Using Critiques: Part 2: I’ve got a pile of critiques, but what do I do with them?

— Originally published 4/16/2010 @ LiveJournal

If you haven’t read Part One, it’s here.

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So you’ve done the brave thing: you’ve put a finished story out there for critique, and you’ve waited and waited, and now you have a slug of critiques sitting in front of you. Now what do you do?

Put on your bulletproof vest and read the critiques. No jotting down notes or making corrections in your document. Just read them. This is the times where you get to do the fist pumps because one reader saw exactly what you’re doing and loved it, or you get to mutter obscenities under your breath and call one guy an idiot because it looks like they didn’t read your story, but rather some other story that bares the same name. This is all fine; this is between you and your computer screen (or the critique print out, whichever it is) and is an important part of the process. Get the emotions out of the way.

But whatever you do, don’t fire off an email to the “idiot” and ream them about how much their critique sucks. That’s just asking for trouble, and you’re emotional and probably can’t see beyond the red of anger and hurt. Like I said in Part One, getting critiques can be difficult, both physically and emotionally. I used to mop the floor to deal with tough critiques, and one of my friends would tell me “This didn’t work for me, but don’t get your mop out yet.” Do whatever you need to do to vent your emotions over harsh critiques–talk to your spouse, stomp around the house, take a walk, go to the gym, eat some ice cream, but don’t do things to burn bridges. I wouldn’t even recommend sending out thank you at this point, lest you slobber all over the person who gave you your favorite review. One should always be in a calm mood before addressing a fellow critiquer. Once you feel calm, a polite thank you note to each person is good form; even to the people that hurt your feelings or pissed you off.

After you’ve read your critiques, set them aside for a day or two then go back and read them again. By now you should have distance and the initial excitement of getting them will have worn off, and you’ve had some time to let some of the stuff roll around in your head. At this point it should be clear who’s in your audience, and who’s not. Your impulse might be to toss out the crit of the person you thought two days ago was an “idiot”, but don’t. You’re now better prepared to look at what he/she said with a critical eye and professional detachment. But save it for later. There will also be people who are in the middle; people who don’t normally read the kind of stuff you’ve written, but they’re appreciative of what you’re trying to do, and they can useful to you as well. Go ahead and set them aside as well.

First, before you go any further, remember #1 and #2 from Part One: This is your story, and you can’t please everyone. Keep this firmly in mind throughout the entire process.

Look through the crits that you’ve identified as your target audience and start making notes. You can do this either on paper or in your mind, whichever works for you. I work best in a kind of conversation mode with my critiquers, grouping things together for further discussion and acknowledging problems and my thoughts on how I can fix them. A lot of the time, just writing out what I was trying to do will lead me in the right direction. Some people can keep it all together in their heads and just make the changes directly into their stories as they go. Whatever method works for you, run with it, but also don’t be afraid to try out different methods, just to see if they work better for you than others. I used to be one of those “don’t discuss it with others” types, trying to work my way through problems on my own, but I’ve found discussion and brainstorming after crits so useful that it’s now my preferred method. But also be aware that your methods might be limited by how much your critiquers are willing to participate after they’ve finished critiquing, so having multiple methods can be useful, particularly if your critiques come from a place where you’ll be dealing with new critiquers each time (usually places like Critters or other online workshops where the turnover rate can be very high.).

Once you’ve done this with the first batch, do this with the other ones–the ones you identified as not being members of your target audience. I suggest leaving these for last because by the time you get to them, you might find that things they touch on are things that came up in the other crits before, and so you’ll be more open to the criticism because you already know it’s a problem. You might even find some of their suggestions helpful now whereas before you might have been inclined to dismiss because you felt they didn’t “get your story” and what you’re trying to do.

To get more specific about what to look for in the crits: (these are just the things I find most important, but you might have things of your own that you’d add to this, so feel free to mention them in the comments. This is by no means a complete list.)

Do several different critiquers (or even all of them) report the same problems? If so, this is something that must be addressed. If you’re not sure how to make it work, look at their explanations for why it didn’t work for them. They might all have different reasons for why it didn’t, but look for commonalities and use those for jump-off points for brainstorming. Some people will provide suggestions on how to fix it, and while I warned that one should be wary of these, look at them and see if any of them get you excited. Even if none of them do, some might getting you thinking in the right direction.

Are there any contradictions in criticism? Does one person really like what you’ve done with a character while another thinks the character needs to be better drawn? Different readers come with different expectations of character, setting, and idea. Some people will find an abundance of setting details to be a bog-down while others will relish it. Some people read stories for the characters while others are more interested in the ideas. In the end this comes down to a judgment call for you the writer: what do you want your story to be and what are you trying to accomplish? And listen to the criticisms (or praise) that will help you accomplish that goal. Don’t be afraid to trust your own judgment, even if you’re a beginner. In the end, the only one who truly knows what your story is about is you.

Beware the critiquer who wants to rewrite your story for you. These folks suggest changes to the character or plot that will have your story wandering way off course and ending in places where you never intended it to be. They may even be excited about where they see the story going if you make these changes, but that’s not much use to you. They should write that story, not ask you to do it. An easy way to know if someone is doing this is seeing phrasing like “I would do it this way” or “If I were writing this…”

Pay close attention to how people perceive your protagonist. If you want readers to empathize and like your protagonist, then it’s a problem if a whole lot of people don’t like them. But again you cannot please everyone, and there will be people who won’t like your protagonist for some reason or another, and you have to make the decision of whether or not their criticism is something you can address or even should. People who don’t like your protag because he has to a kill a dog or horse and they’re an animal-lover, well, that’s not something that you can do much about (if killing a dog or horse is necessary to the story). If but if they start off liking your protagonist but turn on them by the end, likely you’ve taken taken a wrong turn somewhere with characterization. If they identify the place where they stopped liking your character, all the better, for then you can go reexamine what your character was doing at that time.

Pay attention to questions that critiquers ask. Try your best to answer them in some fashion, whether through clarifying plot points or working on character development. I think questions in critiques are the most helpful because they aren’t making assumptions about what the writer is trying to accomplish, but instead making the writer think about what they are trying to accomplish and how they can better articulate it in-story.

Remember that the job of the critiquer isn’t to fix your story for you. They are here to show you where the leaks are and where the foundation is crumbling. It’s up to you to mix the right mortar to fix it.

Some other important things to remember:

If a critique just doesn’t seem to be helping you, feel free to ignore it. It’s not uncommon to get duds.

If you’re confused by something in a critique, ask for clarification. The critiquer may not respond to your request for discussion, but then they might and you’ll be grateful they spent the extra time to help you out.

Never argue with a critique if you disagree with it. All that will do is tell the other person that you’re not the kind of writer who’s open to help and they probably won’t bother with you again. (I’ve had a few of these in my day, and yes, I still remember their names….)

• And whatever you do, don’t try to fix every single issue each critiquer has with your story. The result will be a story so disjointed and overworked (and quite possibly not even the story you set out to tell in the first place) that you probably cannot fix it and will end up trunking it. On a related note, one should avoid over-workshopping their story, or sending it through too many critique cycles. This has become known as “workshop syndrome” and quite literally a story has been workshopped so much that it feels completely drained of its creativity (too many cooks spoil the soup). I would recommend no more than 2 critique cycles for any story, though honestly you would likely be fine with just one round. This doesn’t include having individuals like your trusted reader look over it for you before sending it out.

Now a word about the dreaded nasty critique: Not all critiques that are brusque are “nasty critiques”. A critique that takes out a personal issue with you on your story is a “nasty critique” (and yes, I’ve seen this happen), but sometimes critiquers don’t understand the affects of how they say things. It’s funny, because as writers we should all appreciate the power of words and how we write them, but sometimes it’s not so obvious, or easy to master, especially since we’re less likely to edit our critiques before sending them. It’s an intensely personal risk to put your work out there for critique, and some people take joy in showing off with smart ass comments or using words from your own story to try to make a point about something you did wrong in the story. They think they’re being clever or funny and that you will know that that’s what they’re trying to do, but in truth by the time the crit rolls in, you’ve gotten some distance from your story and so don’t realize this at all, and you’re feeling hurt or even angry over their “cleverness”. I’ll talk more about this when I do Part 4 (including tips on how not fall into the “mean” category of critiquer), but for now, suffice it to say that majority of the critiquers you will deal with will be nice and helpful, and even those who haven’t quite learned patience and kindness in delivering bad news are interested in helping you. One has to be careful when making someone aware that they were unintentionally mean though, for you certainly don’t want to be accusing, but if you notice a pattern from them, you might consider a polite mail to them pointing it out, particularly if they give you good feedback once you can see beyond the poor wording. If this is happening in a group setting, it would be even better to have someone else in the group address it in private with that person. If they’re offended and deny any wrong doing, there’s no point in continuing with them. No one wants to feel like they’re being attacked every time they get a critique from someone. A good critiquer will realize their mistake and they will apologize and be mindful of it in the future because they care.

If you get a true “nasty critique”, the best thing you can do is throw it away and avoid critiquing that person’s work, or accepting critiques from them in the future. Their critique will be of no use to you because they aren’t commenting on your story. Putting work out there is personal for the writer, but a critique should always be about the story, not the writer. If you do get a nasty critique, don’t respond to it in a heat of anger. You should even feel free not to respond to it at all, particularly if you don’t think you can keep your cool.

Next time: Part 3: Where to get critiques, and how to develop lasting professional relationships through them.