Tuesday, November 3, 2015

How to Take a Critique

A popular post from June 2011. 

by Annette Lyon

As many of our regular readers know, I've been part of a great critique group for a long time (since January of 2000). I've been published for 9 of those years, and I've been editing professionally for at least five of those. It's safe to say I've been on both sides of the "get your work torn apart" process.

With that in mind, here are a few guidelines for when you get feedback, whether it's from a beta reader, a critique group member, or an editor.

1) No matter what anyone says, it's still your book.
No one's opinion is law. Therefore: you don't have to change anything you don't want to.

Sometimes that realization is rather freeing.

It's also a pain in the neck, because things are so subjective in the arts. At times it would be nice to have a formula: X + Y = success! It's not quite like that.

That said:

2) Consider each piece of feedback seriously.
Even if you totally disagree with someone's suggestion about changing a section, don't dismiss the idea out of hand. Think about whether they have a valid point. Maybe their fix isn't the best idea, but their diagnosis is right on: something is indeed wrong with the section.

So maybe Mark wouldn't say what the editor suggested, but is there a chance his original dialog was flat or unmotivated? Is pace sagging here? Is that chapter confusing? Sometimes editors are great at spotting problems and suggesting solutions, but it's your job as the writer to figure out the best fix.

3) Don't argue, debate, or defend.
You've asked for (maybe even paid for!) an opinion. If you don't agree with it, fine. But insisting that your reader misread or misinterpreted your work, or insisting it must be this way or the reader is an idiot and missed this or that and here is why? That's not useful. (And it can be insulting; you asked for an opinion and got one.)

Okay, maybe the person is an idiot.

Or . . . maybe your reader missed a big point because you didn't write it effectively.

Figure out which it is, and, if necessary, get back to work. If getting an honest critique or edit stings too much and/or makes you want to whip out your defensive karate moves, there's a chance you're not ready for outside feedback quite yet.

4) A corollary: Just because something "really" is a certain way or "really" happened that way, doesn't mean it'll be believable.

For example: Some time ago, as I prepared to write a scene where a character dies, I read several first-person accounts from people who had loved ones die in similar circumstances. In my scene, I added the kinds of details that really happened to real people.

My critique group got hung up on a few of them because they didn't feel real.

What did I do? I could have insisted that "Some people really do go through it just like this." (And I could have proved it.)

Instead, I recognized that if those details pulled them out of the scene, if the moment didn't ring true, I needed to revise. I found other details (also real) that felt more true and familiar. The result was a much more powerful scene.

5) Don't go back to your editor to answer their "questions."
I put that in quotation marks, because if an editor writes notes like "Where are they?" or "What's the name of that museum?" or "I don't think such a building on that street exists, does it?" the editor is not really asking because they want an answer.

They're asking for the reader's benefit.

The editor is merely pointing out an issue for you as the writer to address: something is confusing, telly, unclear, or unbelievable. The question is a way for the editor to tell you that something isn't working. Questions give you, the writer, a direction to go.

I don't know of a single editor who ever waits for a client to send an email with, "Oh, by the way, the building you asked about is two blocks west of the City Bank on Main Street. It really exists. Here's a Google Map link to prove it."

(Thanks . . . that was totally keeping me up at night . . .)

In my experience, most editors are happy to clarify what they meant by a certain question if you aren't sure what the underlying issue is. But trust me; they aren't expecting you to answer those questions in any place except the actual manuscript, which the editor may never see again.

Answering a question (especially if it's one of those "See? I was right," issues) can rub the wrong way. Which leads to:

5) Resist correcting your editor.
We're human, so yes, we make mistakes, no matter how perfect we try to be. Whether it's a typo or fact we're off on . . . let it go. (Even if the mistake is phrased as a question, as in #4.)

Imagine this scenario (this exact situation hasn't happened, but it hearkens to real events): Your historical novel has a World War I battle and lists it as taking place in 1920. Your editor points out that the war had already ended by that point, with a note along the lines of, "WWI was over by then. I think the final battle was in 1919."

You recheck your facts and realize that whoops, the war was indeed over before 1920. But check it! The war ended in 1918, although the Treaty of Versailles wasn't signed until 1919.

Hah! Your editor was WRONG!

Sure, technically. But here's the deal: Your editor was correct in spotting your error. That's all that matters here. You were saved from looking bad. Returning with "Well, you were wrong too," won't elicit a thank you or warm fuzzies.

6) Have Reasonable Expectations. Or: Apply what you've learned. THEN come back.
Often, we editors get e-mails from clients saying that they learned so much from the 50 pages they had edited, whether it's about showing, exposition, dialog, or something else, and thank you!

We love that kind of feedback; helping writers to improve their work is what we're after.

Next step: apply what you've learned to the rest of the manuscript! Then ask for more editing.

Sometimes a writer wants to hand over 300 pages of a draft, pay for an edit, and end up with gold. That doesn't work. A single edit can take a manuscript only so many steps up. The better a piece is before an editor gets their hands on it, the higher level it'll be at the end of the edit. No matter how great the editor, coal cannot be turned into a diamond. Create a diamond, even in the rough, and the editor may be able to find the right cut and shape for it to sparkle!

This is, as we've mentioned on this blog before, why we often do manuscripts in chunks: it gives the writer the chance to learn from the edits of the early pages and apply those lessons so that later edits will be even more effective.

And finally, because it bears repeating:

No matter what anyone says, it's still your book.


Crystal Collier said...

Great advice. I remember the first time I got back 20 pages from a professional editor, and I was disappointed she didn't bother editing the rest of the manuscript. I've since learned the value of that edit, and the fact that no matter where you are or how much you've learned as a writer, there's always more.

Lu Ann Brobst Staheli said...

Great analysis, Annette. Maybe Heather could send this link to all of our clients before they get back our edits. ;-)

Heather B. Moore said...

Really really excellent!

Anne R. Allen said...

All excellent points. Especially about the "it really happened" thing. A lot of beginning fiction writers write thinly disguised memoir, and don't realize that if it's a novel--you gotta write a novel. Real life doesn't have to make sense. Fiction does.

Luisa Perkins said...

Fantastic post as always, Annette!

Amber said...

Awesome post! I'm tucking it away for future reference. :)

DeNae said...

Love your coal and diamond imagery. Perfect.

And all the rest of this is great, too, my friend.

So, here's what I would like to see: A post on how to offer critique - like in a critique group or as a beta reader - and the distinction between critique and criticism.

Readyyyyy? GO!

Jenny P. said...

I'm in the process right now of taking two reader evaluations provided by my publisher and applying them to my manuscript. At first, it was a little overwhelming. But then I remembered that it's just one person's opinion, and I don't really have to change something if it doesn't feel right to me. And so I've ignored a few things. But, I've also made some really wonderful changes based on the suggestions in the evaluations. It's hard at first, but then when you see what good can come from a different perspective, it feels so good to see your work getting better.

Great post, Annette.:)

Josi said...

Annette is a goddess.

Jennie said...

Excellent post, Annette. You've hit on some essential points most writers have tolearn the hard way. The sooner a writer learns his/her editor isn't the adversary, but someone who is equally interested in making the book both have a stake in, the best book possible,the better the end re4sult will be.

Jennie said...

Sorry about all of the typos. I'm too tired to be typing tonight.

Krista said...

Really, really good, Annette. And you totally have the chops to be giving this advice. Thank you!

Botanist said...

I think #3 is so important in critique groups. The point is, your writing should stand up for itself. If you have to debate or defend something then it clearly isn't doing its job - for that reader.

I'd like to follow that up with a #7 (in the spirit of that all-important #1): No matter what you think of the feedback, it is never wrong. You got a reader's opinion. You can't argue with that. All you can do is decide whether to use it or not. Hey...subjectivity again!

Susan Law Corpany said...

Great points all, Annette!

T.J. said...

Great advice, Annette. It is my book. So I can just blow off what anyone says because it's perfect in my mind...no wait...that's definitely not right. Meh.

Melissa J. Cunningham said...

Great points and great post! Thank you, darlin'.

Scott Clayton said...
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Scott Clayton said...
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Scott Clayton said...

Annette, did you write this just for me? Seriously some of your posts hit so close to home it feels that way.

I'm gearing up for the critique group in August and this is perfect preparation. Thanks for the advice.

By the way I have no idea what kind of idiot would make 2 different grammatical errors when posting a comment on your blog and then just delete them. The nerve of some people.

Do you have a service to edit blog comments? If so, I could really use it. If there's an error in this one I give up.

Braden Bell said...

I'm late to the party by a few years--but great stuff!