If you are serious about becoming a writer then at some point you will need to show others your work and ask them what they think. When your pet project comes back, scarred beyond recognition in red ink, you have three choices: You can quit writing. You can decide to be a poor, misunderstood artist and never learn or grow. Finally, you can use the feedback to become an even better writer.
The truth is, everyone has room for improvement, but even after you realize this you may not know what to do with those red marks. Do you always make changes where suggested? What if two people contradict one another? What if someone clearly did not “get it?” Do you compromise integrity to make others happy? This workshop addresses all these questions and more as we seek to make sense of constructive (and even destructive) criticism.
I. Good Critique
Before I get into how to interpret other’s critique, I wanted to briefly discuss good criticism. While you will not always receive great criticism, you should always give it. Also, understanding what makes criticism good will help you to interpret it.
A. Critique the story, not the author: This should be self explanatory but basically, never make any assumptions about what the author thinks, feels, or is trying to do. You are reporting your feelings about a piece of literature, not performing psychoanalysis.
B. Make it an opinion: “I thought Frank was a jerk.” is an absolutely true statement. “Frank is a jerk.” is up for debate. Authors tend to receive criticism better when it is written as an opinion rather than as fact, because it is less confrontational and controversial. If you are the author receiving the feedback, you should always interpret comments as an opinion even if the person giving the feedback was less than sensitive.
C. Look for problems, not solutions: It is usually more useful for an author to gauge your reaction to a piece rather than to hear how you would rewrite it. When you start prescribing solutions rather than diagnosing problems, you may not be in tune with the author’s vision and therefore may not be giving useful information. If you do decide to give suggestions for rewriting, you should always pinpoint the problem (as you see it) first. That way, the author can take the information and use it in a way that best serves the story.
D. Be a wise reader: A strategy I picked up from Orson Scott Card (see his books on writing) that works very well for me is the wise reader critique. Anyone who reads can be trained to be a wise reader, and the information they give is golden. When you read a book, you naturally ask certain questions about it. A wise reader notices when they ask the questions and they write it down for the benefit of the author.
i. Oh Yeah? (I don’t believe this.)
ii. So What? (I don’t care.)
iii. Huh? (I don’t get it.)
II. Getting to the heart of the problem
Whether you receive good criticism or not, you need to attempt to understand what the reader felt was the problem with the story. If your car engine stalled you would not start randomly replacing parts before you understood what was wrong. The same thing is true with writing.
A. Diagnosis: If your reader gave you diagnostic information such as a wise reader critique, then your task is much easier. You know the problem and can move on to what (if anything) to do about it.
B. Prescription: If someone gave you suggestions for change without telling you the problem, you are going to have to work backwards. Ask yourself why they would think the change was necessary. Try to look at it through a reader’s eyes and realize that they may not have been reading the story you thought you wrote. (See ‘C’ below)
C. They didn’t seem to “get it”: They very well may not have. I am often amazed to find out what story people actually read when I send something out for feedback. They aren’t wrong. Keep in mind that the story in your head is a separate entity from the story on the paper. Likewise, the story on the paper takes on a life of its own when read by someone else. They bring into it their own biases and personal experiences. They may think Frank is a jerk because they dated this guy in college named Frank who really hurt them. You cannot always control for that but you need to be prepared for it.
III. Should I make a change?
A. There are exactly two times when you should consider making a change.
i. Resonance: If a comment resonates with you, if it just makes sense based on what you are trying to accomplish with your work (be it a short story, novel, or article) then you should, of course, make a change.
ii. Agreement: If many people agree on a problem or weak spot, you should also seriously consider making a change. You may not agree on the solution that any or all of them offered, but it is typically no coincidence when several people all spot the same issue. It can be hard to decide to make a change in this case, if there is no resonance to go along with it, but here are some things you can do.
1. Put it aside for a period of time and re-read it with a fresh eye.
2. Look for creative solutions to a problem. For example, if many people tell you a section is too long you may decide, instead, to make it longer. I often find that the boredom that causes people to suggest cutting can also be remedied by going into more depth, drawing the reader in further, and really highlighting the importance of a certain portion of a story or novel.
B. Contradictions: It can be frustrating when people disagree on an aspect of a story. When one person loves Frank and another thinks he is a jerk, you may find yourself unsure what to do. Let me start by making some observations that may help you put this into perspective.
i. No one’s work will be universally loved.
ii. The very things that make one person fall in love with your work will make someone else hate it. This is true in all aspects of life. I don’t like raspberries, but I bet most of you do. If you were hosting a large dinner party, would you choose a different dessert to accommodate my dislike of raspberries? Perhaps a yummy apple crumble or a turtle cheesecake? Now I like your dessert option but Brian hates cheesecake and Beth isn’t into apples.
In the end, whether the feedback is contradictory or not, you need to consider the same two questions: “Did it resonate? Do many people agree?” If one naysayer contradicts a group, it is probably safe to listen to the majority opinion. If a group seems split down the middle you will simply have to be the tiebreaker.
C. Compromising Integrity: I bring this up only because many beginning writers ask this question. Should I compromise my integrity to please others? Well, that depends upon what you mean by integrity. Obviously, it is your story to tell and in the end you are the person who will tell it. If making a change to please people will make you hate the story or in some way go against your values, then of course you should not make the change. But don’t be the poor, misunderstood artist, either. If you want to be a great writer then you need to understand that the creative process is fluid and that sometimes you need to let the story decide what it wants to be, rather than forcing it to be what you want it to be.
IV. Responding to Feedback
A. Thank you: This is the only appropriate response to someone who has offered to help you by reading your work. Even if you disagree with everything they wrote, even if they were downright mean in their comments, you thank them and do not argue. Your story has to stand alone when it goes out into the world – you won’t be there to hold its hand and back it up with your own answers to people’s comments. If someone asks a question in their feedback, it is rhetorical. You answer it in the rewrite, if at all.
B. Destructive criticism: It happens. Someone may give you back some feedback that says, “You suck as a writer. Don’t quit your day job.” If a person gives you criticism that is downright mean, you simply ignore it and do not ask for their help again. Throw it away.
C. The follow-up question: While it is not okay to try to explain yourself, your story, or argue with someone who has given you advice, it may be acceptable to ask an occasional follow-up question for the sake of clarity. When I sent an early chapter of Touch of Fate out for criticism, I learned that someone felt Marianne, the protagonist, was unsympathetic. I wrote back to him and asked if he could tell me what had given him that impression. He was kind enough to highlight some careless turns of phrase that made her seem uncaring towards her daughter. I was then able to make the changes that helped me sell the book.
A. From the same group: This is almost always a bad idea, in my opinion. Personally, I refuse to look at the same story or part of a novel more than one time. Either you followed my advice in the first place or you did not. If you did take my advice, I will be inclined to like it whether or not it works and if you did not take my advice I will be disinclined to like it whether or not your chosen solution was appropriate. Moreover, I know how it ends – or ended, which might even be worse. I cannot give you a fresh, unbiased opinion on a second read-through.
B. From a different person/people: This can work, but I caution you to remember that your story will never be perfect. As many times as you send your work out, you will receive that many suggestions. You cannot please everyone and that is not your goal – it may be your dream but it is not your goal.
C. When is it done? At some point, you have to decide to stop. It will never be done, but you can stop writing and send it to a publisher. Don’t forget that there will always be other stories, other articles, and even other novels. Growing as a writer happens over multiple pieces, not just multiple rewrites of the same piece. Try new things. Be adventurous. Be done.