Take Critique Like A Pro

Feedback is critical for a writer. It’s also tricky.

Good feedback can help you unlock parts of your story and discover new possibilities, whereas bad feedback can set you back, send you down a wrong path, and even derail the necessary confidence. The dividing line between the two is often thin.

So how do you navigate such treacherous terrain? Here are some tips to help you along the way.

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Good vs. Bad

Before we go much further, a couple definitions are in order.

Good feedback does not equal praise. Good feedback is criticism that serves to lead the writer back into their work with new understanding and a fresh perspective.

Likewise, bad feedback does not equal criticism or someone pointing out a flaw. (You need to hear those things.) Instead, bad feedback is any variety that hinders the work. It drives the writer off course, tears down rather than builds up, or gets wrapped up in concerns that do not apply.

Here are two questions that will help spur the kind of good feedback we’re looking for:

What is working? Why?

-and-

What isn’t working? Why?

These questions remove unnecessary value judgments and cut to the heart of what the workshop/critique should be trying to accomplish.

You need to know what parts of your story/essay/poem/etc. are having the desired impact. You need to know what is drawing your reader in. What excites them?

You also need to know what is still holding the piece back from being most effective. Sometimes these issues will be spelled out clearly. Sometimes you’ll have to read between the lines. Use the opportunity to find direction for your revision work and gather new ideas.

Evaluate the Source

Not all feedback is the same, and you shouldn’t treat it as such. When you’re receiving criticism on your work, especially in a workshop setting when there are multiple people commenting, it can be overwhelming. It’s important that as you work through the notes and comments you receive you are constantly evaluating the source and also the purpose/perspective behind each one.

I tend to start by sorting feedback sources into two general categories, though there is plenty of room for crossover: the reader’s perspective and the writer’s perspective. We need both along the course of our revision process.

Reader feedback gets you into the mind of your audience. It does a great job of answering “what is working?” and “what isn’t working?” but you should be careful of attempted “why?” answers here. Look for the “why” from your writer feedback.

Writer feedback, on the other hand, is filled with getting your hands dirty. Your fellow writers will be able to help you answer both questions, because they are readers as well as writers. Because of their experience and knowledge of the craft, they are in a better position to suggest solutions for your consideration.

Each comment has the potential to show you something about your work. Even those that seem way off base, particularly if they are repeated, may reveal that what you meant to communicate wasn’t coming through clearly enough. Use each one as a learning experience, and you’ll have a productive workshop experience whatever the case.

Just Listen

Workshop is not a time to defend your work. In a healthy critique setting, your fellow workshoppers want only to help you. (If this is not the case, then it’s best if you move on and find your feedback elsewhere.) Yes, it stings to hear a writer or reader disagree with a choice you made. Yes, you’ll want to explain yourself. But hold it back. This is a time to listen, not talk.

Take notes. Observe. Soak it all in: the good, the bad, and the ugly. All of it is going to help you become a better writer, so use it wisely.

When you feel defensive take note of your reactions. What does this tell you? Are you clinging to a piece of your story that you need to let go of? Oftentimes our strongest reactions will identify what we most need to hear.

Try your very best to assume an objective frame of mind. Really, that’s the very point of seeking outside feedback. It offers you that objective perspective because it’s so difficult for the author to see her work that way.

So ask questions at the end if you need clarification, but always hear your critique partners out and give each comment the consideration it deserves.

Know When to Move On

As you receive critique and work through the feedback you’ve been given, you need to watch out for the pitfalls along the way. Here are two brief hints to keep in mind:

  1. You don’t need to implement every suggestion that is made.

Ultimately you know your work best. You know what you want to say or accomplish through it. It’s up to you what you do with the feedback.

2. Work from the big picture down to the details.

Avoid getting caught in the nitty gritty details, particularly in the early stages of revision. Getting caught up in the details and sentence level revisions can waste valuable time if you still have developmental work to do on your plot, characters, structure, etc. You always want to start with the biggest revisions. Why? Because when you make big changes your sentences will change and the necessary detail work will change. Wherever you are at in the revision process, let your critique partners know. Ask them to tailor their responses to best help you with your questions and concerns.

The Golden Rule

We’ve all known the Golden Rule since we were kids: “Offer critique unto others as you would have them offer critique unto you.”

Right?

Well, it fits. When it’s your turn to offer notes on another writer’s work consider what it feels like to sit in their place. Consider how your statements and observations will impact them as a person and a fellow writer.  Our efforts should always serve to encourage and build up. As I’ve said before (and will say again), the writer who shares his or her work whether through publication, workshop, etc. is in a vulnerable position. As fellow writers we are in a position of trust and confidence to look after and help one another.

Give to your fellow writers the kind of feedback you would want. Point out both the flaws and the strengths. Do so with grace and humility. Always seek the good of your fellow writers. It’s not a competition. We’re here to help each other along the journey.

***

Feedback is hard, but it is important. It’s how we grow.

Critique isn’t something to be afraid of. It can be a gift. It is wise to seek it out.

To grow as a writer you will need to receive critique and also give it. You will gain perspectives and skills that will serve you well along your writing journey. You will hone your instincts and improve in your craft.

No writer gets it exactly right the first time. Or even the second. And probably not the third, either. So embrace the process and have fun with it.

Happy Writing!

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