Giving and receiving critiques, part 3 of 3


Might be a good idea to read parts 1 (here) and 2 (here) before you read part 3. Logical, right?


You need good readers to critique your work (see part 2), but even if you’re careful about choosing them, not all the critiques you receive will be helpful.  How will you know if a critique is UNhelpful?  By trusting yourself to read the “tells.”

1. You feel misunderstood, as if the person commenting doesn’t get what you’re trying to do and her comments aren’t appropriate to this particular work.

2. You suspect that the commenter has an ax to grind or is being competitive with you.

3. You realize–mid-crit–that your reader just plain doesn’t like this work.

4. The questions you’re being asked and the comments you’re getting show that your readers haven’t read your work carefully.

5. You feel as if your reader or your writing group is nit-picking instead of addressing larger, more important issues.

SIDEBAR: Too much nit-picking is UNhelpful at an early stage of the work, but nit-picking can be helpful to you when the work is well into rewrite.  For example, you need to know about writing tics such as overusing certain words (“but” or “which”), repeating the same verb (“think” or “know”), inserting too many parenthetical asides, and so on.

Now we must revisit that Narcissistic Bubble mentioned in part 1.

Let’s say you’ve submitted new work for critique by your writers’ group or your writing partner.  Since it’s new, two things are probably true: A) you’re excited about it, and secretly you’re sure it’s brilliant–that’s the Narcissistic Bubble; and B) way down deep you fear the work has problems.  Kind of a psychic car crash waiting to happen.

When you’re in the Narcissistic Bubble, you’re in an unrealistic, slightly exalted state of mind and even a minimally negative critique may sting. OMG! Your work isn’t perfect! SHOCK! It’s a wallop to your ego, and the N.B. bursts.  And by the end of the critique you feel as if you need two weeks in Aruba to recover.

Feel your feelings, but try to remember that since the N.B. has now been dealt with–that is, it’s been popped–tomorrow or next week or the week after that you’ll go back to work reattached to reality, and that’s when you’ll start to produce better work.

There are constructive ways to deal with a critique, especially if you’re in the Narcissistic Bubble.

  • On a separate page, include a synopsis of the story or events-to-date if it’s important that your readers remember sequence.
  • Explain to your readers what problems you think are unresolved, what you want help with, what questions you’d like answered.
  • Be ready to talk about your work if you’re asked questions. If you don’t know the answer to a query, say so–and then go home and think about why you didn’t have an answer.
  • Keep in mind that just because someone crits you authoritatively (or any other way), s/he may or may not be right about what you should do with your work.  It’s your work, your decision.

And then there’s defensiveness, which can really get in your way.  If a crit is positive from start to finish, great! But how often does that happen? Sometimes even the mildest critique will make you feel surprisingly bruised. (You thought you were ready to hear anything, but uh-oh, you weren’t.) And when you’re feeling bruised and disappointed, you may get defensive, resistant, angry, even paranoid.  When your defenses go up and your brain threatens to shut down, here’s your 1-2-3 strategy:

1. Try to breathe and just listen instead of reacting emotionally.

2. Try to keep yourself in a neutral frame of mind so you can hear what’s being said to you, instead of getting more upset and missing what might be valuable input.  

3. Take notes, preferably by hand.  This gives you focus and a little bit of distance.

SIDEBAR: Taking notes on a tablet or laptop puts too much distance between you and your critiquers.  It’s too easy to hide behind that screen.  

After the crit, go someplace to calm down.  After you’re calm, read your notes.  Some of these notes might be useful, but you might not have been able to absorb them when you felt as if you were under siege.

Sometimes what feels like an attack is not an attack–it’s just something you didn’t want to hear.  On the other hand, sometimes an attack is an attack.  Think about the putative attacker: Is she someone who’s competitive with you?  Someone who doesn’t like your work?  Someone who didn’t like the crit you gave her?

An attack, real or perceived, can be hard to come back from. Don’t start writing again until the power of the attack dissipates, or you could end up hating your work and thinking it’s worthless. In other words, giving credence to that bad crit may have a bad influence on your work–and you don’t want that to happen.

At the end of a critique, thank your critiquers for their comments.  It’s gracious and polite, and it makes you feel more in control.

With practice, most of us can learn to take a crit pretty well, but we all have our limits.  It’s hard, for instance, to listen to critiques that pound on and on, because that gives us no time to recoup our egos for even a moment. When you’re having a hard time during a crit, use your tools: keep quiet, listen carefully but passively, take notes, or ask for a time-out.  You’re allowed to do that: being critiqued isn’t an endurance test.  Later you can cry and even later you can sort out the good input from the bad.

REMEMBER: It takes courage to expose yourself and your work.  Yet your goal (we assume) is to have lots of readers, and they’ll all have opinions of your work.  Learn to deal with critique at an early stage of your career, so you get used to the idea that some people will adore your work–and some just won’t.

Want to ask questions?  Put them in the Comments section.


 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Little Shop of Stories, Decatur GA

Village Books, Bellingham WA

Bear Pond Books, Montpelier VT





Read 3 comments

  1. Thank you. This is terrific. It reminds me of two experiences — one in a creative writing class where the feedback was gentle and helpful. I still remember some helpful things the teacher said about my work — this may have been the first time I’d ever shared my work with others. The other was in a workshop where we did offer critique — one guy said some apparently negative things about my piece and then later, when we were finishing up, said he hoped his comments wouldn’t’ be the cause of my giving up writing. I just wanted to laugh. I could barely remember what he’d said.

  2. There’s certainly much to think about here, both for giving and accepting critiques. Thanks for sharing your expertise on what to do [and what not to do]. It’s great to have insight into what is important for a critique to be a useful tool for writers . . . .

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