Wednesday, June 21, 2017

How to Handle Conflicting Critiques

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Q: I submitted my story to a few online critique groups in hopes of getting it polished up for submission. I've been a bit paranoid about submitting since I found all these publishing and agent blogs and of course all of the advice from actual published authors. But after getting my critiques back, no one could agree, on anything. What was wrong, what was right, what worked or didn't work, even grammar suggestions. I didn't get the same thing twice. Everyone had completely different ideas. I'm just curious, that if I'm getting such a wide range of comments, could it mean that this story is lost cause? Or do I need to seek out some other readers? How do you sort through all the varied opinions? How do you get the most out of your critiques?

A: This is a great question and a situation I bet everyone who's ever gotten critiques back has encountered at least once. I submitted the first three chapters of my now-trunked first novel to, and I had folks asking why it wasn't published yet, folks saying it was a mess and to start over, folks saying they loved my main character and others telling me he was terrible and to cut him and go with my secondary character for the narrator, and everything in between.

It's normal to get contradicting advice. Even the feedback I received this week on my new writing book had one critiquer who loved my movie examples and another who thought I should cut them. In this case, I was able to revise and make both sides happy, but sometimes you have to make a judgement call and do what you feel is best. Trust your vision of the story you want to tell.

Conflicting critiques are tougher to handle, because there's no baseline. It's easy to trust there's an issue when four people point out the same problem. But unless you know the critiquer and trust their judgement, you don't always know if their advice is advice that will help or hurt you.

When in doubt, trust your instincts. Like any critique, take the feedback that feels right to you and ignore what doesn't. It doesn't matter who says it, if you think it will make the story better overall, it's a good comment.

Typically, you'll get at least one "out there"comment from almost everyone about something, since we all have our pet peeves and quirks. It's easy to write these off as outliers, but I've learned that an "out of the blue, what the heck are they thinking?" comment often zeroes in on something I hadn't thought about or didn't see in that same way. Once I get past the knee-jerk reaction, I usually see the critiquer's point and fix the issue.

Sometimes conflicting critiques come from critiquers who can't quite articulate what's wrong, so they say one thing when the problem is really somewhere else. For example, a scene might not work for them and they'll give you reasons, but the real problem was three scenes earlier because the setup wasn't done right to make that later scene work as intended.

And then there's the rare critiquer who feels it's their job to point out problems, so you'll get feedback about issues that aren't really issues.This type of critiquer thinks they have to comment on something, so they stretch to find problems.

You also have to remember that not every story suits every reader. I've been critiquing (and writing) long enough that I recognize a story that just isn't for me, and I can say, "There's nothing inherently wrong with this story, but it isn't grabbing me. This is the fault of the reader, not the writer." And then I'll give the best feedback I can as objectively as I can. Sometimes, the wrong reader is reading your story, but they just don't know they're the wrong reader.

One upside, though, if the feedback is all over the place, that most likely means the story is working fine and isn't a lost cause. The critiquers are simply focusing on their personal tastes and pet peeves. Major problems typically show up in almost every critique. If three or more people said something, odds are there's a problem there somewhere.

Here are some critique guidelines that have always worked well for me:

1. Take every comment seriously, even if it seems out of left field or flat out wrong

Ask yourself why the critiquer said what they said and try to see the underlying problem. Then decide if it's a comment that needs to be addressed or not. Left field comments are often picking up on subtle things that not even the critiquer fully understands why it bugs them, so they come up with weird reasons for it. Totally wrong comments can be missing the point, but are still valid since that's what the reader felt. It's your job to figure out what made them feel that way and then decide if it needs fixing.

2. If you agree with a comment, make the change.

The one caveat here, is when you think the comment is a great idea, but that idea will fundamentally change your story and you don't want that change. It's okay to agree with a great idea and know it's just not right for that book.

3. If you don't agree with a comment, don't make the change.

This holds true no matter who gave you the advice. Even top-notch editors and bestselling authors can give bad advice or advice that doesn't suit a particular story.

4. If you're not sure about a comment, think about what the critiquer is trying to point out and why.  

As I said before, some critiquers spot things from weird angles and it takes some study to figure out what they mean. It's also smart to think about why you're resistant to the comment. Sometimes a comment will need edits that scare us, or change something we love, or even require a skill we're not sure we have. Or it might suggest something we hadn't thought about before, so we knee-jerk react and say "no," but there's something in there that resonates with us so we hesitate. It's like our subconscious knows there's a gem in that comment.

5. If it's a grammar or punctuation rule and you're not sure if the comment is right, look it up. 

Otherwise, if the change makes the sentence read better make it. If not, don't.

6. If it's a clarity issue, fix it, even if you think it's clear.  

This is my personal Golden Rule of critiques. Unless there is absolutely no way I can clarify what someone was confused about (and once in a while this happens), I tweak it.

7. Do whatever serves the story best. 

Great ideas or suggestions don't always work for the story you're trying to tell, and making those changes the story and can cause larger overall problems. Even great ideas can be the wrong ideas if they don't fit.

With conflicting critiques (or any critique, really), trust your instincts. Focus on the story and consider how every comment might make it better. If it won't, that's not a comment you need to worry about.

Have you ever gotten a conflicting critique? How do you handle them? 

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my bestselling Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. Excellent advice. It can be frustrating at times, but overall, I am also a proponent of critique groups. They have helped me more than I can express.

  2. Great advice. I was in a crit group and one guy blasted my manuscript. I was devastated until I read his manuscript. I hated it. Our styles of writing were polar opposites and so that put it into perspective for me.

  3. Thanks again for the advice.

  4. As always, Janice's advice is dead-on. (I'm in her pro crit group, and also do some editing).

    The toughest issue in my own experience is when people I respect as knowing their stuff flag issues that I recognize (usually after a short but necessary period of denial) as correct but fear I don't have the craft or skills to fix. Janice mentioned this, and it's happened to me more than once, mostly 'cause I'm a set-of-the-pants, muse-driven type, and not of a highly analytical bent.

    In these instances, the best solution seems to be to go back to that critiquer, tell them to assume I'm an idiot, and ask them to walk me through it point by point. And then grit your teeth and get to it.

  5. Great advice. I think the subjective nature of critiquing/writing leads to inconsistent responses. Since I've been working on the same manuscript for a number of years, I've been submitting it to different editors at SCBWI conferences and also getting somewhat inconsistent critiques. They are frustrating, but we can't give up.

    FYI, I'm being interviewed on Heather Kelly's blog tomorrow and I put in a plug for your wonderful blog. The link is

  6. Good advice.

    It's good to remember that critique groups are made up of readers, and that readers will always have different opinions. That's one of the things I find so exciting about it.

  7. I once posted a story on one of those popular crit sites, and folk were a) offering suggestions that were completely contrary to the narrator's voice, and b) correcting misspellings that weren't. (Faerie, used consistently throughout a work? NOT a freakin' misspelling!)

    Something to bear in mind on grammar input, though: grammar rules vary according to source. So pick a grammar handbook to use as your foundation; otherwise, you'll look up the same rule twice in two different handbooks and get two different answers.

    Nice feedback, Ms. Hardy. Makes me sorry I had to figure all that out the hard way. (And glad my friends who were my first critics knew far more about critiquing than I did.)

  8. Mary McDonald makes a great point. Always consider the source. Critiques almost always have as much to do with the critiquers own tastes and prejudices as your work. And someone who doesn't read in your genre can be especially off base. This is why genre-specific groups, under umbrellas like Sisters in Crime, RWA, SCBWI etc. seem to have the best track records.

  9. This is something I have really noticed. I really like it though, when 3 different sources all agree on one thing. That makes it pretty clear what I need to work on. I've noticed that reactions to word choice really depends on whose reading it and what their reading background is.

  10. Good advice. This part will turn out to be a nerve-wracking process I think.

  11. Thanks Natalie! Great interview you did, by the way.

    Amanda, I feel the same way. I love it when everyone says the same thing, because I know for sure that's a problem. Makes it easier to deal with the "problem" itself. LOL.

  12. Years ago, I sent a complete novel to Harlequin Intrigue. The novel was lost, and the editor asked for a resend. Somehow, the first copy ended up with another Intrigue editor so I had two rejections. One said "Too much intrigue, not enough romance." The other said, "Too much romance, not enough intrigue."

    So even professional editors who know what they want disagree.

    Most critiquers really don't know what they are doing. A good way to focus critiques is to give each critiquer a series of questions. I'm sure Janet has a list, but, if not, here's mine.

    Sometimes, it's best to find a good writing teacher who critiques so they can teach you what to look for.

    As to the novel that received the rejections, another publisher bought it, and readers thought it was just right.

  13. Just what I needed to read right now! thank you

  14. thanks for reposting. This is excellent advice all around.