Receiving an honest critique on your pages can be brutal. When the feedback is less than positive, it can be a blow to your very core. But fear not, brave Writer! There's hope for your words. You only need to know how to handle the critique.
You've sweated and slaved over each word trying to find that perfect magical project that's ready to submit. But first, you run it past several critiquers (partners and one-time swaps) hoping the feedback will help make it shine. But also (kind of) hoping they'll tell you it's ready for the bookshelves.
There are several excellent articles about how to give good critiques, critique resources, and about critiques gone wrong - even if you think you can't give a good critique. But knowing how to handle feedback - especially when it's negative - is just as key.
"That Rings True"
If the feedback fits in with your vision of the story, make the changes without hesitation. This rare refreshing critique can put you on a shortcut to making your book what it needs to be. Beware, however, if ALL the feedback you receive is 'ringing true.' This could indicate that you are not seeking critiques from a broad enough range of writers, or it could indicate that you are giving undue weight to every critique you receive.
Just a little tweak
Sometimes a critiquer suggests a complete overhaul of your plot, when all you really need to do is fill in a small plothole. Try little tweaks before big picture revisions. For example, in my current WIP (Work In Progress), my main character had a learning disability. One critique suggested that I needed a crash course in grammar rules because I was writing as he would, rather than what is grammatically correct. A little tweak to better show my main character's POV (Point of View) was all I needed to fix the flaw.
Rule of Three (or more)
For picture book writers, the rule of three is a technique used in telling stories. Basically, it means that having actions, characters, and obstacles in sets of three can be a good thing. Having sets of three (or more) feedback on the same scene is also a good thing, even when the feedback is negative. There was one scene in my WIP that every critiquer hated. I didn't get a single positive comment on it. That's when I knew no amount of tweaking would fix it, and I had to 'kill my darling.'
My friend Debbie Ridpath Ohi did a comic that pretty much sums up what happened. (Hint: visit her site for more 'so true' moments like this)
Consider the Source
When I was a teenager, I got picked on a lot. It hurt, too. But my mom often smoothed out my wounded feelings with a dismissive, "Well, consider the source!"
My mom may have just meant to let those hateful comments roll off my back, but as I pondered the "source" I soon understood why those comments were made. Instead of completely disregarding the hurtful sentiments, I tried to interpret them and use them to improve myself.
This skill also comes in handy when getting critiques. People from the city are going to bring a different perspective from those who live in rural areas, for example. Likewise, a published YA author is going to have a different perspective from a memoir writer who is seeking publication. Considering the source may bring to light ways to help you reach a wider readership.
This doesn't mean you automatically discount feedback that comes from a new writer. Nor does it mean you automatically give more weight to a published author or editor. It does mean, however, that you think about why the critique was given and how much time they spent on your work. A new writer may not have as much publishing experience, but they tend to spend more time and thought on critiquing your work - and will therefore often give more valuable in-depth feedback, whereas a published author or editor may simply try to point you in the right direction.
Smoke and Mirrors
Sometimes several critiquers will mention that "something feels off," but can't quite pinpoint what. Or sometimes several mention a similar problem, and point to a different spot where it occurs. When this happens it's like a magician's audience witnessing the same trick and offering different theories about how it is done. Rarely are any of the explanations exactly right. With one of my WIPs, critiques were all over the place. Some said the pacing was off, others thought the plot was wrong. Had I tried to "fix" the problems mentioned by the first critique instead of comparing feedback, I could have ruined the whole book. Eventually, I realized it was the underlying message that was a problem – something none of the feedback mentioned, but that all of them had "felt".
Right Problem, wrong solution
When I critique other people's work, I always try to suggest a solution to the problems I see. I heard once that almost every suggested solution is going to be wrong for the problem. This may be true because each writer has a unique voice. So, why bother suggesting solutions at all if they most likely won't fix the problem?
Yes, I know that the authors I critique will most likely not take my ideas. In fact, I hope they don't blindly incorporate them, simply because I suggested them. However, I don't think it's a bad idea to offer possible solutions in your feedback. Ideas on how to resolve a problem help me understand clearly why it's a problem, and also will maybe spark inspiration on fixing it.
Enough is Enough
How do you know when to submit to publishers and agents? That is the huge question for most writers. I usually submit when the only criticism I get isn't ringing true, and I'm getting comments like "this is ready" and "Are you sure this isn't published?" or my favorite, "You have to get this published, so I can buy a copy!"
At this point, EDIT WITH CARE. Fix typos, and make small tweaks here and there, but don't add any major changes just because one critiquer got confused. This may be the time to seek professional edits or to begin querying with the project rather than seeking more feedback from critiquers.
A reprint of this article is in the August 2017 Children's Book Insider. Find out more:
I write about, with, for, and around kids all day. (Well, maybe I do the dishes too. Sometimes.)