Monday, January 06, 2020

Three Things to Remember When Revising from a Critique

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Revising from critique feedback can improve a manuscript—if you remember a few important details.

Starting the New Year probably ought to begin with the first draft of a new project, but I always seem to be revising when January 1 rolls around. This year is no different, and I’m deep into a final revision before this manuscript goes to my agent next week.

Naturally, revision and critiques are heavily on my mind this week, particularly the best way to get the most from the feedback I’ve recieved.

I’ve written a lot about critiques over the years, but there are always new things to learn and consider. Today, let’s look at three things to keep in mind when reviewing feedback:

1. Sometimes the fix isn’t rewriting the existing text, it’s just moving things around.

Critiquers don’t know the entire story when they read the draft, especially if they’re making inline comments as they read. “I don’t think you need this scene and/or subplot” is a comment you might receive, even though you know for sure you do need that scene and/or subplot. “Cut this backstory” or “Repeated information” are also commonly found.

But the problem isn’t with the text, it’s where that text appears in the story. Cutting it would actually hurt the novel.

For example, the manuscript I’m working on is a complex tale, with lots of layers and subplots. Solid scenes have been in the wrong spots, backstory has been repeated, and some world building aspects required more explanation at various times. I wasn’t too concerned how the flow worked during the initial draft, because I wanted to get the story down first.

crit groups, revising from feedback, how to critique
My feedback reflected this, and quite a few scenes needed to be reorganized, and bits and pieces of information combined and moved around for the best narrative flow. A major subplot for the entire series is a scene a critiquer suggested I cut. It’s also a scene that plays a significant role in the ending. Cutting it wasn’t an option.

The problem here was that too many things were happening in the early chapters, and this was a scene that didn’t need to happen in the first act. All I had to do was move it, and it worked as intended.

Backstory and world building infodumps are other areas that often just need moving instead of cutting. It isn’t until you see how the entire story unfolds that you know the most effective place to insert those bits of story information.

You might dump information early on, but that kills the tension of that scene, and a little tease is what you really need there. Or you might discover that "subtle hint" about an important backstory clue or world building detail goes right past readers and you actually do need to flesh it out more for them to understand it.

Before you cut or rewrite, consider if that information would work better in another spot. Maybe the problem isn’t the text itself, but where it’s falling in the manuscript.

(Here’s more on Shake and Bake: Re-Structuring Your Novel)

2. Not every comment is the right feedback for the manuscript, but every comment should be carefully considered—because sometimes it is necessary after you think about it a bit.

People have preferences, and critiquers don’t always see the story the way you do. That can be good and lead to exciting insights or ideas you hadn’t thought of, but it can also mean you get feedback that pushes the story somewhere you don’t want to go.

It’s easy to dismiss these comments as “They just didn’t get it” or “They missed the point of it,” but if they did, other readers might as well. It’s also easy to say, “I disagree” and move on, especially if you think whatever it is they’re commenting on is done right.

I have a comment in my current WIP I’m still considering, and probably will until the very end. My instincts say it’s a personal issue for that reader, but I’m not 100% sure. I’ll wait until I review a few more critiques before deciding, and even then, will probably look to see if I can address it without changing things too much.


Because it’s possible this reader is correct and the only one who mentioned it. It’s possible others felt this way, but not as strongly so they didn’t feel the need to mention it. Not all critiquers are nitpicky (which are my favorite kind, by the way), and some focus more on the wide stroke issues than the micro issues.

Not all comments need to be addressed in a critique, but err on the side of caution when you can. Often, you can add a small fix with a few words or sentences that satisfies the comment without doing anything to change the scene or story.

(Here’s more on 3 Signs You Might Be Ignoring Writing Advice That Can Help You)

3. The comments that make you think, “Oh, that’ll be too much work,” are often the ones that can improve the manuscript the most.

I get it, I really do. There comes a time in every revision when we just want it to be over. Coming across a meaty comment we know is going require a lot of revising and effort is more than we can bear. We might even try to convince ourselves that, sure, it’s a decent idea, but would anyone really care? Would it truly make the story better?

I spent an entire afternoon revising from a single line of feedback. Just a simple “Wouldn’t he have a stronger emotional reaction about X here based on his history?” caused me hours of work. Because the comment was spot on.

crit groups, revising from feedback, how to critique
I had to flesh out the emotional layer of an entire chapter, plus the three scenes leading up to that chapter. I spent the same amount of time on 3000 words as I did the first half of the entire manuscript. But I did it, because I knew it was the right thing for the story, and doing all that work would make readers care more about my protagonist and what he faces in that chapter. It became more than just a scene to show backstory, and add a little step of the plot.

And ultimately, that was where the real problem was. It was a scene added because I needed a few things to happen for the plot, and I wanted to show some cool world building stuff. In not digging deeper, I’d missed a huge opportunity for character development, and this critiquer caught it—and called me on it, thankfully.

Do the work. Yes, it’s hard, and yes, you’re tired, but it’ll be worth it in the end. It might even become the scene that makes a reader fall in love with the book one day. It might even be the scene that sells the book one day. Don’t let your story down this close to the end.

(Here’s more on Listen to Me: Putting Feedback to Good Use)

Feedback can be rough, especially if the manuscript has problems, but it’s that tough-love feedback that will help you turn a manuscript into a book readers will love. Don’t forget why you asked for feedback in the first place. To make your story the best it can be.

How do you handle revising from critique feedback? What wisdom have you learned from doing it?

Need help revising? Get all three Fixing Your Revision Problems books in one omnibus!

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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. Beautiful.

    This is one of the best pieces on critiques that I've ever seen. Your first point reassures the author that many changes don't have to be huge, and your third one says that some deserve to be.

    I especially like the middle point: some advice may call for little or no change at all, but none should be brushed aside.

    "Because it's possible this reader is correct and the only one who mentioned it... Often, you can add a small fix with a few words or sentences that satisfies the comment without doing anything to change the scene or story."

    We all know what it's like when our first reaction to a critique is to defend ourselves. This advice does so much to keep it in perspective: the reader isn't wrong, and they aren't saying we are either -- they're saying they (and some share of future readers) would be happier with some extra touch in the story. And if that change is only a tweak, of course we should look for ways to tweak it for them that won't damage what matters.

    Words to live by.

    1. Aw, thanks so much :) It's so hard not to have that knee-jerk defensive reaction. i do have it from time to time, but I know to ignore it and let the feedback simmer and then judge it.

      And yeah, it also tickles me how a few words can change an entire scene sometimes.

  2. This post deeply resonated with me, especially where you say to pay attention to all critiques even if they don't seem to make sense. Some critiques I dismissed at first glance, but then they worked on me, and I realized a valid point had been brought up though not been expressed well. The reader bumped against something and I had to figure out what it meant. Thanks so much for your insightful posts.

    1. Most welcome. That happens. Critiquers know something is off, but it's not always what they think it is. Sometimes the problem is in the setup, or in something we didn't flesh out enough to make that particular scene or moment resonate the way we wanted it to.

  3. Thank you Janice for another terrific article. Perfect timing, as I'm now expecting critique feedback. Your advice on moving things around is just SO to the point. (Wish I'd known this when I started writing. Just stumbled onto it by trial and error). One tends to include too much at the beginning when in fact, you need to withhold for as long as possible in order to fire up the reader's curiosity and keep them reading. As you say, you often don't need much to improve the work - just a tweak or two here and there can work wonders. Thanks again :)

    1. Most welcome. Hope your feedback was helpful and praising :) And yep, that sums it up perfectly.

  4. Thank you so much for this post. I understand exactly what you mean about the critiquers who pick up on something you think is correct. I had one who claimed not to understand a particular sentence. I'm afraid my first reaction was "What? There's nothing difficult about that sentence!" But I understand now that I need to look at it carefully. If she didn't understand it, then other readers might not, either.
    Such good advice.

    1. Most welcome. Exactly. It makes sense to us because we know everything there is to know about why it matters. But someone without our knowledge of the story might not see the nuances there. Or it might just be that something wasn't set up right to make that sentence resonate correctly at that time.