Wednesday, June 20, 2018

8 Tips for Reviewing a Manuscript Critique

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

On July 2, I’ll be opening up Janice Hardy’s Critique Connection again for those looking for critique groups or partners. So it seemed like a good time to review how to handle a critique.

When you get that critique 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, and that feedback provides the opportunities to make your manuscript even better. Here are some things to remember when receiving a critique:

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. Consider 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.

Sometimes readers spot issues in one area when the real problem is somewhere else. For example, a comment about a character’s action that feels wrong might be right, in a way—maybe the character is acting exactly they way they need to in a scene, but the problem isn’t that scene, it’s a scene three chapters back where you first set up the motivations that needs work.

That’s the crazy thing about left-field comments—they’re often picking up on subtle things the critiquer noticed, but can’t say why it bugs them. So they struggle to be helpful (because they’re nice folks) and say something that feels out of nowhere.

Of course, totally wrong comments can be missing the point, but it’s still what the reader felt, so respect that even if you ignore the advice.

(Here's more on how to critique a manuscript)

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 a comment, but don't want to do it. Maybe it feels like too much work, or it'll cause another problem later in the book you’ll have to fix, or you’re just tired of revising and you want it over. This could indicate revision fatigue, so maybe take a break and come back to it later.

If you think it’ll make the book better, do it. You’ll be glad you did it later.

(Here's more on what to do when your advice gets ignored) 

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

Every writer has their own style and views on what makes “good writing,” and maybe your style is different from your critiquer. Or perhaps the critiquer is wrong (it happens) or doesn’t fully understand your genre or market. Even great ideas or suggestions can be wrong for your particular story.

If you understand why the comment was made and have solid reasons for not doing it that way, you can safely ignore it. Not every comment will be right for every story.

(Here's more on the difference between a writing problem and a "not for me" issue)

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

It's the comments you aren’t sure about but can't say why that can come back to bite you. Something about it resonates with you, but it also seems wrong or not quite right. Your knee-jerk reaction is to say "No," but there's something in the comment that makes you hesitate. It's like your subconscious knows there's a bit of truth there, but you can’t quite find it. Figure out why before you do anything, and maybe ask the critiquer to clarify what they meant.

You might also consider why you're resistant to the change. Sometime a change requires edits that scares you, or a change to something you love, or even require a skill you're not sure you have. It might not be the comment itself, but what the comment would lead to that’s bothering you.

(Here's more on ignoring advice that can help you) 

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

People get grammar rules wrong all the time, and punctuation rules such as where commas go 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 Golden Rule of Critiques. If you confused a reader, the passage or sentence wasn't clear. Sure, maybe you 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 information, odds are a reader will have the same issue. You usually don’t have to go deep into explanations or rehash a prior scene, but a quick word or two as a reminder is more often than not a good idea.

(Here's more on good critique and beta reader etiquette) 

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 a scene or changing a character because it seems “really cool” can hurt your novel. It can hijack it, add unneeded subplots, confuse the core conflict, or just change the story you wanted to tell.

Serve the story—don’t just add “cool stuff” to make it cool.

(Here's more on putting critique feedback to good use)

8. Be as objective as you can.

This is the hardest tip to follow, because writing is personal, your manuscript is your baby, and when someone doesn’t like it, you can feel slighted or hurt. But most critiquers are offering feedback to help you make your manuscript better, not to hurt you or tear your story apart.

Of course, there are the rare times when you get a bad critiquer who is trying to turn your story into theirs, or has no idea what they’re talking about, or is rude and undiplomatic with their feedback. It stinks, but it happens, and objectivity helps you tell the bad critiquers from the ones who just aren’t good at being diplomatic. Objectivity also helps you not take those bad comments to heart.

Critiques can be invaluable to a writer, but in the end, it's your book, so do what you think is best.

How to you handle critiques? What’s the worst critique you’ve ever gotten?

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

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. Great breakdown of our options, and what matters-- of course the real priority is the story, and doing what you can for each reader.

    I've always told my group to treat each critique like one response in a poll: if someone has a problem with something (no matter how "left field" it is), they represent a share of our readers who will put the same spin on our writing, and we should think about how to satisfy them. But thinking about it also means balancing that change against the harm it might do the rest of the story, and trying to finesse around it.

    And like a poll, if more people have the same issue with you, it becomes a much bigger priority. But there's still the chance that they're clashing with one of your core beliefs about writing... and then the challenge is still to what what you need to, in a form that brings the readers around.

  2. Excited to hear the Connection is coming back to play...great post here with tips that don't ask any author to go beyond intelligent middle ground.

    Everyone has their own opinions and background info which will affect how they absorb a story. Plus, their perceptions, assumptions and 'common' knowledge belong to their world alone. However, if your story grapples with the most basic good/bad values or views, nearly any reader will sail along unfettered.

    So, if a critique comment makes you go: whaaaaaa? Then it's time to consider what element in the comment reveals where your material stepped beyond the common core values or didn't make a tight enough connection. Could be your critique-mate has no knowledge of the references you used. Could be you assumed readers would possess certain knowledge.

    No matter what -- using Janice's tips and setting aside being personally affronted -- you can squeeze the last bit of worth from any critique.

    Thanks, Janice!

    1. Very interesting. "Beyond common core values." I really like that, and it's so true.

  3. This post couldn't come at a more perfect time. I just finished editing and revising my book and was wondering where I could find a fresh pair of eyes to go over it.