Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Is it Me? Getting the Most Out of a Critique

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A reader asked...
Maybe a post on how the writer can figure out if that's really happening, or if it's just the conflicting tastes of different readers or other writers disguised as "Helpful advice?"
I've done a few posts on this topic, the first on my approach to revising based on a critique, and the second on how to know what to do with the feedback you're given, especially if it's conflicting. And here's one on general critiquing and things to look for just to cover the bases. I wracked my brain this morning to find a new twist on this topic, but I honestly couldn't do it (grin). So here are my own personal rules for dealing with feedback with a few new thoughts, and I'll toss in what to do if you're the one who's offering the "conflicting" advice, and some wake up calls to realize if you're ignoring advice you ought to be taking.

Dealing With a Critique

When you get that crit back, it can be easy to just ignore what you don't like and only take in the good stuff. But the bad stuff is what you asked for. That's where the problems lie and these are the opportunities to make your work even better.

1. Take every comment seriously

Even if it seems out of left field or flat out wrong, someone thought that based on what you wrote. 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 knows why it bugs them and 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

This seems like it should be a no-brainer, but sometimes you'll agree with something, but don't want to do it. It'll be too much work, it'll cause another problem later, etc. Do it anyway.

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

It's your book, do what you think is best. Even great ideas or suggestions can be wrong for your story. As long as you understand why the comment was made and have solid reasons for not doing it that way, you can ignore it. It's the comments you disagree with but can't say why that can come back to bite you. Those are often seeing problems that come to light in one area, but the real trouble is earlier on.

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

As in #3, sometimes readers spot things in one area when the real problem is somewhere else. A change that might feel "iffy" to you could be one of those comments. Also think about why you're resistant to the change. Sometime a change may require edits that scare us, or a change to 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 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 

People get things wrong all the time. And things like commas can be a personal preference. I had one copy editor add a ton of commas to The Shifter, so when I wrote Blue Fire, I followed those guidelines. And then the next (and new) copy editor had me take them all out. Both editors were right, but they each had a preferred style. Overall, if a punctuation 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 crits. If someone got confused, something wasn't clear. Sure, you may have left hints, or even talked about it two chapters ago, but if your critiquer read those chapters a week apart (like a reader might) and forgot a key bit of info, odds are a reader will have the same issue. You might not need to go deep into anything, but a quick word or two as a reminder could be a good idea.

7. Do whatever serves the story best

Even great ideas can be the wrong ideas if they don't fit the story you're trying to tell. Adding or doing something that seems really cool just because it's really cool can hurt your novel. It can hijack it, add unneeded subplots, confuse the core conflict.

Okay, so what happens when you're the one who is offering feedback and no one is listening?

1. Remember that no one has to take your advice

Your advice might be exactly right, but if the writer disagrees, that's their prerogative. They have to do what they think is best, same as you.

2. Don't get pushy about what you think

If you're discussing the topic with the author in a post-crit wrap up, it's okay to explain your point and why you think it's a good idea, but don't try to shove that idea down the author's throat. That'll just make them more resistant to listening to you in the future.

3. Don't get mad

It can be frustrating to be ignored, especially if you believe your advice will help the writer or the work. But you've done your job by offering that advice, and you can't take it personally if someone decides not to use it. Maybe they feel it isn't right, or maybe they're just not at the point yet where they can put that advice into practice.

4. Consider that you might be wrong

It is possible that your advice isn't good advice. You learned it wrong, you misunderstood something, your take on the situation isn't right, or you really are missing the point. It happens.

5. Try and help them write their story, not yours

We often see what we'd do with a story when we read it, but our take on it might not be the same as the author's take. So why it's helpful to offer suggestions you feel would improve the story, try to keep what the writer wants in mind. Changing their story isn't going to help them improve what they want to do, even if you feel starting over with a new plot is what is best for it. If you're telling them stuff they just flat out don't want to do from a story or plot standpoint, they won't listen to it -- and they shouldn't have to.

How do you know if you're ignoring advice that can help you?  
1. Do you hear the same advice from multiple sources?

If a lot of folks are saying the same things, odds are there's something there that need fixing. Especially if it's a larger issue that crops up no matter what piece you're working on. That suggests it's a skill problem, not an individual piece problem.

2. Is the amount or quality of feedback you're getting declining?

People don't want to waste time on folks who ignore them and keep making the same mistakes. So if you used to get detailed crits back, and now you're getting short summarized crits, you might want to think about why no one is bothering to try and help anymore. 

3. Do you feel like you ought to do it, but you're blowing it off anyway because "that's what editors are for?"

I see this all the time on the writer's forums. Folks who think problems in their work will be fixed once they sell it. That their work only needs to be "good enough" to land an agent or an editor. Not true at all. You need to be as perfect and as polished as you can be before it goes to an agent or editor. Look at it this way -- would you want to work with someone where you always have to re-do their work or someone who gets it right the first time?

Critiques can be invaluable to a writer, but they're a two-way street. If you give as good as you get, and heed advice on both sides of the crit, then everyone wins.

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. This is all good advice for my academic writing, too-- I spent a lot of time last semester frustrated because I didn't get a lot of good advice back, but now I want to go reread it all and see if there is a recurring theme that I missed. Thanks!

  2. It is always helpful to read about giving and receiving criticism. Neither is easy to do. No matter how long I've been in a group, I'm always amazed at how nervous and anxious I get when receiving a crit. I keep hoping it will get easier. Thanks for a great post.

  3. One word. Awesome. Thank you so much for sharing your advice. :)

  4. Great advice. I'm going to go back and read your other posts, too. I'm gearing up to get crits back and this is just the stuff I want to read beforehand. Thanks!

  5. This is all really great advice! I esp like the bit about figuring out WHY someone said something in a critique of your ms, even though it wasn't spot-on. Obviously, something was not clear to make them think that. That is a more complex type of fixing and figuring, but it's important.

  6. Thanks for the great advice. And I enjoyed Kristen Nelson's take on how middle grade book sales grow and using your book as an example in yesterday's post.

  7. Great timing. I agree with Su; I just received feedback on an article, and while I was resistant to change at first, I can see where the reviewer is coming from. After receiving critiques can be a great time to revisit your outline; sometimes shuffling things around can solve problems in the manuscript.
    Thanks again for the advice!

  8. Love this! Especially since I'm currently running a crit contest. I'm going to link this to all my crits, and to an upcoming blog post. Thank you!

  9. That last point is -- BAM! Spot on. I get really annoyed with people who don't put the time into their writing because they assume an editor has a magic wand in the form of a ballpoint pen.

  10. Janice,
    I would add to the offering feedback section something along the lines of "Try and think about what the writer is trying to do and give advice based on that." Or, to put it anther way, "Try and help them write their story, not yours."

  11. Su: I often re-read crits after I'm done with a revision, just to make sure I got it all. Sometimes I'll see something in a new light and get what I did get the first time.

    Cat: I still get nervous, too :) I'm not sure that ever goes away, but it does get easier. Or you get used to it.

    Angie: Thanks!

    Holly: I agree :)

    Tracey: Perfect timing. There's a "critique" label, too, where you can find more info if you want.

    Carol: It really is. I can't tell you how often one of my crit partners mentioned something in one spot, and the problem was elsewhere. Even my editor has done that, though she's pretty good about knowing why something might not be working.

    Natalie: I did, too :) It's always fun when she talks about the books. Makes me feel so authory, LOL.

    Anna: Outlines are a great place to start with any revision. I find outlines a helpful tool overall.

    Lydia: Very cool, thanks! I'll link back :)

    Juliette: Thanks!

    Elliot: That attitude always surprises me, but I think a lot of folks just don't know how the biz works.

    Fritz: You are spot on there. I'll add that to the post. It's a great point.