How to Handle Critique of Your Work

Last week I talked about how to offer critique to other authors that’s constructive, positive, and reflects your reactions to the story, rather than assessing it analytically. (You can read that post here if you missed it.)

This week we’re talking about the other, more difficult side of that coin: getting critiqued by others–whether that’s crit partners, beta readers, or your agent or editor.

Getting the Right Kind of Feedback

While you can’t guarantee the input you receive will be constructive, useful, and specific, you can give yourself the best chance of it by choosing the right critiquers, and guiding them toward the kind of critique you need.

Other writers are wonderful sources of insight, as I mentioned in last week’s post, because they can often offer feedback that’s framed in the “writer language” of craft. But it helps to choose authors who write or read in your genre, and who are close to your own level of skill and experience as writers.

Feedback from nonwriters can also be valuable as long as they are experienced readers, preferably in your genre, and not someone too close to you who may be hesitant to be frank about their impressions.

Let your readers know up front that you’re not looking for prescriptive feedback of what’s “wrong” with your story or how to fix it—you simply would love to know their impressions of and reactions to the story.

One of the most useful ways to yield useful, actionable critique is to provide your readers with an actual questionnaire to guide them in offering it. Asking specific questions helps readers know exactly what you’re looking for in the way of feedback, and it helps you pinpoint how effective the key areas of your story are, how well it holds together, how your intentions are coming across on the page. For example:

  • Rather than “What did you think/how did you like it,” ask “What parts of the story most engaged you, and where did you feel less invested? Can you pinpoint why?”
  • Rather than “Did you like the characters?” ask “Did the characters feel real to you, and if not, in what way? Did you care what happened to them?”
  • Instead of “Did it hold your interest throughout,” ask “Were there any places you lost interest, or felt confused? In what way?”

I talk more about guiding your beta readers here, and author Kristen Kieffer of Well-Storied has wonderful sample questionnaires for both fiction and nonfiction here.

You’ve Got Your Feedback—What’s Next?

No matter how much you may want it, and no matter how prepared you may think you are for it, even the most helpful feedback will likely hit you like a plank in the face. We’re all deeply sensitive to our creative work, which often stems from the most naked parts of ourselves. Knowing that helps…but not much.

What will help is knowing how to receive and process the feedback you get.

  • First, read the feedback in its entirety. Then leave it alone for a while.

Make sure you’re in a good state of mind when a critique comes in. Pour yourself a nice glass of wine or good cup of coffee and read through it. Then step away—the comments may sting at first, because deep down we all really want to hear, “It was perfect; don’t change a thing.”

You won’t. 😊

We’re not generally in the most receptive place immediately after taking in someone’s thoughts about how our baby isn’t beautiful; it’s essential that you put the feedback on a back burner for a day or two and just let it simmer.

Meanwhile, be very kind to yourself. Take a bubble bath. Maybe go for a long nature walk. Stab a voodoo doll in the shape of the critiquer if you need to.

  • Remember all critique is opinion—including that of professionals.

I said this in the last post too, but it bears repeating: All feedback is the thoughts and reactions of a single person, not a definitive statement on the worth of your story or you as a writer.

An individual’s input is only a tool, one that may or may not be useful for the job at hand. It’s a reflection of how what’s on the page strikes them as a reader, and as such it helps you as the creator to know where you may want to clarify or develop your vision and intentions.

An individual’s input is only a tool, one that may or may not be useful for the job at hand.

That said, professionals who have spent years reviewing hundreds of even thousands of manuscripts, who have worked within the publishing industry and understand its standards and expectations and marketing realities, are offering you their opinions based on that.

That doesn’t mean their feedback is always “right”—or right for your story—but take into consideration the benefit of their experience and expertise.

  • If something really hits you the wrong way, it could be a darling.

Some feedback may be harder to swallow than others. I often dismiss critiquers’ input initially, even my editor and agent, by defensively thinking, “They don’t know what they’re talking about.” (Sorry, Cindy and Courtney!).

Usually by the next day I might allow that maybe they have a point about one or two things. By a few days later I almost always see that most of it is right on target, and start addressing those areas in my story.

But often there are one or two pieces of input that stubbornly stick in my craw, and I defend those areas fiercely. Sometimes I realize eventually that I’m clinging to darlings that don’t serve the manuscript. And sometimes I stand by my vision, but perhaps find better ways to convey it. Don’t dismiss any observation out of hand—let it simmer, give it some serious thought, and once the initial flare of hurt feelings subsides, try to assess the input with a truly unbiased eye.

  • But if you’re hearing the same types of feedback repeatedly from several readers, look closely.

All feedback is subjective, but if multiple readers call out the same issues, it’s likely this area needs addressing.

A few other tips to keep in mind:
  • Remember to thank your critiquers. I even tend to write notes and/or send small gifts to my beta readers. Whether you like or agree with their feedback or not, be gracious and appreciative—they took time out of their lives to try to help you (even if they may have done it clumsily).
  • Whatever you do, don’t argue. What’s the point? Remember all critique is opinion, and you won’t be there to explain your intentions to your ultimate readers. Either it came across on the page to your critiquers or it didn’t.
  • Try not to take negative feedback personally. Remember critique is simply a tool for you to use or not use, as you determine. You don’t get mad at a hammer if you needed a drill; you just put the hammer down.

After the initial sting subsides, you’ll usually find that feedback starts to coalesce in your mind into categories and usable insights into your manuscript’s effectiveness, and that’s when you can go back in and figure out how to best utilize it. Next week I’ll talk about how to take the critique you receive and turn it into an action plan for revisions.

Meanwhile, for more on giving and receiving critique you can check out the Indy Author Podcast interview I recently did with host Matty Dalrymple on the subject.

Over to you, authors: Who do you use as a source of feedback to assess how well your story is working? In what format do you find it most useful—overview impressions, specific embedded comments, a discussion in person? Does their input help you pinpoint areas that could use strengthening? Is it hard to hear? How do you take in the feedback?

6 Comments. Leave new

  • Susan Reinhardt
    July 22, 2021 2:27 pm

    This article came at the perfect time. I’d just received a very detailed and lengthy beta report that included line edits. A few of her points did sting. But the overall picture was spot-on. I chose a writer/beta reader from Goodreads. She was fantastic and thorough. She has an MFA and read a lot of women’s fiction, therefore, I trusted her comments and opinions. I’m also awaiting another beta’s report. I am a bit too daunted, at this point, to ask for a third beta LOL!

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      July 22, 2021 6:26 pm

      I didn’t know Goodreads had a beta reader program! That’s cool–and how nice you got a good one. That kind of feedback is invaluable in revising. Good luck in edits, Susan–thanks for the comment!

      Reply
  • Thank you for these posts, and for access to Kristen Kieffer’s list. It adds real depth to my list.
    As a graduate student in stage design, I grew a thick skin. When I put my work on the chalk rail for critique by the instructor and fellow students, I felt naked—on stage—at the academies. I learned a lot about my work and about how to manage myself during critique. We all crave praise; what we need is candor. I learned to ask questions of my critiquers, especially where it hurt. “Please, say more about that.” “What would have been better?” Etc.
    Like you and everyone else, part of me wants to defend, or at least explain, but as you point out, it’s not constructive. What I really need to do is to understand: What was this person’s reaction down where it counts, where they either turn the page or close the book? Once I understand that, I can decide 1) if the feedback is valuable, and if it is, 2) how to use it to improve my work.
    What I haven’t always taken the pains to do that I should have, and you helped me understand this, is to get the right critiquers, people who not only read but read in my genre. I gotta’ fix that.
    Thanks again. I always enjoy and take something valuable from your posts.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      July 22, 2021 6:30 pm

      Kristen’s website is terrific, and I do love her questions. Glad they’re useful to you.

      It’s SO hard to ask for more elaboration when people are being less than effusive about our work, but I agree–the more specific they can be about their reactions to it, the more helpful it is. It’s hard to grow that thick skin, but realizing it’s about the work, not us as people or artists, helps. I was an actor for years–a fellow theater nerd!–and that was similarly good training ground. When you’re repeatedly rejected to your face, you do start to toughen up.

      Love this: “What I really need to do is to understand: What was this person’s reaction down where it counts, where they either turn the page or close the book? Once I understand that, I can decide 1) if the feedback is valuable, and if it is, 2) how to use it to improve my work.” Great summation of how to use crit effectively to better our work. Thanks for stopping by, Bob–and the kind words!

      Reply
  • I belong to a small critique group that meets once a month and use a few CPs I met online. My preference for feedback is the comments/track changes in the document because I can go through each one and “check off” what I’ve addressed.

    It’s always hard to hear critical feedback, but it helps to prepare yourself before reading as you suggest here, then “sit” on the comments and let them settle. Once I’ve done that, and incorporated the edits I want to make, I am always amazed at how much stronger the work is. Also, it’s good to have a few betas or CPs because I’ve found that one or two will pick up on a weakness in your writing that the other CPs didn’t.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      July 22, 2021 9:05 pm

      I LOVE track changes! Years ago, when I started editing, we used actual Post-it notes, handwritten, and at each stage of production we’d have to painstakingly take them off to make copies, then restore them to the exact location (otherwise they got caught in the Xerox machine…). 🙂 When Track Changes came along it was so liberating to be able to insert comments directly into the text.

      I think you’re right that letting the comments settle is key–it’s just too tender at first, but once they percolate for a while it seems they always start to coalesce into something less daunting, and an action plan. Love that you have several readers for your stories–it does help to get several perspectives. Thanks for sharing your process, Cate.

      Reply

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