Using critiques: Part One: First Things First

— Originally published 4/15/2010 @ LiveJournal

I actually thought about writing this months ago, but never got around to it, and now that I have, I realize that it’s going to be multiple posts. Who would have thought that I’d have so much to say about critiquing?

Anyway, I first decided to write this when I was fresh off of getting a whole lot of feedback on my novel and quite literally feeling like I’d been punched in the gut repeatedly until I wanted to puke. Getting critiques can be difficult, even for those who’ve been taking the punishment for years. I went through a phase where I just couldn’t deal with critiques anymore and so stopped doing them or putting my work out there to be critiqued for several years right after Clarion West. Eventually I came around to the fact that critiquing is useful, particularly for the learning writer, for it forces one to go beyond their gut reaction to a piece and analyze why something isn’t working, or even why it is working. One can grow by leaps and bounds if they go into critiquing others’ work with the right mindset and open themselves up to the lessons it can teach.

That’s not to say that getting critiques isn’t useful for the learning writer as well. Otherwise what would be the point of putting your work out for critique? It’s useful to get a fresh set of eyes looking at your work since we’re all so very close to our stories and sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees. A great critique will open up your story in new and interesting ways that you never thought of before.

But first things first: things to remember before diving into potentially shark-filled waters so you don’t drown before even learning to swim.

First and foremost, remember: This is your story, not the critiquer’s. It’s quite normal for readers to go into a story with preconceived notions about what the story will be about and some will be upset that it didn’t fit the bill, and that can color their critique. It’s important to stay true to your own personal vision of what your story is. When I was taking college writing courses, I had one professor who absolutely wouldn’t let students use the words “I wanted” in critiques because “what the critiquer wants is irrelevant because this isn’t their story.” I thought it was rather strict until I realized that not being able to use those words made me reevaluate all my reactions and I had to decide whether what I wanted to say was a valid criticism or just my personal opinion about an aspect of the story that I didn’t like. So be wary of “I wanted” phrases in the critiques, particularly when following it will splinter the story you want to tell.

Secondly, and this ties in with #1 above: come to terms right away with the fact that you will not be able to please all readers. No author, no matter how famous, is universally loved by every human being on earth; in fact, your favorite author probably has a group of die-hard haters who thinks his/her work is the biggest piece of slimy garbage to ever slither out from under a wet rock. I despise Twilight, but there are plenty of people out there that love it to fanatical proportions. That’s just how it is, and the sooner one comes to terms with idea that they won’t be able to please every reader (and this includes every critiquer, because critiquers are readers too, just more analytical in their approach), the less stories you’ll mutilate beyond repair in rewrites.

Thirdly, and this in turn relates to #2: figure out who’s your target audience among your critiques. These are usually the folks who are enthusiastic and downright excited about what you’ve done regardless of how flawed it is. This isn’t the same as “Oh, I so loved this to death! It’s perfect!”; these folks probably have criticisms to make, but they’re in-tune with what you’re doing. Not all their suggestions are right for you, but then suggestions are just what they say they are; it’s just a matter of getting to the core issue that’s behind it. (Suggestions fall under the category of “I wanted” so even your audience can do this as well. Sometimes they will click with you, but most times they won’t.). Those who are in your target audience should be taken seriously, particularly where their criticisms (or praise, let’s not forget that!) overlap.

Fourthly: identify who’s NOT in your target audience. This is relatively easy to figure out, for theirs are critiques that make you feel like you utterly failed even if the critique was really nice about delivering the news (nasty critiques are an entirely different animal that we’ll get into later). Majority of the criticisms trigger a rebellion in your stomach and get you talking back to the computer screen or shaking your head, and they make you question everything you’ve done. Good critiquers who realize that you’re writing something that’s not their cup of tea will say so upfront and tell you to take everything they say with a grain of salt. They will also focus most of their attention on technical aspects, so if they do this their critiques are much more useful to you than if they dwell on the intangibles such as theme, character arc, or topic. That’s not to say that they can’t be useful on these other things, because they can, particularly if their criticisms overlap with criticisms from your audience, but their suggestions or criticisms should be handled with careful thought and not jumped into immediately, otherwise you risk disregarding #1 and falling victim of #2.

Fifthly, and this is related to #3: find your trusted reader. This can take a long time and lots of trial and error, but once you find them, don’t let them go. What’s a trusted reader? Someone you absolutely trust to know what you’re trying to do and you can rely on their critiques to get you a good portion of the way there. And you can trust them to be completely honest with you in critiques. They won’t leave out stuff because they’re afraid of hurting your feelings, and they know you really well as a writer, and they want you to succeed. For a lot of writers, this is a spouse or close significant other (I think Stephen King’s is his wife). But not all of us can be lucky enough to be married to someone who actually enjoys reading critically, so sometimes you have to find it among friends, usually other writers or readers. Mine happens to be a fellow writer who’s also a good friend. I don’t know if she knows she’s my trusted reader, but she’s read everything I’ve written in recent years and I trust her judgments implicitly. If you can’t turn to a spouse or significant other to fill this spot, then your trusted reader will come out of your target audience, and it can take time and lots of critiquing experience with lots of different people to figure out who “gets” you and what you’re trying to do as a writer. Though once you find that person, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without them.

Next time: Part 2: I’ve got a pile of critiques, but now what do I do with them?