How To Make The Most Out Of A Writing Critique: Ten Tips

As you are a Certified Penmonkey — *stamps your head with the ancient sigil* — you will at various intersections be forced to endure a critique of your work. I don’t mean bad reviews, though those will line up, too, and you will run their gauntlet as they whack you about the head and neck with their bludgeoning sadness.

No, I mean a proper critique. Knives out. Blood on the paper.

You will receive this critique from:

Beta Readers

Friends

Agents

Editors

Other Writers

Probably Your Mother At Some Point.

When I say, you have to make the most out of these critiques, I don’t mean emotionally. Receiving critique for me is — emotionally! — like being a trashcan full of old liquor bottles set on fire. Flames. Lots of fumes. A great deal of shattering. Black, heinous smoke. No, no, I mean there exists a pragmatic side to receiving critique, and it’s not just what you do with the critiques you get but it’s also how you set yourself up for them.

You must maximize this experience.

You must squeeze this fruit of its funky juiciness.

You must milk this beast of its vitalmost lactations.

You must ejaculate —

*receives note*

Ah! See. A fair critique. I’m going to stop there.

Let’s get to the tips!

Behold Its Definition

As always, value exists in defining our terms before we discuss them. So:

Critique is not criticism. Not in its entirety. It is an analysis of the work. A critical, intelligent analysis. It’s not tearing the thing apart. It’s not building it up. It’s breaking it into its constituent pieces, examining them, then putting them back together to see how it all works. It is an assessment, not a hit piece. Editors do not cackle madly upon seeing a story, growing sexually frantic over the chance to maul your work the way a bear might maul a couple of teenagers banging in a zipped-up sleeping bag.

To Receive Critique, Give Critique

If critique is an alien animal to you, if its anatomy is mysterious and impossible to dissect, you will not know the value of what went into a critique of your work — or what to take from it. Thus: perform the ancient art of critique. This can be as part of a, “If you perform an anatomy on my story-corpse, I’ll perform an anatomy on your story-corpse,” but it doesn’t have to be. It might literally be you picking up somebody else’s published book and then… well, finding the holes in that bucket. Where does the work go wrong? Where does it go right? How does the whole thing work? It’s not just about good and bad, but also about figuring out how all the pieces fit.

Learn To Read Critically

All this means, too, that you must learn to read critically. One of the best and worst things about being a writer is that it grants you a kind of narrative X-Ray vision. Over time, after writing a whole motherfucking lot, you start reading stories with the Critical Analysis button jammed permanently ON. You start to notice the Matrix Code behind the world, and you can see the mechanics of the narrative behind the narrative. It sucks sometimes because reading for pleasure gets a helluva lot harder (and this further translates over to any other storytelling medium), but it helps you also gain a new appreciation of the work in front of you. Gone is the pleasure of turning off your brain. Here is the pleasure of being able to crack the bones and suck out the marrow. A pleasure of details, of assessment, of learning to understand and see what you think the writer was going for — you’re no longer in the audience of the magician, wowed by the illusions on stage.

Now you’re a fellow magician trying to suss out the trick.

Practice this skill.

Read everything.

Pick it apart as you do.

Get Critiqued A Whole Fucking Lot

If you want to be a writer: write a lot. Want to run a marathon? Run a lot. Want to make sure you’re the best tiger-fucker the world has ever seen? You guessed it — you are going to have to fuck a lot of tigers. (Sidenote: please do not have sex with any tigers. Tigers are en endangered species and they have had it hard enough without you trying to sex them up. Everything I say here is metaphor. No tiger sexing. Tiger sexting, however, is totally cool. Even recommended.)

What I’m trying to say is, the same thing applies here.

If you want to receive critique effectively —

Then receive a lot of critiques.

It’s like this: you know how the first time you have sex (*not with tigers) it’s really weird, awkward, and there’s that panel of old men behind the Plexiglas holding up your score on yellow notebook paper? Maybe that last part is just me. Point is, the first time you “do it” (tee hee), you don’t really know what you like. Or what your partner likes. It’s like smashing two pork roasts together — inelegant and almost certainly ineffective.

The first time you receive a critique, it’s hard to be sure what to make of it. Is it right? Wrong? And what the fuck are you even supposed to do with it, now? But you get ten, twenty, a hundred of these sets of critical notes across not just one story but several, and you start cultivating instinct. All the practical advice in the world will never trump your gut. But you aren’t born with that, and you have to build up to it.

So: open yourself to critique.

A whole goddamn lot of it.

Know Your Audience

Be aware of who is critiquing you. Blind critique is fine, but it’s also useful to have a sense of the person at the other end of the rope. Example: a literary-minded editorreading your science-fiction story isn’t automatically a bad choice for a critique, but it may color the critique you receive. You shouldn’t dismiss the commentary, but you also shouldn’t let it be the ONE TRUE MESSAGE UNSWERVING IN ITS SCRUTINY. If the agent reading your work reps a lot of science-fiction but not fantasy and your book is fantasy — well, just go in with your eyes open on that one.

Then Choose The Right Audience

Over time, you start to to develop a sense of who you should go to when it’s time to receive critique. A set of editors, a particular agent, a selected cabal of beta readers, the magical word sorcerer that hides at the bottom of a whiskey bottle. You begin to choose your critique partners. Not because they’re your friends, but because what comes out of the partnership are bona fide results. Results, here — actionable results, a map drawn with new directions — are the goal.

Beware Shining Adoration And Perfection

If a critique is all just fawning ecstasy and delight, and your only possible response is to squeegee the love juice off the manuscript’s pages, then you’d better find someone who is willing to tell you the truth. Or, at the very least, be more incisive in their analysis.

No book is perfect.

Truth is rarely kind.

Beware Ultimate Hatred And Destruction

Alternately, you should fear those who just wanna tear your work like, ten new assholes, too. Maybe it’s that they’re the wrong audience for the book. Maybe it’s that they have mis-defined critique and believe that their goal is to rip the story to bloody tatters. Maybe they’re passive-aggress bungholes who delight in the suffering of others. I’ve gotten a few of these in my life (one rejection from a lit journal about twenty years ago exhorted me to quit writing because of how utterly horrible I was). You can do nothing but ignore them. Maybe there’s value in there, but it gets hard to suss out when all you get is just a mouthful of venom.

Ignore hate-fests.

Definitely shove aside any critique with insults and snark embedded in.

Look For Patterns And Potholes

One critique has some value. But several critiques offers you the power of patterns. If three people say the same thing — blah blah blah, that character doesn’t have enough agency, that plot point doesn’t make sense, why is the story narrated by one of those dancing windsocks you see out front of car dealerships? Then okay, that’s worth a long, hard squint. If one person says THIS DOESN’T WORK but nine others say it works? Maybe that’s not so deserving of your attention.

Also worth realizing that critique is a curious animal. We are driven to not only point out deficiencies but then also to fill those deficiencies — it’s a noble goal, but what it ends up being for you, the writer, is that the reader will tell you both a) what’s wrong and b) how to fix it.

Pay attention to a).

But ignore b).

Their solution needn’t be your solution.

Look past the offered fix — they want to paint the room the colors they like.

Take away the message that a fix is needed — but then provide your own repairs.

As Always, Be Willing To Act

Most importantly:

TAKE ACTION.

Critique can be paralyzing. We receive it and then, shell-shocked, we sit and stare at our hands. Or we feel bad. Or uncertain what direction to jump. Uncertainty is a killer. Fear and doubt will hamstring you near the finish line. You’ve already written something. But who said you were done? Now it’s time to take what you’ve learned and apply it. A critique is not purely an intellectual exercise. It isn’t just for shits and giggles.

Always plan to use them. Somehow. Some way.

Act on the intel you receive. Otherwise: what’s the point?

* * *

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