Managing Critique

I’m a firm believer in the benefits of critique—regardless of what shape they take.

Since getting serious about writing, I’ve experienced a wide range of critiquing styles and formats:

Reading Work Aloud – On one end of the spectrum, there’s things like open mic nights where tepid applause or catcalls tells you how well you did. I’ve done this once, and although I didn’t crash and burn, I don’t want to repeat the experience. On the other end, I’ve been in groups where you read a predetermined number of pages aloud and then discuss them. Great for problem scenes or seeing if your story or chapter opener hooks readers.

Exchanging Work – I’ve done where an agreed upon number of pages (up to 10 pages, up to 1 chapter, first 50 etc.) are exchanged in advanced and then discussed in small groups. Great for fostering local connections and looking at stories more in-depth. I’ve also exchanged full and partial manuscripts with critique partners and other trusted readers, marking up the text and making micro and macro level comments. It’s a lot of work but it allows you to evaluate a work as a whole, and as we all know, good readers are priceless.

Contests – There’s a wide variety of these for both short and long form work. Things like Miss Snark’s First Victim provide a forum for novel openers to see if readers are hooked. Query contests also abound on blogs. Plus there are a wide variety of contests sponsored through local and national writing organizations. Contests can provide you with feedback if you are in a place were you don’t have a trusted reader in your corner, but beware contest fees as not all contests are created equal.

Then there’s writing workshops like Taos Toolbox, where a lot of feedback comes your way all at once.

And that can be overwhelming. Strike that. It is overwhelming.

So how do you incorporate it all?

Well, when I have the opportunity to collect feedback from a variety of sources all at once, I like to focus on macro-level issues first.

These are general vibes my CPs and trusted readers get from my story or, in the case of the critiques from Taos, what stands out most in my mind as people went around the table and told me what was wrong with my stories.

Based on those things, I do a revision pass. That way I’m proactively working through what I perceive as problems with my story.

Only after I’ve done my initial revisions do I go back through the more detailed individual crits. That way I find I’m less reactive to individual comments that can often lead to changes in my story that serve the critiquer, not necessarily the manuscript as a whole.

Granted this process won’t work for every project, but I like to use this model whenever I can. Besides, by tackling the “big” issues first, because usually by the time you get to the smaller nits, many of them have already been fixed or eliminated.

There’s also some caveats to critiquing more generally.

As Kristine Kathryn Rusch pointed out in her post Perfection:

Critiquers get the manuscript for free and they’re asked to criticize it. Of course, they will find something wrong with it. In that circumstance, we all will.

So remember, just because someone says there is a problem with your story, figure out if it’s because they’ve been asked to find a problem or if there really is something wrong.

It’s also worth noting that not all critiquing advice is equal. Some people may not understand your vision for your story or be unable to divorce themselves from what they would do in your stead.

Fellow Toolboxer Catherine Scaff-Stump in Technique versus Vision explains:

If you ask me to give you feedback on a story, my job is to talk to you about your technique, but it is not to suggest you move in a different direction. I am not going to ask you to compromise your vision. You know what you want to do.

Worse, why would I pass judgment on your vision? I can say, “Your piece isn’t very good.” Unpacked, that should mean that you are vague, or your characters are underdeveloped. There should be things I can do to help you with technique. But I shouldn’t be thinking that your piece isn’t very good because I don’t like it. Because it’s not my thing. Because it’s not my sub-genre. That’s besides the point. I should be focusing on your technique, not telling you to like what I like.

Another great resource for figuring out how to incorporate feedback comes from How to Tackle Critique Notes from Writer Unboxed.

What other tips and tricks have you learned from your own critique experiences?

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7 thoughts on “Managing Critique

  1. Hello Bluestocking. A blast from the past. Saw you on someone's blog and popped over. Glad I did. Critiquing is always a hot one. There's no right way and that is what you're saying.
    I've made the mistake of sending my work to the wrong people – maybe they believed in certain ways of writing different to mine. Definitely get more than one opinion and remember mostly critiquing is very subjective.

    Thanks for so many links to check out.

    Denise

  2. Great post! Something I tell my writing students (and have to struggle to remember myself) is that the only critiques you HAVE to take are the spelling and grammar issues. Otherwise, feedback is just that: feedback. It's up to each of us as writers to tell our own individual story…something you seem to do so well!

  3. I've done all the methods you discussed, and enjoyed them all (they all have their own pros and cons), but nothing can beat one on one critique partners that you trust and respect – and! – admire their work.

    That way, you know there are no group dynamics at play and even if you don't agree with every point they make (nor should you, in my opinion, because no one's right all of the time – not even me), you trust their opinion as a whole and are willing to incorporate it into the story.

  4. Your method is very organized and logical. I'd like to think I'm like you … but I tend to use the “scales” method for big fixes (unless a bunch of critters tell me something's wrong, it doesn't outweigh my opinion), and the “meh, okay” method for fixing little word choice problems or things that need to be explained/foreshadowed more.

    Thanks for your great post! 🙂

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