, because now I hate everything of mine. This all happened after I received my first few critiques. But I agree; I need to wait until the critique period is over, and then look at everything together.

But, for sure, I'm probably going to rewrite the next chapters of my novel before I submit them for critique.

...Or maybe not...I'll probably learn more from what I already have, huh...
Mrbillyd 15 Dec 2017 at 18:33  
Now I am a very experienced writer. My problem with critiques, is that if I agree that certain changes should be made, I say I'll get around to making those changes, when I have the time. The thing is, as time goes by, I just don't get around to making those changes.
Botanist 15 Dec 2017 at 20:25  
How to handle critiques is a huge learning curve, and there are some good points here. On #3 I would go even further and say let the whole thing sit and percolate for a while to regain some objectivity and balance before trying to tackle critiques.

I think one of the biggest obstacles to getting the best out of critiques is the pain the process involves — as you mention at the start of the post. That was the biggest driver for me to write "The Critique Survival Guide", where I give a whole toolkit of tips for handling the pain along with a whole lot more. If anyone's interested, the ebook is out there but the draft version is still visible in my stories for anyone on CC to peruse for free.
Stromberg 16 Dec 2017 at 17:09  
Mrbillyd, I don't know if you use a computer to write, but if you do, programs like Google Docs or Microsoft Word allow you to add comments to documents. My practice is to copy text from a critique, create a comment attached to the relevant passage in Google Docs, and paste the crit into the comment box. Save it, and it'll still be there in six months' time when I go back to revise that section. The presence of the comment is both a reminder and a prod to consider the proposed edit. Would this work for you?
Mrbillyd 16 Dec 2017 at 19:09  
Stromberg
Mrbillyd, I don't know if you use a computer to write, but if you do, programs like Google Docs or Microsoft Word allow you to add comments to documents. My practice is to copy text from a critique, create a comment attached to the relevant passage in Google Docs, and paste the crit into the comment box. Save it, and it'll still be there in six months' time when I go back to revise that section. The presence of the comment is both a reminder and a prod to consider the proposed edit. Would this work for you?
Thank you for your helpful suggestion.
Yes. I do all my original writing on Microsoft Word. Then when the manuscript is completed, I post it on whatever writing website I choose. Since I can always look at the critiques of my works on those websites; I see no reason to repost them on my private Microsoft Word website; where all my manuscripts are stored. By doing so, I'd just be adding them to my storage, where they will remain to be re-read by me, every now an then; until I overcome my writer's block.
Thank you again.

Trinity 17 Dec 2017 at 01:03  
Ayana,

You're using Early Modern English pronouns, but your verb conjugations are incorrect for Early Modern English grammar. The verb Shall in EME is an irregular modal and in second person familiar (Thou) is conjugated with a simple -t ending: Thou Shalt. Note that regular verbs in EME, second person familiar are conjugated with an -st ending: Thou makest (Modern: You make), Thou livest (Modern: You live), Thou canst (Modern: You can). You have also conjugated an infinitive, which is not permitted in any English grammar. So, for instance, you wrote 'Thou shalt only useth an odd number', but in this statement 'shalt' is modal to 'use', which therefore must be rendered as the infinitive and not conjugated. The correct statement: Thou shalt only use an odd number. But as I point out in my crits, while you can place the adverb 'only' in front of the verb, indicating modification primarily to the action indicated by the verb, this is probably not the best place for the adverb. 'Thou shalt only use an odd number'. The statement seems to say that other actions are forbidden. Thou shalt not shave with an odd number, for instance. Or Thou shalt not fry an odd number in cooking oil, Thou shalt not obtain an odd number, Thou shalt not guess an odd number. Of course, it is more likely you intended to modify (in this case *specify*) the number, not the verb. So you would write this: 'Thou shalt use only an odd number'. This sentence says you will use only an odd number and not any other kind of number (presumably an even number), which I would guess was your intent.
Hartsbeat 20 Dec 2017 at 12:25  

Taurus89 22 Dec 2017 at 13:26  
This is good piece of advice. Thank you!
Jongoff 26 Dec 2017 at 22:07  
In the vein of this blog and receiving criticism well, thou shalt refrain from using Elizabethan second person singular verbs unless familiar with the proper usage thereof.
Demeier 2 Jan at 09:07  
This blog is extremely helpful advice. I just found CC and I'm excited about getting objective criticism as I write the sequel to my first novel, which was published last June.
Abite 28 Jan at 16:37  
Thanks for the insight! Man, there are some desperately self-validating needy people on here who are always in critique mode.

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