Sunday, September 2, 2012

Thinking Critically about Critique

Image from Free Stock
I posted briefly on critiques before, but the post rather buried one of the most important points newer writers need to know about critiques.

Take everything you hear in a critique with a grain of salt.

There could be hundreds of reasons why someone's critique remarks aren't valid. Maybe that person has bad reading comprehension. Maybe the person doing the critique is having a bad day. Maybe that person doesn't read the genre you're writing to, and therefore doesn't understand the conventions. Maybe that person secretly dislikes you and wants to hurt you.

If you were to hand me a romance novel with an alpha male you wanted me to critique, I wouldn't just hate the alpha male. I'd be more critical of the heroine for liking him, and probably more picky about the writing, too. I do try to be fair in my critiques, but I have my biases.

When you're in a writing group, you can learn your group's biases. If the person who writes about animals urges you to give your heroine a cat, you can nod and pretend you're writing that down as a suggestion, knowing that writer's biases are informing her opinion. If the one who writes in flowery description tells you to describe more in a scene, you know that the writers telling you they could picture the scene just fine probably have a point.

Not all of you have the good fortune to live near other writers, though. There are ways to interact with other writers online to get critiques, and there are workshops you can attend, either of which I'd recommend. But, I would caution you, don't take everything people write or say about your work as gospel. Even if it's coming from an instructor, a published author, or a professional editor, you'll want to think about the utility of the remarks. Throw out any comments which meet any of the following:

  1. Does it change a major character trait for a main character?
  2. Does it change the genre of the book to one you don't want to write?
  3. Does the alter the plot significantly?
  4. Does it stifle your voice or tone?
  5. Is it heavy-handed?
  6. Is it insulting of your manuscript without offering constructive, concrete feedback?
Don't throw out a person's comments in their entirety if they meet the above criteria; they may have something constructive and useful in there, too. 

Now, if your manuscript is being edited professionally for publication, an editor's remarks may seem stifling or heavy-handed, but you'll have to give them leeway. That editor has a lot more experience than you in what readers buy. You'll probably still find points where you disagree with your editor, and you think you should stand your ground. If you've had practice at sifting through critique comments and finding which ones work and which don't, you're going to be far better equipped to handle it than you would be if you'd been either taking or rejecting everything you've heard so far.

Feel free to add your own examples of useless critique remarks in the comments.


  1. Replies
    1. A Livejournal friend was feeling down from a crit comment that boiled down to, "You suck and should feel bad," so I figured this needed some reiteration.