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Different kinds of critiques (and how to deal with them!) -- by Brandon Cornwell

We've all gotten them. Critiques that rip our works into tattered remnants of the once glorious early drafts that flowed from our fingers like purified honey from the holy honeycomb of our creative minds. Too many adverbs, they say. Superfluous commas, they wail. No plot, poor pacing, didn't hold their interest, and dozens of other things that we've all heard before (and if you haven't, then chances are, you haven't met someone being truly, awfully honest about your early work).

Yes, it is inevitable. We're going to get negative reviews, harsh critiques, and people who just flagrantly do not 'get' what it is that we're putting down. Maybe they felt that our touching romance scene was a piece of awkward rom-com. Maybe our skillful battle scene read like a critique on amateur warriors in the field of combat. Perhaps they ignored the entirety of the story (which is what you needed feedback on) to focus on typos, missed (or added) punctuation, line spacing, so on and so forth. Or maybe, just maybe, they rewrote your work in their own words, taking your story and shredding your carefully and lovingly crafted voice right out of it.

Ladies and gents and various woodland creatures, this is going to happen, and there is use in all of it, painful though it may be.

In this blog post, I am going to go over several common kinds of feedback you will get from fellow authors, reviewers, beta readers, and anyone else who graces you with their conversation after dedicating a significant portion of their time to reading the letters that you strung into words, sentences, and paragraphs.

Let me note, here and now, that I consider almost all feedback to have value. There are rare exceptions (I do not accept mockery or mean-spirited feedback as valid, no matter the message), but for the overwhelming majority, there is always some gem, some nugget, some speck of gold dust to be pulled from someone else reading your work. So, with that in mind, let's get to it.


The Grammar Police

Sometimes, these one can be the most infuriating. You post your work here (or somewhere else, I'm not judging) looking for storyline interest or feedback - also known as developmental feedback - and all you get is a technical line edit from the first word to the last and absolutely no feedback whatsoever about pacing, plot, logic of the characters, development, tension, or anything else that makes a story a story. They don't comment on your stunning reveal of the antagonist or the MacGuffin, there's no mention of the love interest returning the protagonist's affections, nothing. Just a dull, droll, monotonous 'you missed a comma here' or 'use a semi colon' or 'this sentence is far too long.'

Subtype: The Rules Lawyer

You -dared- to use an adverb. This sentence is passive, delete it. Oxford says spell it this way, Mirriam Webster says spell it that way. British English is the King's English, so use that. American English is the dominant dialect, so use that one instead. Why are there only two sentences in this paragraph? Oh my god, why are there six? This sentence is too short. This sentence is way, way too long, cut it into thirds. Delete this, delete that. It's like they own stock in the company that makes red pens, and they're protecting their investments.

While this may not be the feedback you're looking for, it may also be the feedback you need. Glaring errors in the format of your work can cause a reader to grow weary of your prose. It's actually one of the major reasons that I find beta reading/critiquing exceptionally difficult. Personally, I have such a tight schedule for publishing, if I take a break from writing, I want to enjoy what I am reading. If the technical construction of the prose makes me struggle, I slip into editor mode, and I start to get cranky that I'm editing (my least favorite part of writing) work that isn't going to benefit my projects in any way. I know that any edits I make are going to be re-edited by the author, so it feels like I'm wasting my time.

As an example, one of the very first people I showed my work to was working on a novel that I am very, very interested in. The storyline is compelling, engaging, and immersive, and I absolutely want to read it. Unfortunately, their prose was so rough that my immersion was continually broken and I found myself losing interest in reading the story and instead scrolling my social media to get breaks from it while I was giving feedback. I failed in my beta read, and threw in the towel by chapter three. I was interested and I was dedicated, and I couldn't do it. Imagine someone who was just looking at it for the first time; how would they fare in pushing through?

Glory be to those who actually have the willingness and fortitude to do this task for you. They truly are their brother's (or sister's, or furry-woodland-companion's) keepers and the finders of lost souls. Broken prose can shatter an amazing story.

Each part of a story - from the technical construction of the words themselves to the very soul and spirit of the message behind it - plays an integral part in making a story compelling. Immersion is what we strive for, and if the surface of the story (the words) is jagged and irregular, then we, as readers, are loath to dive in. Perhaps your work isn't ready for developmental feedback yet. Perhaps you need to focus on smoothing your instinctive prose, and even then, when you do get the line editors coming in to add a few layers of spit and polish (as they inevitably will), realize that elsewhere, such a service from a professional would come with a hefty price tag.

With these critiquers, thank them kindly for their work in sussing out the gremlins hiding in your sentences, and evaluate your prose. Sometimes we will fudge things for effect; I know I do quite frequently. Keep those things if they are integral to your story or if removing them would mute your voice, but realize that there are those who do not have the capacity (or desire) to give plot feedback on someone else's story. They still took the time to read your work and offer their input, and input is something that we, as authors, should treasure. It's one of the hardest things to get in our line of work.


The Re-writer

When I was still working on my first novel, I was a part of several sub-Reddits for writers. One of them specialized in giving hyper-critical feedback, and there was one specific malignant individual who had a glorious amount of fun rewriting my work. I posted my first chapter (which later became my second) and theirs was the first comment. They went through my entire 4,000+ word chapter and rewrote the first conflict between the main character and the antagonist as a soft-core homoerotic love scene. Needless to say, that is not what I wrote, and it was done with a very mocking tone. The poster tried to justify it (again, mockingly), but in the end, it was just mean-spirited mockery.

This is the sort of thing I was talking about above where you can safely and morally disregard feedback. In these cases, the best (and most telling) thing to do is to simply grade the critique poorly (or report it, if it's bad enough), decline to send a thank-you message, and block them from seeing your work again.

Now, those are not going to be every single re-writer. I have two members of my beta read team that I absolutely treasure, and both of them offer frequent rewrites of portions of my work; a sentence here, a paragraph there, a section condensed or expanded, so on and so forth. When they do so, invariably, it holds their voice instead of my own, and sticks out like a sore thumb, clashing with my usual style. However, it's the content that I need to look at, not the voice.

Your voice is your own, and it is the only part that is really, really affected by a 'rewrite' critiquer. Your voice is something that you need to develop in such a way that you can apply it to anything that you write and make it consistent with what you're working with. If I were to take a passage from, say, The Fellowship of the Rings, condense it down to the information it provides, then rewrite it with my own voice, I might use some of the same sentences and likely many of the same words, but the order in which I apply them, the descriptions and emphasis that I use, even down to my placement of punctuation can shape and polish suggested prose into my own presentation.

When someone rewrites something for you, it seems to me like they feel like something is missing (or is perhaps too prevalent) and the best way they can think to demonstrate this to you, the writer, is to give you an example that they think includes (or excludes) it. When I offer feedback, this is a tool I use frequently. I'll identify a paragraph that dropped/threw/catapulted me out of immersion, I figure out what did it to me, I'll explain what the problem was, then I'll offer an example that might fix it.

Do I expect the writer to throw their voice and prose away in favor of mine? Absolutely not. I am using my voice after all; if everyone sounded like me, the world would be a very monotonous place. But just as I can get inspiration from seeing other works of fantasy, how I can take a trope and spin it, flavoring it with my own storytelling and twists, I can do the same with prose, and you can too.

One of my beta readers has a very direct, to-the-point style, and many of the suggestions they offered were starkly abrupt in comparison to my long-winded, flowing voice. If there were times where I waxed more than a little poetic, they would step in and let me know, and offer a rewrite that drew my story back onto track, pushing it along when I was off to the side of the trail obsessing over the veins and folds of a flower petal (not literally, but you get it).

For these beta readers, again, thank them kindly for the time they took to not only read your work but think critically and constructively about where it lost them and how it would have held them better. They took something of yours and cared about it enough to redo it in their own estimation, trying to help you make it the best it can be. Weigh out their suggestions; do the rewrites take too much of the meaning out of your prose and steer it in the wrong direction? Then disregard or modify it. Would adhering to their suggestions strip far too much of your voice out of your work? Disregard it.

Do they have a point about flaws or areas of improvement in your work? Then use what they are trying to teach you to make your work better. Nobody ever dropped a perfect novel right out the gate, and the chances of you being the exception are slim to none. While not everyone has something to teach you, you can learn something from almost everyone.


The Re-Plotter

Oh boy. These ones. The ones that didn't like your storyline. They didn't like this plot device. They didn't like that ending. The events weren't to their liking.

These are the ones that tell you that your flow of events makes no sense, and that you should have -these- things happen instead. The MC should be avoiding this conflict, they should rush in and pull off some Dragonball Z level super-explosive bad-assery out of nowhere. This character wouldn't press the advantage, they should show some sort of uncharacteristic mercy that is completely unfitting to the antagonist's archetype, because redemption arcs are in style, dude. You need to kill off this character because they don't like them, no matter if you have plans for that character later on; give those plans to this other character or invent a new one because, man, f*** that guy.

Of all the types of critiques that overstep their bounds, this one is probably the hardest for me to take quietly. I've got a saga planned out at least 20 books long and certain things happen for certain reasons. If someone comes through and wants to move all of the chess pieces around in the middle of the game, man, that just jacks -everything- up in ways that I simply cannot tolerate.

My brother did this to me. I had my second book all polished up and out for beta read, and he comes back and tells me how flat the ending was, and I needed to change the plot. I resisted really, really hard. After all, the rest of my beta readers didn't bring anything up, they said they liked it. I was on a deadline; I wanted to get my book published by the end of the month. Push, push, push was on my mind, but here was my brother telling me that my plot devices had taken away from the story and made it feel rushed and out of place and didn't work with the characters or the rest of the story.

So I stewed on it for a while, and then I went and I talked to my other beta readers, asking them specifically about the ending and how it made them feel. Surprise surprise, they felt the same as my brother did, they just hadn't wanted to fiddle with my plot. They universally felt that I had brought the action and tension to a peak near the 110k word mark, and the remaining 41k words fell flat after that crescendo. The story was good, the plot devices were sound, but the order I had them in was just... not right.

This convinced me to cut those 41k words. I chopped them off, put them in their own file, and reworked the end of Thunderbolt into a proper book ending, foreshadowing the third book and what was to come. I took those 41k words and used them as a foundation to build a third book from, and my two volume story expanded into a trilogy, because one person had the guts to tell me that they thought there was a problem with my plot progression.

My first trilogy came out much, much stronger because I listened to (then sought out) developmental feedback when I wasn't looking for it, which is -exactly- what many re-plots are. If I had left my book the way it was because that's how I wrote it, dammit, then it would have been objectively weaker.

Now, if it had just been my brother, then perhaps I would have held off on changing anything. There's been a few plot devices that I had one person or another tell me to cut that I ignored, because the majority of people had no problem with it. The people reading your work are going to be diverse, varied people with only one or a few shared interests that brought them to your story. They will have different sensibilities and different levels of tolerance for blood, guts, gore, cursing, sex, vulgarity, gritty realism, so on and so forth. Some people will recommend cutting out a particularly vicious murder or an explicit love scene.

To quote Michael Stackpole's 'I, Jedi': “If one guy calls you a Hutt, ignore him. If a second guy calls you a Hutt, begin to wonder. If a third guy calls you a Hutt, buy a drool bucket and start stockpiling spice.”

What this means is that you can and should identify flaws in your plot via consensus. Provided that the changes don't break your overall story, be open to suggestion and change. After all, every story we will write in our time borrows plot devices and tropes and twists from other stories that have already been told, one way or another. There is no shame in being open to suggestion.

For these critiques, my suggestion is, again, to thank them for their time, and tell them that you will consider their suggested revisions. Ask others who have critiqued your work about the suggestions that you feel work the best with your story, and see how the feedback is received. If it is universally accepted, then perhaps consider the change. Play with it. Put a spin on it. See how you like it. If you still absolutely cannot stand it, don't use it. Ignore it. Do what you gotta do. However, if the idea has some merit, don't resist it just because you didn't come up with it on your first pass through.


The Just-Didn't-Get-Its

These ones are some of the more difficult ones to deal with. You just spent how many hours, days, weeks, months, years writing this novel, and the reader misinterprets the point or direction that you're moving towards. This happens most often in short stories or singular chapter critiques. I've noticed it tends to hit more when someone pops in on a chapter in the middle of a book without reading the previous parts of the story, and so they're missing context.

Honestly, in that case, there's not really much you can do about it. Revisit what you wrote and make sure you've got sufficient foreshadowing, so on and so forth; a lost reader is a reader that won't be returning, and that's no use to anyone; not you as a writer, and not them as a consumer of fiction. Perhaps add context in the note before the selection, but at the point you've already gotten the feedback, unfortunately it's too late.

Send them a message thankingthemfortakingthetimetoreadyourwork (always do this, period), and acknowledge their suggestions. Perhaps give a short explanation as to where the plot was supposed to be going, then perhaps ask for a suggestion as to how to more accurately reflect that. This acknowledges the effort they put into explaining how they felt, as well as acknowledging the fact that how they interpreted it was valid. By asking how they would suggest a fix, you give them the credit of respecting their opinions without necessarily saying 'fix this for me, please!' Keep in mind, especially on Critique Circle, everyone here is a creative type, and we all have our own preconceptions and expectations, our critiquers included. As a writer, you have to learn to anticipate these things, and misinterpretations are invaluable while you are learning this skill.



I won't say there's no such thing as a bad critique... I have definitely gotten my fair share of those. Most of them were simple 'I liked it's and so on, but there were others that were unnecessarily cruel or mean-spirited; many writers think that brutality equals honestly, so they strive to be as brutal as possible. That's what many of us were exposed to in our early days of writing, and I'm here to say that it is absolutely unnecessary. However, we've all heard it time and again that one needs a thick skin to deal with critiques, and that is absolutely true.

Approach every interaction with the thought that this person is trying to help you and they do not mean to offend you. If there is a choice between assuming malice and assuming ignorance, always assume ignorance; people are more likely to be unaware that they are offensive than they are to be malicious.

That doesn't mean that I don't expect that you will get fired up from time to time; the gods know that I certainly do. The thing is, when you get that response that just digs under your skin, you have a choice. You can blow up and lose your calm, lose your cool, and act rashly, or you can maintain your composure and act in a rational, collected manner. You can start a flame war and make an enemy, or you can establish lines of communication and have an ally, or at worst a neutral associate. The internet makes it very, very easy to clash with someone, then erase and forget about them, but in a community such as ours, I am of the opinion that all of us, as writers, should work diligently to build each other up, help who we can, and be gracious with the help we are offered. Sometimes that help doesn't apply to us, sometimes it is offered in a condescending or offensive manner, but in the end, the biggest reflection of yourself is how you choose to approach these situations. You can learn what you can, where you can, or you can close your eyes and ears to the input around you and expect to grow and flourish in a vacuum.

I know what I choose.

Posted by Brandon Cornwell 17 Jun at 01:45
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Responses to this blog

Breadsword 17 Jun at 22:38  
"Sometimes, these one can be the most infuriating."

This blog is no longer a safe space.
Shereeann 18 Jun at 05:23  
Excellent blog! I learned a lot!
Mistymarti 18 Jun at 06:41  
I learned a lot too. Excellent blog!
Beorckano 18 Jun at 09:04  
"Sometimes, these one can be the most infuriating."

This blog is no longer a safe space.
Hey, I never claimed to be a perfect editor...
Zenithknox 18 Jun at 17:41  
I'm definitely a grammar and plotter nut (but probably more of a structural and stage direction nut).
Onalimb 19 Jun at 06:20  

Onalimb 19 Jun at 06:31  
Oops, I apparently hit a button when my browser acted up.

I can add two more types to the list:

The "Let me tell you about my work" critter dispenses with the nasty bother of reading your story, beyond a paragraph or two, and instead tells you how you're made all the wrong decisions and how they've made the 'right' choices.

The "Question Everything" critter does exactly that. Every question should be answered immediately and every point needs a detailed explanation. These people have caught me on more than one occasion. I've added more explanation, only to have the next version slashed by those who point to the overexplaining as a problem.

Even so, I agree that most critters are making a valid attempt at helping. I hope, however, that some don't take the grammar police applause too much to heart. Although I'm grateful for the help of those who have real expertise, many you'd like to wear the uniform lack the skills. When in doubt, I'd encourage critters to simply share their impressions of the story they're reading. That's a type of crit that never goes amiss.
Colleesu 19 Jun at 06:40  
Most people who offer their perspective on your work is, in a sense, trying to make the piece "theirs." The more brutal a critiquer's comments, the more desperate they are to impose their voice over yours.

One of the best pieces of advice I've ever heard: After receiving comments, do not act on them right away. Go sit on a rock for a couple of days. The comments that ping at you will become clear. Writing is a process, different for each writer.

One question I have: Most feedback we receive these days is written. Does that make the comments sound or feel more brutal? Does written feedback impose a feeling of being attacked because it's a JUDGEMENT rather than a CONVERSATION about a work?

Kenoshakid 19 Jun at 08:29  
Oops, I apparently hit a button when my browser acted up.
I really thought you meant you were speechless.
Only a different reality, whatever it is, may be substituted for the reality one wishes to convey. — Jose Saramago

Dreyfus 19 Jun at 18:24  
My rule of thumb is critique with the politeness you would like to be critiqued. You can still say what you think, but you don't have to be a dick to give a good review.
Rellrod 19 Jun at 18:37  
Brilliant essay, Brandon — right on the mark!

Marisaw 19 Jun at 18:52  
Most people who offer their perspective on your work is, in a sense, trying to make the piece "theirs." The more brutal a critiquer's comments, the more desperate they are to impose their voice over yours.
I hope that's not coming across the way you meant it, because if you did mean it, it's breathtakingly dismissive of people who critique your work and I'd have to wonder why you're even here.

I design websites for authors and performers. $250 fixed price.

Beorckano 19 Jun at 20:38  
You know, I keep getting ready to respond to the posts here, but then I realize that, honestly, I said pretty much everything about how I feel about different critiques in the blog post, so I don't have much else to say.

I'm glad that those of you who have read it enjoyed it, and if you didn't enjoy it, well...

Thank you for taking the time to read my work and respond!
Gfrank 20 Jun at 00:19  
great post... but I had to critique one thing that I could not let go... it's "Fellowship of the Ring" not "Fellowship of the Rings"
Beorckano 20 Jun at 00:28  
That's fair. I've been on a chainmaille kick recently, so I have multiple rings on the brain, hence the plurality.
Gfrank 20 Jun at 09:31  
I really liked what you said about the "re-plotter"... that you didn't just dismiss or take one person's suggested change, but you re-asked others who had critiqued it about the section in question — and found that they noticed it too — but didn't want to suggest changing it because of how extensive the changes would have to be.

Authors need to be careful not just to know when to not take the advice of some reviewers, but also know when to double-check if that one person was just the only one brave enough to point out a problem that others were not willing to bring up.

Jmeshan 20 Jun at 14:58  
Great post. The re-plotter thing resonated with me too.
I had this happen on this site for a story I had on here a couple of months back where a few people said they thought the story I had written wasn’t quite finished, when I thought it was.
After about a week thinking on their feedback, I realised they were right. The story need much more, and when I started working on it again the critters were so right.
Marisaw 20 Jun at 15:29  

Authors need to be careful not just to know when to not take the advice of some reviewers, but also know when to double-check if that one person was just the only one brave enough to point out a problem that others were not willing to bring up.
I agree. In the newbie queue, I often crit a "Chapter 1" where I feel the author has started in the wrong place - often it's ALL backstory, OR it starts with an exciting paragraph then it lapses into backstory - and my crit is focused on spotting a better place to start, or on what can be cut out and woven in later (and explaining why it's important). But when I look at other crits, they usually don't mention that at all, they're just doing a line-by-line critique of the language and grammar.

I often wonder what the author does in response. Because I'm the only one who mentioned it, I can imagine the author petulantly thinking "well, no one else thinks it's a problem" and ignoring it. Checking with other critters is a good idea.
I design websites for authors and performers. $250 fixed price.

Glitterpen 22 Jun at 13:46  
Super helpful blog post!
Ivainesu 24 Jun at 13:28  
I do not agree with this, you seem to be overexaggerating every form of criticism. What type of person runs into all these types of people and all of them happen to be wrong or their advice not worth your time? You make it sound as though you do not want advice, so why are you here? The grammar and structure (replotting) ones get to me the most as there are rules in English and art which help with this.
Beorckano 24 Jun at 13:33  
I do not agree with this, you seem to be overexaggerating every form of criticism. What type of person runs into all these types of people and all of them happen to be wrong or their advice not worth your time? You make it sound as though you do not want advice, so why are you here? The grammar and structure (replotting) ones get to me the most as there are rules in English and art which help with this.
Are you responding to the blog post or are you responding to a poster in the comments?

Because if you're responding to the blog post, I think you misread what I wrote, and I would encourage you to reread it.
Seanuyb 25 Jun at 19:45  
Excellent and very insightful.
Stephenraz 26 Jun at 13:50  
Thank you for this post. I'm new here and having access to the "ropes" of the site from the outset gives me, and probably many others already present, confidence that the quality of critiques will justify the effort required to get and receive them. Reading stories from people who really want to know what I think, amazing! Getting my own work critiqued in return, priceless. Thanks again, Brandon.
Aurianne 27 Jun at 08:40  
Excellent advice on how to handle frustrating critiques, and how to find the value in them. Workshopping can be a wonderful process, a painful one, or (more commonly) both. It's hard to see advice that seems full of nothing but criticism or extraneous feedback, but sometimes there's an underlying and valuable message that the critiquer struggled to articulate.

I think that one of the most important things to remember, both when soliciting and giving critiques, is the space for information about what sort of critique the author wants. For example, authors can sometimes avoid receiving grammar police advice if they specifically state that they are looking for feedback on structure, coherency, dialogue, character development, etc. Critiquers should remember to read these requests and respect them. I know that this is not something that will work every time, but it does help.
Sandra1122 28 Jun at 12:00  
A nice article that helps me understand different types of critique and handle them appropriately.
Thanks for the post.
Trisham 1 Jul at 15:00  
As a newbie to this site, I really appreciated and enjoyed this blog. I'm new to formally critiquing, although I'm sure I've done it informally when reading and through reviews. There is so much good information in this blog, and I aspire to be a good critter (this term makes me giggle as I think of those woodland creatures you mentioned). I'm hoping this group will be just what I need for a good swift kick in the pants but also a nice firm "atta girl," occasionally.
Cyndorian 7 Jul at 20:44  
As a new person to the site, I do not mind harsh critiquing when it comes to this is wrong, and so forth. I am hoping to find grammar police who can help. None of those is an issue with me at all, however, the critiques that question who I am or act in the way of trying to put someone else down so they can feel empowered are the ones I have issues with.

If there is a plot hole that is fine if there is an issue with something that I can fix I will do it and be ever so thankful.

I have a post I need to respond to, it was not critiquing my work but more myself and my writing. They boasted on their accomplishments and used their experience to criticize someone else. It was insulting to read, 2 people do not live the same life, so they would not share the same experiences. Honestly almost left the site due to that post.

So reading this was helpful. Thank you for posting this.
Beorckano 7 Jul at 22:59  
I've found that the vast majority of those who post/critique like that don't last very long on this site, with a few notable exceptions. I'm glad you decided to stick it out!
Cyndorian 14 Jul at 05:25  
Going to do my best in sticking this out. I have a novel to edit and honestly would like to get it ready for publication.
Thank you for allowing me to read the segment of your book. I do hope anything I have said will give you the courage to keep writing!

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