Finding value in a critique…

Every writer who puts their work out there will have to face critiques of all flavors: the good, the bad, and the outright mean. For the new writer, one just starting down the journey, sending that baby out for review can actually be a terrifying experience. “What if they don’t like it? What if I’m doing it all wrong? What if they tell me my writing is shit?”

Well… Not everyone is going to like what you write. Writing is like art — filled with subjective opinions. If you’re determined to have everyone in the world like your writing, then you might as well give up now. It’s never going to happen. The best you can ever hope for is that the fans of books you like to read, the stories that influenced your writing, also like your book.

In terms of doing it wrong… I’m sorry, but this is your writing. You are the only one who can judge if you are doing it wrong or not. What others can do is tell you why something didn’t work for them, potentially providing suggestions to make your writing stronger. Whether you take on board those suggestions is entirely up to you.

And telling you that your writing is shit? No one should ever say that to you, and if they do… Well… Never send anything to them ever again to read, because you just don’t need that kind of negative feedback.

But let’s think about that critique that tore your writing to shreds, poking holes at every turn. These critiques are the hardest ones to read; they play on our emotional heartstrings. We’ve poured everything into our writing, and it’s just been thrown to the lions and turned into a bloody mass.

2015-07-29 14.20.49 - CopyYou have three choices here: 1) break down in tears, throwing your manuscript away and never look at it again; 2) hit delete on that critique and treat is as a bunch of manure that is only worth fertilizing the garden with; or 3) step back and try to read between the lines for the value of the critique. Taking option #3 is incredibly difficult, but it is what you need to do. Every critique has something of value worth taking on board; the trick is finding it.

So you’ve gotten this negative critique. The first thing you should do is put it aside and don’t look at it. A contradiction to what I’ve just said above, but it’s for your own good. You need to distance yourself emotionally from that critique, give yourself a chance to build the wall around your heart so you can take on board any of the valuable points. Then you’re going to give those extremely negative comments to a trusted friend to read for you. Your friend won’t be as emotionally invested in your writing, and hence they will be able to filter through that review to the points actually worth looking at. You’ll do the edits needed — but you aren’t done with that critique yet.

After you have given yourself sufficient time to cool those initial anger flashes you felt during the first reading of that negative critique, you are going to pick it up again and read it for yourself. Remember that your friend helped you find something of value in that critique. That might in fact be the only point worth considering, but unless you take the time to dissect that critique yourself, you won’t know for sure.

Take your red pen to that critique; make it bleed in return. Cross out any statements that are just not productive (i.e. name calling, “magic doesn’t exist, so you should remove it from your fantasy novel”, “a woman would never react that way” comments made by a man to a female writer, etc.). Then look at each point not crossed out in turn. Is the point something that someone else has already brought up (but in a nicer way)? If so, then you might want to visit this. Is the point based on some technical issue, be it writing related or plot specific? Again, look at it, but it doesn’t mean you need to change it. Have you already addressed the comment during an interim edit? If so, brilliant… Red pen, here we come.

In truth, the critiques that tear your writing to shreds, even though they’re the hardest to read, are actually the best critiques to get. The critiques that do nothing but gush about how brilliant your writing is don’t provide you with anything to actually work with. If I wanted people to gush over my writing, I would give it to my friends who aren’t writers themselves. “It’s brilliant. It’s perfect. Publish now.” Meanwhile, there are glaring plot holes and fundamental writing flaws that will crucify any chances at decent sales.

No… Every writer needs a critique partner, a person not afraid to tear your writing apart, making it bleed, but the good critique partners, the ones you will cherish for years to come, are hard to find. I should know… Over the years, I have found many very good beta readers, but critique partners… To date, I have found only two, and one doesn’t write in my genre. It’s also the reason why I now tend to employ a developmental editor myself when my stories are at a certain point. (Yes, even editors need to hire editors.)

As an editor, it is not my job to like your writing. If I do, bonus. My job is to assess the writing and the story and give you my honest opinion, but in a palatable way.

In my time as an editor, I have dished out my fair share of heartbreaking critiques. I always try to be constructive, explaining exactly why something didn’t work for me and provide potential ways on how to deal with the issue. I have told clients that their manuscript, in my opinion, is not ready for publication. I have told clients that their writing style was so confusing that I struggled to read it. I have told clients that while the writing style was fantastic, there were ginormous plot holes that a whole army of dragons could fly through. But it has also been my joy to see writing flourish and that story just take my imagination away.

I have seen writing that had me so caught up in the story that I put the red pen down and just read. I have had the pleasure in hearing of the successes of my clients who have taken on board my critiques and obtain publication contacts.

While negative critiques might be hard to take, one should always remember that they are not intended as a personal attack. They are there to help you grow as a writer and to give you the precious feedback that you need to turn your story into a precious, polished gem.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2016

Posted in General Advice, Writing and Editing and tagged , , .

One Comment

  1. Reblogged this on Christchurch Writers' Guild and commented:
    As a writer, if you ever want to publish – be it indie or traditional – you are going to need feedback on whether your novel works or doesn’t work. Critiques can be hard to take, and here’s some tips from our President, Judy Mohr, on how to find the value in even the harshest analysis.

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