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Evaluating Critique Feedback -- by Angela Ackerman

So, you’ve mastered your anxiety and have placed your manuscript into the crittery waters of a new critique group. You wait, compulsively checking your inbox for the feedback to roll in. You’re excited, but a little scared, too. Will they laugh-out-loud where they’re supposed to, weep at the sheer brilliance of a certain plot twist, get sucked in by your vivid description?

Ping. In comes a critique. Ping. Another, and another.

You start to read, pleased to see critter A gets your main character, loves the plot. He has a few suggestions, like tweaking your dialogue to sound more natural, but okay, you can do that. He also mentions that while he liked your villain, he felt that something was a bit off. Fair enough, you think.

Critter B loves your Plot. LOVES it. But your characters—that’s a different story. You stiffen at words like, ‘cardboard personality’ and ‘under developed.’ The dreaded ‘C’ word is used to describe your antagonist.

Sure, maybe Lord Elkron, Overlord of the Cannibal Rat Horde isn’t as strong as he could be, your mind shrieks, but cliché? Angry, you speed read the rest of the critique and move on.

Critter C is less than enthusiastic on your plot, baffled by your brilliant twist, and feels that the description slows the pace at certain points. She also mentions the dialogue is a bit stiff and encourages you to make your antagonist more rounded. She likes the tension you created in certain scenes, and thought the writing was sound, over all.

You storm away from your computer, all mixed up inside. How could there be such varied feedback on one story? Everyone seems to have different opinions on what needs work. Worse, you really thought you had nailed this one. Is this a sign from God that you should throw in the towel and try something else, like becoming a contestant on Survivor, or trolling every newspaper, magazine and websites for sweepstakes to enter? You’d probably have more luck with those than this stupid dream of being a writer.

*sound of squealling brakes*

We’ve all felt this way at one time or another. The key is to not give up and to remember you asked for critiques so that you could improve your writing. Don’t be daunted by the amount of suggestions—the trick is to sift through them and decide which ones are right for your story. Not all will be.

But until you’re ready to look at this feedback without emotion, go do something else for a bit. Play with your kids, walk the dog or make a chocolate brownie sundae (and use real whipped cream for goodness sake—you deserve it!) Do something, anything, but don’t sit down at the computer until you’re ready to set feelings aside and evaluate the suggestions.

When you come back, try to keep an open mind. These people gave their time to you, and want to see your writing evolve. They have the best intentions, whether you agree with their feedback or not.

Here’s a few things to remember when deciding which suggestions to keep and which to ignore:

1) Know your story

This might seem obvious, but to some it isn’t. Before you give your work over to someone else, you need to trust in yourself that YOU know your story best. Even if you feel like some of your critters may have more writing/editing experience or are stronger writers, remember you are the author and only you have the complete vision of what the story and its message is. If a suggestion doesn’t sit right with you, don’t make the change. Always trust your gut.

2) Distance yourself from emotion

Reading critiques isn’t always easy, but anger can be your worst enemy. Anger creates the temptation to dismiss a critter's idea (or their whole critique!) right at the onset. If you find yourself becoming upset, take a breath and try to look past the words that hurt and see at the message. Are you upset that someone called one of your character’s cliché, or are you upset because maybe a tiny piece of you suspects that maybe you did go a bit overboard?

3) Compare critiques and look for common themes

At first it might seem like everyone is saying something different. But a closer look will show where two or more critters felt there was something off. Above, there are several mentions of dialogue and everyone seemed to agree that poor Lord Elkron needs some work. Chances are, if several critters mention something very similar, it’s worth looking into.

4) Don’t be afraid to disagree

Let’s say you’ve tried to look at a suggestion from the reader’s point of view but still disagree. This is an opportunity to challenge yourself--run over the reasons why you think the writing is better if left untouched. List the strengths you see by keeping an element the same; prove to yourself that it truly does fit your vision and belongs in the story, as is.

5) Understand your critters

This is something that emerges as you build a writing relationship with your fellow writers. From reading and critiquing their work, you’ll start to see where they excel, where they still need to develop, what genres they write in, what they like to read. This is important, because as you continue along the feedback path, situations will arise where your critters disagree. When this happens, you need to decide whose opinion you feel carries more weight. For example, if your book is fantasy, but critter C reads and writes primarily Historical Fiction, their comment over plot confusion may come from unfamiliarity with the genre. You can take this into account. If one of your critters is amazing with characters, you might want to really pay attention when they give suggestions about strengthening yours, and so on.

6) Solicit more feedback

The best thing to do when you’re unsure about a comment made in a critique is to ask for the author to elaborate. Simply ask your critter for more information, to clarify their position. Often by talking things through in a little more depth, you’ll get what you need to move forward. If not, don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion from another writer. Just be professional when discussing someone else’s suggestion.

Evaluating critique feedback can be difficult, but also very rewarding. It allows you the distance you need from your work and the opportunity to see your story through someone else's viewpoint. The good news is, it gets easier the longer you’re in the critiquing game. Be confident in yourself and your knowledge of your story—this more than anything else will help you weed through suggestions and choose the right ones for you.

ANGELA ACKERMAN is a CC member and Moderator, as well as a co-author of the bestselling writing guide, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide To Character Expression. When she isn't dreaming up cereal monsters or writing about Greek Mythology pychopaths, she blogs at The Bookshelf Muse, a description hub for writers and teachers.

Posted by Angela Ackerman 13 Aug 2013 at 01:28
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Responses to this blog

Sheridan 13 Aug 2013 at 15:25  
Thanks for the post Angela. It's a great reminder to focus on the meaning of the phrase, 'constructive criticism'. For both parties. The ability to make the most of crits and writing advice is what separates the pros from the egos.
Ginger11 13 Aug 2013 at 20:15  
Thanks for the post. This is something I struggle with.
Breeze 14 Aug 2013 at 13:07  
Well said, Angela. I want to add that critiques have helped me learn more about a story. In the past year I've submitted a first draft. Suja12, Stillwaters, and Lindymoon had problems with the ending. Lindymoon suggested there might be something yet to be revealed. And eureka, as soon as I thought about it, I knew I'd missed the best part. I love if when a critique helps me dig deeper.
Lindymoon 14 Aug 2013 at 14:44  
Wonderful and concise post, and especially helpful to novel writers — who sometimes post a bouncing baby chapter too early, IMHO. This comes under "Know your story". I think it's usually a mistake to post a first draft, because the writer may not yet know what it should be when it grows up. Then, all that mixed feedback can be stupefying. Who can say which suggestions might help take a story where it needs to go, if the writer doesn't know where it's headed? In that case — when writers have no clear idea of the basic elements for the book (plot, theme, blah blah blah, not to mention the ending!) — then it's no wonder they get flummoxed by feedback.

So, what Angela said. Please know where your story needs to go before posting.

Wait... did I just suggest our chapters need potty training? I think I did!
Cam 14 Aug 2013 at 16:22  
Thank you for this post.

I'd like to take it a step further and suggest that those who receive critiques should really take the time to thank those who have taken the time to help the writer and their story evolve. When I critique someone's story I'm not out there to rip it apart for my own kicks. I truly want to help the story, so I take my time to help the writer the same way I'd like to be helped. Then, I'd like to be thanked for my input in a timely fashion. I'd like to know if you don't agree with what I said. That would help me improve my critiques or engage in some dialogue about the disagreement.

Thank you to all who share their stories and all who take the time to critique them.

Igor 15 Aug 2013 at 09:07  
I like the part about 'know your story'.It gives me more confidence in my story.Thanks.
Kkbarman 16 Aug 2013 at 02:52  

Kkbarman 16 Aug 2013 at 12:51  
This post couldn't have come at a better time for me, personally. As a new writer, I'm having a hard time balancing what others think with what I have in my head. I may print this off and post it on my bulletin board, and refer to it when I feel like throwing my laptop out the window So, thanks! Also, I think it's important to remember- don't just focus on the negative! I've received a few crits that I thought blasted my writing, and when I went back to take a second look, that really wasn't the case at all. Sometimes it's hard to see that a crit is constructive, not negative.
Hexylia 16 Aug 2013 at 16:34  
So true, I was surprised at how many critiques I received on my first piece of writing here at CC and almost felt overwhelmed. Your tips are very helpful.
Also Kudos for the Survivor mention
Ashdavis 20 Aug 2013 at 03:49  
I'm going to attempt just once more to add to this discussion.

What I have learned from my critics is that people on this site often speed-read. Those sorts of readers get confused about emotional cues and various elements of a story as discussed (uncontroversially, it seems) in more depth here:

But, that sort of reader and their feedback can nevertheless be helpful in a peculiar way. I'll say this one thing and it may be the death knell, but it's worth noting: I think in the above link she is referring to 'an inner life' - obliquely, by talking about " the reader not taking into account when the narrative is more attuned to the character?s inner state than what is happening externally." I wonder, without trying to be too controversial, how a reader's degree of an 'inner life' affects their empathy with stories and characters, with authors in general - re: emotional cues and the inner life of characters on a page.
Fated_ink 29 Aug 2013 at 06:39  
Excellent post, thank you!

I am new to the whole critiquing/writing group process and these are great tips to remember as I prepare to submit my excruciatingly revised final draft. I'm hoping that a good round of solid, honest feedback will help me find the spots I'm lacking in, to get closer to a truly polished manuscript.

I just wanted to mention, while I know negative criticism stings no matter who you are, I think keeping sight of the bigger picture is key—like considering the knowledge and overall experience of the critic, as you said. It's also VERY important to consider everyone is vastly different in their tastes, perceptions, and interests. Not every story is going to appeal to EVERY reader, even if it's in their preferred genre and written well. Sometimes there's a disconnect, like the plot going in a direction the reader didn't anticipate and doesn't care for, or characters some readers can't personally relate to, while others do. Even the most seasoned critics have a hard time objectively analyzing something that just didn't appeal to them.

The bottom line is, all art is subjective. Writing is an artistic endeavor, one we pursue using structure and tried-and-true 'rules', but at the end of the day, it's all self-expression. We are all at varying levels in our pursuit of this craft, striving to be better—the critique process is a tool to that end.

I personally don't understand why people get upset over negative critiques. When I'm in the thick of writing, it's easy to get caught up thinking how utterly awesome my story is. It's sorta like giving birth. We think our story is cuter, smarter and better than all the rest, so why isn't everyone swooning over our beautiful, amazing gift to all mankind? But then comes the 18 long, painful years of raising that little nugget of perceived perfection into something that will make the world a better place. That's what I call revision. (It might not take 18 years - but it sure feels like it.) Like my grandpa used to say, 'If it doesn't hurt, you're doing it wrong.'

Same goes for critiques. You have to check your ego at the door and allow others to have their opinions, but also find the humility to truly consider them before you allow yourself to dismiss them.

Momzilla 6 Sep 2013 at 23:06  
ROTF, Potty training—I love that!

We all need to learn, for sure, and that happens by doing. Critiquing others, and being critiqued in return—these things help us gain perspective. I know when I started, there was a critter here named David, and he was tough on me, or so I thought then. His critiques were tough for me to take because they cut to the chase and really made me realize I needed to work harder but as soon as I was able to distance myself from emotion I saw just how good his advice was. He's no longer on here, but I wish he was, because I would tell him how much I appreciated his honesty because it made me a better writer. His critiques challenged me.

Fated_Ink, I think it really depends on the delivery. If someone is respectful with their criticism and ultimately encourages the writer to try harder because they believe in them, this makes criticism easier to take. But some people scrap away diplomacy and go right for the jugular. If the person on the receiving end isn't ready for such directness, or the tone is overly negative, it won't be received well. It might be unintentional—someone cutting to the chase because of time for example. But for others...I don't know. I have met people who seem to get off on being harsh, and they are liberal with their insults. If the person asks for this critique, then fine, go for it. But if they haven't, this sort of critique is abusive and unnecessary. There is nothing worse that discovering someone's confidence is so shaken by someone's hurtful words they give up. That is such a shame.

Ashdavis, I definitely agree some people speed-read. Heck, I know agents who's obvious when they respond and mention something that confused them that the writer covered quite clearly that no one else had trouble with. I've read manuscripts and had no issue, only to be told by the writer that an agent asked about something because they didn't see how the dots connected. IMO, this is a disservice to writers when agents or editors are involved.

I think as readers, we all bring ourselves to the story, and we read into it. Based on our own personal experiences, we see things in a certain light because the words trigger our memories. This of course, is what the empathy bond is all about, if the writer has done their job. However, I think part of the "readers not catching onto the emotional cues and inner narrative" can also be because of the way we critique here. We get a chapter a week for the most part, so that's time interrupted when we're trying to get inside the MC's viewpoint. So for me at least, while I run through my books here at CC chapter by chapter, I also get full manuscript critiques to make sure the overall picture is being told as I need it to be, and that reader-character connection is there.

Someone mentioned saying thank you—i couldn't agree more. When I critique, it means an hour or more of my time, and like everyone else, I am super busy. I appreciate everyone's time that they give to my stories, and hope that others respect the time I put into theirs. Saying thank you is a small thing.

Kilgoret 30 Dec 2013 at 23:53  
I'd like to add that people really should take the effort to correct as best they can for grammar, punctuation and spelling before submitting something, especially if it's a revision where those sorts of things had already been pointed out. Otherwise, I'm spending so much time working through basic flaws and errors, that it can be hard to comment either good or bad on larger issues like characterization or story development.
Also, to be honest, I find it plain disrespectful, since the sloppier the post, the longer it takes to get through.

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