A lot of people are afraid to submit their work for critique, and that’s okay. It’s actually good to be honest with yourself about what you’re ready to hear regarding your writing. If you’re still in the phase where all you really need is praise and encouragement, that’s fine! If that’s where you are, don’t start a critique relationship—it’ll be a waste of your reader’s time, and a waste of your time if you’re not looking for real critique.
But if you have a piece of writing that you know can be better, and you’re ready to do the work of making it better, get yourself into a critique group or partnership! Be clear up front about any specific areas you’re hoping to improve, any timeline you’re on due to deadlines, and then wait.
Once the critiqued manuscript is in your hands, or you’re face to face with your workshopping group or critique partner, keep these things in mind:
- Every “mistake” is a chance to learn.
- It’s not personal—no one is born an expert at anything. As writers, we are all constantly learning to improve our craft of writing. The fact that our work isn’t perfect yet doesn’t mean we’re untalented or stupid.
- Critiques are subjective. Every reader brings his or her own experiences to the work, and not every reader is the audience for your particular story. Don’t use that as an easy out to avoid addressing an issue in your story, though! The general rule is that if multiple readers agree on an issue, it’s something you should take a closer look at. But there are certainly times when a plot problem can slip past the majority of readers, but when that one single reader catches it, you know they’re right. So don’t automatically discount the “lone voice in the wilderness” reader, either!
- Readers may ask for explanation or clarification, especially if what they critiqued was a partial rather than a complete manuscript. Giving them the full picture can help facilitate further discussion, but don’t spend all the time you have with your critique group defending your work instead of listening and taking in the suggestions.
- Critiquing takes time and effort, so be grateful even for the critiques that aren’t ultimately helpful, and be respectful of the work your readers put in.
- Not every critique is correct. It’s up to you, as the author, to decide how to apply the notes and comments you receive in critique.
How to Apply Critiques to Your Book
Easier said than done! Resist both the temptation to dismiss any suggestion you don’t immediately agree with, AND to follow every single suggestion step by step. Take each suggestion seriously, weighing it against your knowledge of the reader and his/her familiarity with your sub genre, other people’s comments on the same section, and the story you are trying to tell. Often, you will find that your reader can be completely wrong about what she thinks she doesn’t like—but that doesn’t mean you can dismiss her negative reaction. It’s up to you to figure out what the underlying problem is that she’s actually responding to, and how to fix it.
Many critiquers will attempt to be constructive by suggesting specific ways to fix the issues they bring up, which can certainly be interesting—but the way THEY would fix the problem isn’t necessarily how YOU would fix it. Your voice and your style of storytelling are what make your book unique—protect that! Try to look past the suggested fix to determine the underlying issue, and address that instead.
For instance: Let’s say you wrote a contemporary romance about a nerdy girl who falls for a bad boy dance instructor at a hotel in the Poconos. Jane Doe gives you this critique: “All the dirty dancing just isn’t sexy to me. Can’t the hero have some other job?”
Your options are…
- Take Jane Doe’s advice and make your hero a fellow guest at the hotel, a famous football player hiding from the paparazzi after a scandalously public break-up.
- Ignore Jane Doe’s opinion. Dancing is obviously sexy! If she read anything other than paranormal romance with vampires, she’d realize that.
- Take a look at how many dancing scenes you have—maybe there’s one or two too many, and they’re dragging the pacing down.
- Realize Jane Doe has a point that in a modern context, there’s nothing all that shocking about falling for a male dance instructor, so maybe what Jane is reacting to is a lack of conflict. But what if your book were set in the 1950’s? You could layer in more historical context to clarify how dangerous he seems to her, and how he’s unlike anyone she’s ever encountered before. Rewrite your whole book and turn it into a 1950’s-set historical!
All of those reactions are valid choices for you, the author, to make. Any one of them could lead to a better book, although several of them would lead to quite a different story from the one you originally set out to tell. Only you can decide which is the right path for your story—you aren’t locked into using Jane Doe’s idea of how to fix the issue. Assess whether you think the issue is an issue at all, get to the bottom of what the issue really is, and then get creative about finding a solution.
The key to getting the most out of a critique is keeping an open mind and being eager to improve your work. A critique full of smiley faces and “I love it!” notes is nice, but it isn’t going to help you take that next step forward in your writing journey.