Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Why Writers Should Want Nitpicky Critiquers

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Being nitpicky in a critique isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Aside from my critique partners, I also have a critique group I meet with every week. It’s just the three of us, all published, and all writing MG/YA fantasy. We’re a good match and it’s a solid and always helpful group.

We got together yesterday, and one of my friends said something (and not for the first time), that hit me a little differently than it usually does.

She said that she had a few things about my chapters that were just nitpicking, but she said it like she was apologizing for being picky.

I told her (as I always do), that I love nitpicks. Be nitpicky. Nits are where the gems comes from.

That last part was new, and it really resonated with me, because it’s so true. I really do want her to be picky, because some of the best parts of my novels have come from a tiny or nitpicky comment I received in a critique. Picky critiques are incredibly helpful.

Before I go on…let me clarify that I’m not talking about the “being picky just to say something negative” type of nitpick. We all know critiquers who criticize about little things that truly don’t matter, and use nitpicks as a way to tear down a writer instead of helping them. Those nitpicks are unhelpful and we don’t want those.

What I’m talking about are critiquers who care enough about your work to notice the little things that most people would overlook, because the writing is already good enough. But they see places where it could be better. The, “This is fine, but…” type feedback.

Here’s why I love a nitpicky critiquer, and why you should, too.

Nitpicks Push Us to Go Deeper

Nitpicks challenge me to do more with my writing. A scene might read just fine, might even be good, but a nitpicky comment makes me reevaluate it with a pickier eye. It makes me consider:
  • Can I do more with that detail?
  • Would taking that emotional beat a step further give more impact?
  • Is that stage direction describing it in the best way?
  • Should I cut that line of dialogue and let the thought come through in subtext instead?
More times than not, taking reworking whatever nitpicky thing was pointed out does indeed make the scene better. Looking at the scene a little closer also makes me notice other small things I could improve as well—things I felt were “good enough” until then, but I saw I was actually missing an opportunity to be better.

(Here’s more on Are You Missing Opportunities to Make Your Writing Stronger?)

Nitpicks Go the Extra Distance

I feel so fortunate that my critique partners are willing to put the extra time into my manuscript. That shows they care about my writing and want me to be successful—which is also how I feel about them, and why I’m just as nitpicky of their work.

Nitpicky comments say, “I want this story to be the best it can be, and I’m not letting you get away with anything.” It says, “I’m willing to spend time and energy that I could use for my own writing on helping you.” It says, “I’m invested in this story and notice all the work you’ve put into it.” It also says, “I’m not letting you be lazy just because you know this scene is good.”

Someone who cares enough to be nitpicky about your writing wants that writing to be the best it can be.

(Here’s more on Oh, That's Subtle: The Little Things Holding a Story Back)

Nitpicks Can Turn Good Into Great

If you’ve ever done a critique while tired, you’ve no doubt faced that “this is good and I just don’t have the energy to be picky about the little things” feeling. This is one reason I critique in chunks and stop when I start getting fatigued. There comes a point when we get tired and little stuff no longer bothers us. “It’s fine,” we think. “It’s not a big deal and it doesn’t hurt the story if it stays that way.”

And that’s probably true in most cases. But it also doesn’t help the story, either.

I’ve read countless manuscripts from writers of all levels and genres. I’ve read published novels from newbie indie authors to bestselling career authors from top-notch Big Five Publishers. The difference between good novels and great novels were in those nitpicks, and that was true across the board.

Almost any competent critiquer can catch the big things in a manuscript. It’s the little things that need someone with a good eye and a willingness to speak up to catch. And it’s the little things that add that final layer of polish that can push a manuscript over the top and into “Wow, this is awesome.”

(Here’s more on How to Be Your Own Book Doctor)

Nitpicks Do Depend on the Critiquer

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that the person doing the critiquing does matter. Finding good critique partners isn’t easy, and everyone brings different skills to the partnership. But when you find someone who has a great eye for the little things, or someone willing to be nitpicky in a way that’s helpful, encourage them to do so.

Also, don’t be afraid to be nitpicky when you critique (as long as it’s the good kind—don’t be “that person” no one wants reading their work). Push your writing partners as you’d want to be pushed. Help them be the best they can be, and look for all the opportunities you can find in their writing.

Not only will it benefit them, but you’ll start seeing those same opportunities in your own writing as well. You’ll train yourself to spot them, and before long, you’ll be taking advantage of them during the first draft instead of three drafts in.

(Here’s more on Finding the Right Critique Partners)

Being “too picky” is typically seen as a detriment, but it does have its benefits. 

What turns a story from good to great or even great to awesome is often something intangible. We know it when we read it, but there’s no one thing we can point to and say, “That’s why this book is so good.” It’s multiple tiny things that push the novel to greater heights. The nitpicks someone was kind enough to share that helped make that awesome novel what it is.

Are you a nitpicky critiquer? Do you like it when your critiquers are nitpicky about your work?

If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels:

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

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

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. I agree. I let others read my wips because I want a stronger story, not kudos. You want nothing but praise for your latest masterpiece? That's what mothers are for.

    1. Yep. It IS nice to know what we're doing right and what's working, but as the saying goes, we can't fix what we don't know is broken.

  2. Good critique partners point out the little things. In some respects one should be grateful as perhaps this means you have written a good piece.

    1. We should be grateful for anyone who takes the time to give us feedback. If all they find is little things, then that can indeed be a good thing.

  3. Thanks for this. I'm always very nitpicky when critiquing and often find myself apologizing, but this is how I'd like others to critique so I know I'm writing the best possible story. I find nitpicking particularly valuable with picture books since there are so few words and every single word must pull it's weight. I will stop apologizing for being nitpicky now.

    1. Most welcome. That's really useful for picture books. I often mention that many of my comments are nitpicky, or when one is particularly nitpicky, just to acknowledge it :) Sometimes I'll even say why if I know it's a me thing.