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?

* * *

The Kick-Ass Writer: Out Now

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35 responses to “How To Make The Most Out Of A Writing Critique: Ten Tips”

  1. Reminds me of the Neil Gaiman quote:

    “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

  2. In Mary Robinette-Kowal’s short story workshop, she provided these rules for giving critiques that have worked out well for the little writing group of alumni that I’ve been writing with for a year now:

    Things to note when critiquing:
    1. Things you didn’t believe.
    2. Things you didn’t care about.
    3. Things that confused you.
    4. Things you thought were cool.

    So, in receiving critique being able to pick those parts out of what is delivered to you is also useful. Like you mention, ignore the prescriptive bits. “Jack should join the circus so I care about his job more,” is useful in that it means the reader doesn’t care about Jack’s current job.

  3. Thank you for this. As I get more beta readers I’ll be interested to watch the patterns form and learn how to take critiques without feeling butt-stomped. I’m much better about the latter, but I still get surprised by what a baked-in reaction that is.

  4. This helped me a LOT!! I just finished reading your book, “The Kick-Ass Writer,” and I LOVED it!! Reading it a second and a third time to absorb all the good stuff!!

  5. let me sing the praises of a good writing group or workshop. It’s a great way to get a bunch of people to tell you what’s working and what isn’t.

    Thank you for outlining a good plan for sifting through those critiques. I might print this out and take it to the next group meeting.

  6. Finding people who will read your genre stuff is a blessing. Nothing is worse than the grandma who refused to touch your “Spaceman story” but expects to hear from you about her Christian poetry.

    I’ve been in a workshop for a long time and it’s been a great help. These are great guidelines, along with the Gaiman and Mary Robinette-Kowal quotes. I have a regular workshopper who is always trying to rewrite everyone else’s story. If there wasn’t a little gem in every critique of his, I’d totally ignore him.

    But gosh darn it, every time I’m ready to tune him out, he says something that makes sense or seems to work better.

  7. I think it helps to be clear in what you’re seeking when asking for critique. No sense asking for a beta read when you’re looking for a copy-edit, and vice~versa.

    **Glad you defended the tigers, Mr. Wendig**

  8. Crits are tricky animals – both giving and receiving and your advice is sound.

    But I do think though as you write more and (as you said) have received a lot of them you start to regard them with a more analytical and critical eye. And you start to trust your gut more in terms of your own story/creation.

    I’ve been lucky with my beta readers because they’re a pretty diverse group and they generally let me pick their brains a lot after the crit.

    But really if anything exists that will help you grow that much needed thick skin as a writer it’s lots of critiques.

    Good one, Chuck, thanks.

    Annie

  9. So timely — I just got back a critique yesterday and I’m still curled on the floor trying to cram my organs back into my torso. This helps. (Laughing is making the viscera-tucking less effective, though.)

  10. I used to think I was the only one to quietly practice my Blue Pencil Ninja Skills on every book that passed through my hands. It really does redeem the experience of reading something you don’t like as a reader: woohoo! plane crash to pick through! where did it start to go wrong? could the pilot have pulled out of the nosedive? (or is this book’s whole premise one big fat nosedive POV this reader?)

    Really good notes on the two kinds of criticism to avoid: Squooshy Amoeba of Love and its cousin, Tentacular Toxic Terror.

  11. Yes. And when critiquing others, please be specific in your compliments as well as your complaints! Saying “I didn’t get it” serves no purpose. WHAT didn’t you get? Point to the line(s). What was confusing about it? Equally, “I loved it!” is meaningless. What did you love about it, and why? The more specific your critiques, the better. Even if you really don’t know *why* you hate someone’s main character, trying to put it into words and citing examples from the text will be a big help to the writer.

  12. Great stuff, Chuck!
    The thing that emerged from getting lots of critics for me is to learn to trust that inner voice that says, “This ain’t quite right.” But you lie to yourself and leave it in there to see if anyone notices. They always notice. It’s giving you the shivers because it needs to either be cut or changed. You already knew it, but were in denial. I’ve learned through getting lots of critics to trust that voice and cut the shitty parts before I send it out.

  13. I’ve had people who’ve critiqued my writing- they gave full appreciation for the good I wrote and honestly critiqued what I wrote bad. These people have helped me improve a LOT- and they’re the best writer soul-mates I could ever have had. These people are brilliant writers in their own right too, and have churned out some real good work. Some others have taken critique- of the wrongful, destructive kind- like you mention, Chuck, made it their job to rip a story to bloody tatters, and their critiques, instead of being both warmly appreciative and honestly critical, have been just depressing. They didn’t have one good word to say about my work- when I’d put long hours of effort into it. And you know what? The people in the latter category haven’t turned out much work of their own. If they have, they haven’t bothered to share it with the rest of us. I definitely prefer the former category.

    • What a great observation! I’ve been lucky in that the people I’ve found to critique my work have mostly been professional as well as kind, but, of course, I’ve had that other type as well, just as we all have. And your right, the haters generally don’t have anything that is even critiqueable (I guess that’s a word). Or their not letting anyone know if they do.

  14. Hopefully there will be (or has there been?) a post about how to get this sort of critique. So far, I haven’t really gotten anyone interested enough to give more than a desultory ‘Well that’s… nice’.

  15. Not being snarky at all, but I think you have partially bought into the wrongheadedness of the author who first called him out. Andrew Smith said nothing wrong or stupid. As you said, he was honest. But some trigger happy person decided to shadow his words with her own agenda. That’s HER problem and the problem of everyone else who jumps on her bandwagon. Nothing he said was out of line or sexist.

  16. Shit! My phone skipped back to this blog post just before I started writing this response. Please disregard my comment as it was supposed to be posted on your Andrew Smith post, but there is no way for me to delete. Shit, shit, shit!

  17. Hi, Chuck. Long-time reader, first-time commenter.

    I just wrote my first romance novel in a 5-book series (after four nonfiction books). I’m not new at writing/publishing, but I am new at this genre and fiction in general.

    I sent the book out for two stages of beta reader feedback to over 100 people culled from volunteers from my email list as well as targeted fans of the genre through a friend who is a popular romance author. The book publishes next week, and it came to be largely because 69 of those people actually returned helpful feedback.

    It wasn’t easy for me to put this out there (especially the first draft – like standing on a public street in my ugliest granny panties!), and I had to remind myself that I am not my product. Critique is to make the product better, not to cast judgement on me as a human being. Once I *mostly* got that straight in my mind, it was easier to absorb and use this information.

    As you can imagine, a lot of the feedback was repetitive. Readers know how to spot the good and problematic parts of a book.

    These beta readers provided the outside perspective I needed. They were like pre-editors, able to find problems when the book was still raw enough to easily mend them. I felt more confident handing this book off for final editing than any I’ve ever done before.

    I doubt I’ll ever use this many beta readers again, but it was a good experience for the first foray into a genre.

  18. Thanks Chuck. I wholeheartedly agree with said post … til I read a few unfavorable reviews for my work, lol. Seriously, I am patiently waiting for an author to review my work. I’m so excited. I read two reviews of hers and her words were decidedly direct; not minced.

  19. Can I just say that critiquing often feels like I’m asking people’s opinion about a child? But critiquing is such a necessary evil and when you find a batch of people who do it well, stick with them. It’s funny though…I asked a friend of mine to read over a story and give feedback. I warned her in advance I wasn’t settled with the ending yet. I rarely show stories before I’m totally done but this was a fourth draft and I had completed the story twice before (and hadn’t been settled with the ending previously). So I wanted insight into some new plot threads I added, blah blah blah. Well I got back a story with a couple of edit notes and then a two page, single spaced note on what my ending should be. And a written in romance between two characters I hadn’t planned on including.

    Anyways. Those “do it this way instead” critiques bother me the most. But learning how to critique better and knowing who to give it is half the battle!

  20. Great tips. Well, choosing the right audience seems the most difficult and crucial for me. Hope to become better at finding critique buddies that I really need.

  21. Wow! I’ve never thanked anyone for turning me around and knocking me on my ass before, Chuck, but I gotta thank you for this post. Critiques are a huge deal for writers, but it’s what we do with them that matters. We either learn and grow, or we die a slow, painful death.

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