Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Getting the Most out of a Good Critique

I've had the good fortune of being part of a fantastic critique group for about five years now. When we first started I had no idea how rare a thing I had found—a group that meshed well, had similar goals, and all genuinely wanted to help each other. Over time we've come to appreciate—and more than that, to trust—one another.

But the excellent critiques that my group gives me would be completely useless if I didn't know how to apply them. And that's something I'm still learning. With each critique I get better at putting the comments to work to elevate the story above what I could make it on my own. And for me, the biggest key to that is...


Checklist vs. Springboard

How do you view your critiques? When I first started, I thought of them as a checklist. I gave myself a gold star for every positive thing said, and I put all the negatives into a to-do list. Each point on the list got the minimum of attention necessary in order to satisfy me that it had been addressed, and then it got crossed out.

But that wasn't a good attitude. The critiques I received weren't meant to be tackled with the bare minimum of effort. Yes, there were typos and poorly worded sentences that were easy fixes, but the big picture critiques deserved more than a little airbrushing. They were meant to be treated as a springboard to catapult me into a new level of looking at my work.


Sometimes the springboard pushes us into a complete rewrite of some or all of the story. Facing a rewrite can be disheartening. All those words that we wrote took time and energy and passion. Knowing that all that effort has to be redone is sometimes heartbreaking.

So how can we have the right attitude? First, remember that the ideas that got you this far were good. A rewrite isn't a scrapping of the old to be replaced with the new; rather it's an acknowledgment that the new wouldn't be possible without the old. The old brought clarity in order to give the new excellence. Be grateful for the time taken to get this far, because without it you wouldn't be able to take the next step.

Finding the Pattern

While rewrites can be tricky, sometimes nitpicky critiques can be more of a challenge. Why? Because they often include suggestions that apply to the writing style as a whole. Sometimes what seems like a small problem at first may be part of a larger problem that will take concentrated focus to fix. In fact, we might even need to read through the entire draft with only this one type of edit in mind.

So what kind of attitude do we need? Keep in mind that what might seem like a “fix it and forget it” edit at first could be an indication of a larger problem. Look for similar nitpicky comments. If you see the same idea repeated a few times, take a deep breath and accept that you have a habit you need to break (or form). Then give the issue the full attention it needs.

Changing the Vision

Sometimes the hardest critiques of all are the ones that make us rethink the way we view the writing process. We all have areas we excel in and areas we prefer to avoid. Some people are great at snappy dialog but don't know how to ground a story. Others write powerful description but can't get the pacing right during the action scenes. Critiques are good for pointing out the aspects we need to work on, and usually they apply to our writing as a whole, not just to a particular passage.

But finding the attitude adjustment to deal with these critiques is tough. By nature we perfect the things we're good at and ignore the things we don't do well. In order to strengthen the areas that need work, we have to overcome our natural inclinations. And sometimes that means changing our vision for our writing. If we can inspire ourselves with a new vision to dig deep into the kinds of writing we used to dislike, we have a better chance of becoming more well-rounded and showing our critique partners that we know how to listen to their great advice.

So what's the hardest part of applying critiques for you?


  1. I love critiques, and altho sometimes at first, some of it may be disappointing when you were sure your story was almost perfect *snort laugh* but almost always they're spot on.
    I try to remain completely open and look at all feedback as helpful. But you hit the nail onthe head when you said you're luck to have really good partners. It makes all the difference--not just peeps who are nice, but peeps who are good writers willing to be honest and help you improve your craft. If there's a part of a crit that I don't agree with, I tend to sit on it awhile and mull it over. Usually, I begin to see what they mean, even if at first I'm in denial. :)

    Excellent post.

  2. Thanks!

    I think that ability to push away the denial is a muscle all writers gradually learn to develop. I remember when I was first getting critiques, I didn't want to believe any of them. And then I started telling myself "Well, okay, but it's not *really* that bad." I think sometimes I still act that way when getting a critique from someone new, but with trusted CPs I'm very eager to hear critiques and find out what I can improve next. And I actually *like* getting critiques from people who really know how to give good ones.

  3. Oh lord, I rewrote a dystopian over the fall...just getting to where I like it, but it was sooooooo worth it. I really only had the courage to face it because my critique partners bolstered me up the whole way.

  4. That's fantastic! It's great when critique partners give you the motivation to keep going.