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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.