Episode 29: How to Handle Critique (part 1)
Hello, and welcome to About This Writing Thing, a weekly podcast about living the writing life. I'm your host, Sayword B. Eller, novelist, short story writer, and podcaster.
I've fallen behind again. I'm not sure what's going on and why I can't seem to get my stuff together, but I'll try to do better. I have plenty of hypotheses and excuses, but they're not really important here.
This week, which should have been last week, we're talking about how to take critique. However, if you will indulge me a moment I'm about to shamelessly plug my own critique services. I am trying to build my client list. If you're between critique groups or just want an extra writer eye going over the story, I have openings on my schedule. Visit my website (saywordbeller.com) for more information. Now, on with the show!
You may recall last year when I gave my personal rules for critique (I'll link the episode below). I have 10 rules that I try to stick to when it comes to critiquing the work of others. Writers love to hear how wonderful our work is, but even those of us who love critique can feel the sting when we discuss the parts that aren't working.
Currently, I am in three critique groups. In the largest there are four of us and then I work one-on-one with two different writers. I enjoy working one-on-one because there's less stress with deadlines and getting forty pages read and critiqued by a certain date, especially if the groups are submitting frequently. In my larger group we submit once a month, but in my smaller pairings we’re settling on a bi-weekly schedule. Thankfully, this spreads everything out nicely, but I've heard of some groups that submit every single day. No way I could keep up with that schedule even without having a full time day job.
After an incident with a larger group that broke down into my pairings, I thought it would be fun to do an episode on critique etiquette again. Last year I told you the rules I adhere to (and wish other writers would) when giving a critique. This time I'm telling you what other expert writers suggest when taking critique.
I'll also give a couple of tips on what not to do if you're giving critique. But, seriously, you should give episode 13 a listen.
I always like to have a nice list of resources for y'all to read through. This not only shows you that I do my homework, but it gives you a viewpoint outside of my own to consider, and it gives you a nice jumping off point for your own research on the topic. This week, however, I only have two sources. Why? Simply because they were all giving the same advice. They're both fairly current sources, so I think they'll be a great starting point for anyone looking to learn more about critique; giving and receiving.
I want to be totally transparent here. The list is not mine, but the definitions and little bits and pieces are!
I read Susan Breen's Nine Strategies for Handling Criticism as a Writer and really thought I wouldn't need anything else. This really does cover just about everything. Breen says the number one thing you should do is "Listen". This isn't to say that you should take every single critique given and go with it. Remember, critique is subjective. Someone who writes in your genre may love every last word or stylistic choice, while someone who writes mystery or thrillers may hate everything about it. So listen, but do it carefully (more on that later).
Listen - You don't have to agree, but taking the criticism into consideration is tantamount to you becoming a better writer.
"Write Down Notes" - Critique is a tough thing to hear, especially if you're sitting at the same table with the person delivering said critique. You might be overwhelmed and your mind may be racing. Instead of trying to articulate anything at such a time, take notes. Write down the key things your partners are saying about your submission and review them later. You know, when your head isn't spinning.
"Wait" - You're going to hear this a lot in your writing life; "Put it away", "Let it steep!", whatever. I always put a draft away for a few weeks after completing it. What's the point in continuing to look at it when it's all up in your head? According to Breen, the same goes for critique. She suggests that you put the critiqued selection away for a few days to a week in order to let the sting of critique wear off. I've never tried this. Usually, I look over the critique immediately, fix what needs to be fixed immediately, and then put the rest of the critique away until the second draft. Those things that are pressing, to me, are when an MC is unlikable or the story is really out of balance. I rarely spend too much time reviewing a critique while I'm actively writing a first draft. Dwelling only slows me down.
"Use the criticism to become a better writer" - This is the BEST advice! My very first critique group was a hodgepodge of writers. There were mystery writers, historical, women's fiction, and inspirational. Something for everyone, I guess. My suggestion here is to make sure your group is made up of a potpourri of writers. If I'd started out with just chick-lit and women's fiction writers I don't think my voice would've developed like it did. There's something to be said for critiquing work outside your genre.
"Think big" - I think by this Breen means that we shouldn't just do the smallest amount of revision based on critique. She says to "be bold, shake it up […] do something special".
"Consider the source" - This, I think, should come closer to the top of this list. Look, some people just aren’t going to get what you're writing. Maybe they write in a totally different genre and they can't stand the genre you're writing in. I once had a critique partner remove all of the formal writing in my story and suggest that I replace them with contractions. So, "I am" changes to "I'm", etc. My piece was literary and the contractions just wouldn't work with the style or the tone of the story, but this writer didn't realize that. They write mystery and you really don't want to be bogged down by a bunch of "I am" or "she would" in a mystery! Bottom line, if you feel like someone genuinely doesn't get the piece, they probably don't.
"Don’t take it personally" - I think this one should be number one, honestly. Remember that critique group I mentioned earlier, the one that broke down and resulted in me pairing with two of the original members? It's because two of the members rubbed one another the wrong way. They took things personally and it resulted in a whirlwind of emails that ended with the group dissolving. The insane thing, it all happened BEFORE our first official critique! One said they didn't want the group to be "editing buddies" and the other refused to devote any time to anything that wasn't a story or a chapter. To put it mildly, it was a mess. To top it off, when the group finally broke down completely one of the writers said directly to the other that they wouldn't be the best to critique that writer's work because there were too many issues. News flash, y'all, the point of critique is to help one another with those issues. I'm just sayin'. So, here's what I say to you, don't take it personally. Don't take an author's ego personally and don't take their critique personally.
"Pay attention to the positive things people say" - This goes without saying. You don't want to be coddled, by any means, but when you're feeling overwhelmed with everything you need to fix, take a look at the things your partner loved about your submission. It really does help give you a lift.
"Embrace it" - I don't think I need to explain this one. Life is full of good and bad. Think of critique as life. There's plenty of good mixed in with the not-so-good.
After reading Breen's article I thought I didn't need anything more, but then I came across Tanaz Bhathena's 2016 article, 4 Ways to Take Criticism Like a Pro and I knew I needed to include it. These suggestions are simply additions to Breen's list. Very good and accurate additions.
"Listen without defending your work" - This is tough. When someone says, "I don't get this" or "I don't know what this character was thinking", your first instinct may be to explain it to them. But think of this, if you're having to explain it to three critique partners will your potential future readers get it? My rule of thumb here is to read the room. If one person doesn't get it you're probably fine - you should still review it, but you're probably fine - but if three and four and five people don't get it, you've got an issue that needs to be fixed.
"Thank the reader for their time" - This is just good manners.
"Absorb the critique: What's useful? What isn't?" - This is another one of those things that I think should be high on the list. Some writers think they have to listen to all this advice, like it's some sort of law that they must abide by. That's just not how critique and writing work. This is your story baby or book baby. You know it better than anyone else. So take into consideration what your critique partner says, but the key to critique is to keep the advice that works and leave out all the rest.
"This above all" To thine own self be true" - If your gut tells you to keep something, keep it. As mentioned before, this is your book/story baby, no one else's.
Personally, I love critique. I know you've heard me wax poetic about it before, but there's nothing that beats working with fellow writers to make your story stronger. The key is finding the right partners. You have to trust them with your work and you have to trust that they want what you want, a great story. Leave your egos at the door and remember that you're critiquing the work, not the writer, and your relationship as partners in critique should flourish.
That's all I've got for you this time. If you liked this episode please give me a like, you can also subscribe and share me with your friends. If you'd like to know what I'm up to between shows you can find me on Instagram and Twitter (@saybeller) and you can also find this podcast on Twitter (@WritingThingPod) and Instagram (About This Writing Thing).
If you'd like to join my mailing list or inquire about those critique services I mentioned earlier, you can visit saywordbeller.com to read testimonials, find rates, and more.
Thanks for hanging out with me today. If you're going out stay safe and, depending on where you live, take a coat! Have a great week and keep writing.
Breen, Susan. "Nine Strategies for Handling Criticism as a Writer," The Writer, October 10, 2019: https://www.writermag.com/writing-inspiration/the-writing-life/handling-criticism/
Bhathena, Tanaz. "4 Ways to Take Criticism Like A Pro", Writer's Digest, June 2, 2016: https://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/4-ways-to-take-criticism-like-a-pro