If you’re following along in this mini-series of posts about critique, you’ve learned how to offer effective critique, how to select the right readers to give you the most useful feedback, and how to process it.
Now it’s time to dig a little deeper into the feedback you received, assess what’s right for your story, and determine how to put those changes into action.
All Feedback Is Valuable–but Not All of It Is “Right”
Regardless of whether your reader reflected her own reactions to the story, as in good critique, or erred on the side of being unhelpfully prescriptive (“You should…”), all feedback is potentially helpful.
Generally you’ll find that some of the feedback feels like confirmation of what you already may have suspected wasn’t working as well as it could; some draws your attention to areas you were blind to; and some draws a whole-body “oh, hell, no” reaction from you–but give all three the same consideration in determining what your manuscript may need, as all of it is valuable in reflecting back to you what’s actually on the page.
The comments that resonate with you right away are often easiest to address.
These are areas you already likely suspected the story might need strengthening, and a great place to start assessing the critiquer’s feedback and put it into actionable terms for yourself to incorporate into revisions.
If the critique indicates that the characters aren’t engaging or believable, for instance, start asking questions to pinpoint why. Did your reader not care about what happens to them or not feel deeply invested? Why not–did he not understand what your characters want or what drives them or why? Did he feel they were unlikable, unsympathetic, opaque, unrelatable? (You can find an extensive sample of the kinds of questions you might ask yourself about every area of story in my Self-editing Checklist here.)
This specific feedback about their reactions will lead you to diagnose the core problem: Perhaps you haven’t clearly defined the character’s arc, or their goal, or what drives them, or what’s at stake.
Once you’ve identified the specific issues that may need addressing, ask yourself whether each is an element that requires more development from you as the author, or is it a lack of your intentions coming across clearly on the page? In other words, is it a problem of conception or execution? The former often indicates overarching issues (intrinsic throughout the story); the latter can be more scene-specific (something you can address by adding, deleting, or tweaking a line or two here and there).
If the problem is an intrinsic issue, then it’s time to go back to “writer brain” and do more development in that area–flesh out and more fully develop your characters, or their arcs or the story arc, or develop the plot more clearly, or clarify or strengthen stakes—whatever the root issue is—as you did in drafting the story originally.
If you feel the story is fully developed in a certain area, but not coming across clearly on the page, you can go through and identify specific places where you thought you conveyed that information. Ask yourself whether you may need to clarify, elaborate, or let readers in more deeply.
If your critiquer noted specific places that created their impressions, that’s helpful in pinpointing exact problem areas, but if not, for more on how to diagnose it yourself, my book Intuitive Editing breaks this process down in each area of craft into “How to Find It” and “How to Fix It” sections.
Do this same process for each area of feedback that resonates for you, and keep asking yourself questions to circle in on what may be missing or need clarification or development or trimming to more effectively convey your intentions.
Look beyond personal preferences or misguided instructions.
Feedback that reflects the critiquer’s personal opinions or biases, or that’s prescriptive or based around “how they would do it,” can still guide you to areas where you story could be strengthened.
I once had a crit partner—an older man who wrote lean literary fiction about taciturn Texas men—tell me that he found the glimpses into characters’ inner lives in one of my stories a little overdone and distracting. My initial instinct was to dismiss this feedback—I write women’s fiction, and character development and insight are the soul of the genre; plus he was a man, and one writing very different types of stories.
Instead I sat with his input and considered why he’d felt that way. Whether he was “right” or not, something pulled him out of my story at certain points—the antithesis of what any writer wants—so I took a closer look at those areas and how much internality I had in them. And despite my genre’s different conventions, he was right in certain places, where too much inner life was stalling a scene’s pace or lowering urgency and stakes on the action.
Even the “wrong” kind of critique can be valuable.
If the feedback you receive makes the mistake of telling you what the critiquer thinks is wrong with your story or how to fix it, see if you can look beyond the reader’s actual advice and winnow out the core of what prompted it.
For instance, if a crit partner advises you to cut scenes in act two to increase pace, that might indicate to you that their interest flagged in the middle of the story. The problem may be pace—but it could equally likely be stakes, character motivation, or suspense and tension elements, among many others. Don’t worry about what they think you should do—analyze what they might have felt that prompted the suggestion.
Critique that rubs you the wrong way is often the hardest to process.
An initial defensive or even emotional reaction in you can often indicate a darling. Maybe it needs killing—but maybe it’s simply an indication that a certain element simply isn’t as effective or developed as it needs to be.
Author Bianca Marais (host of The Shit No One Tells You about Writing podcast) tells of receiving editorial feedback on what became her debut novel (Hum If You Don’t Know the Words) that given the story’s prominent elements of racism, other themes about homophobia and antisemitism felt like too much.
Bianca felt strongly about including those elements, as they are key to the South African sociopolitical environment she was writing about—but the feedback told her that those areas might not be coming across effectively. So instead she developed them more clearly and deeply, addressing the core problem beneath the editors’ suggestions without killing her darling.
Knowing when to kill and when to stand your ground and develop a problem area is some of the hardest work of revision. Allow yourself to consider the feedback and ways to rework that area of the story. You may be surprised to find the story could be better served without it, or you may decide the critique is off base for your vision. But sometimes this kind of feedback can shine a spotlight on something that simply isn’t coming together the way you hoped, and push you to find a better way of effecting your intentions.
Practical Tips for Processing Feedback
It can help to organize the feedback you receive, especially if it’s from several sources. If you’re working with an editor, a good editorial letter should already have done this, breaking down the input into main areas that could use strengthening or development.
I like to suggest breaking feedback into three main categories:
- macroedit areas—the foundation of the story itself: character, stakes, and plot
- microedit areas—the story’s support scaffolding: suspense, tension, momentum, pace, point of view, showing and telling, etc.
- line edits—feedback specific to the prose itself
This system can help organize your thoughts as you assess the feedback per the above suggestions, and formulate a game plan for incorporating it into revisions.
I recommend working from the ground up, meaning address the macroedit areas first—character, stakes, and plot—as this is the foundation on which the story sits. If it’s not solid, the rest of the structure can’t stand. Then you can examine microedit issues, which scaffold the story, and save line edits for last, since you might find yourself doing unnecessary revision if there are more foundational elements that need addressing that change the manuscript substantially.
But you might prefer to start with the small stuff—the little line-edit issues that are easiest to address, to give you a jump-start on incorporating feedback. Each author’s approach depends on the specific story’s needs and your personal style and preferences. As with everything in creative pursuits, there’s no “right” answer or one-size-fits-all technique; it depends on each individual story, and you as a writer.
How about you, authors—what do you do with feedback once you receive it? How do you determine what feels right for your story? What’s your technique for incorporating it into the manuscript?