One Dutch Editor, One Nomad Writer

How to receive critique

Last week I focused on giving critique, and this week I’ll discuss what to do with it when you receive critique of your own. First of all, let’s get one thing straight.

You will get critique on that text. No one’s writing is perfect. Expect to get your text back with red ink on it. If that feels too uncomfortable, you might not be ready to receive critique yet.

When am I ready for critique?

In general, people like to have a first draft ready before looking for critique. As Stephen King calls it, write it with the door closed; don’t accept any interruptions and well-meant advice as long as you’re writing the story for yourself. Some like to share their work fresh, others labor over it for months and lost count on their number of drafts. Some might already have queried and want to figure out why they’re not landing an agent. Others are forced to share their text in class to get peer reviews.

Whatever your situation, there is one often unspoken rule when critiquing. If you want a decent, useful review, give your partner something to work with. They are not there to fix your dialogue interpunction, tell you if it’s effect or affect, or put your periods before the space, not after. After all, why would your partner put any effort into your work if you don’t? You are free to send out any draft you like, but most experienced critiquers prefer to work with clean drafts; text that you’ve nitpicked yourself already.

What are you ready for?

Most seasoned reviewers have become blunt and don’t always deliver things in a nice way. Most will try, but they expect you to have a thick skin. This gradually slips in and most critiquers I’ve come across are aware of this. If you aren’t ready to have your work torn apart, say so when you post your work. Be honest with yourself and your critiquers. Getting ripped to shreds on your first try is one of the most discouraging things, ever.

When they know you’re new at this, the critiquers will normally adjust their way of communicating so you’ll feel more at ease. This can affect the depth of the critiques you receive, but there is nothing wrong with having a chapter looked over again. But, do make sure not to fatigue your critique partner(s). If they have to go over the same chapter four times in a month, they won’t like it. This applies to any writer who gets critique on a regular basis. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to give your chapter a break. You can get fatigued working on the same chapter, as well.

When you get a critique

It might take a few weeks until you have your first critique, or it might be an hour. Whatever you do, don’t go fixing things when someone is still working on your text! If you go typing in there, changing the text, it will move in front of their eyes and you will give them a headache. If you work analog, don’t look over their shoulder; they’ll be hesitant to be honest about your writing. Your critiquer will have time to discuss everything after they’re done. They might want to circle back to the start for their concluding statements. They could be hesitant and remove or adjust a comment, for example when they suddenly understand a concept half a page down. Curb your enthusiasm.

Emotional impact of feedback

Some people who get critique for the first time will feel like they got hit by a car, no matter how gentle it was presented. You worked hard on your writing, and then someone tells you your baby isn’t good enough. That’s exactly why it’s so scary to share your work. The important thing to remember is that critiques are meant to help your baby grow stronger and better.

Whatever you do, don’t revise your story while you’re still emotional over the critique. There’s no fault in letting it simmer. After a few days, you’ll see it’s not as bad as you thought.

Now you have feedback

Generally speaking, if two people say something isn’t working, it’s probably not working. That can be either you as a second writer or a second critique partner. However, don’t accept any changes without thinking about how it will affect your story, either. You are ultimately responsible for your baby.

For example, if you write military fiction, your target audience will love it when you name drop type numbers of guns, specs, types of bullets, and such. As a fantasy writer, that makes me roll my eyes. I wouldn’t be wrong to point out the jargon, but the writer could be right in not changing it. Consider what background your critiquer has and remember they are only human, too.

I personally wait until I have two, maybe three reviews before changing anything. I’ll make sure to ask my critiquers about any things I have questions about. If A doesn’t work, how about B? Would my MC be less passive if she fights her physical restraints? What if her captor finds out she’s fighting back? I want to get the most out of it, after all.

Processing the critique

When I get to work with the critique, I usually clear through the easy commentary first. I might’ve misspelled something. I said the MC had blond hair, but two lines down, it’s brown. That will make the total number of comments go down and helps brace for the second step.

As I go through the easy fixes, I’ll read the comments in the document and, if it’s there, other feedback. It gives me a sense of where the chapter is now, and what others suggest I do with it. It helps provide an idea of where I want the chapter to go as I rewrite it. From there, it’s up to me if I agree with suggestions, ignore them, take only half of their advice, et cetera. The main question I keep in mind is; will this improve my text?

When working on a personal project, it’s tempting to ask for new critique once you’ve revised your text. However, you can get stuck in an editing loop when you do. You’ll get new comments and might never move onto the next chapter. There will always be more comments, so the chapter just has to be good enough for you to be satisfied. Just because you got feedback doesn’t mean you have to use it that same day or week or month. You can circle back once you worked on other chapters. Take your time, it’s your pace.

How to clear up major issues

If you received critique detailing some major issues (for example, your writing is passive, your character isn’t coming across as intended, your descriptions aren’t enough, you’re infodumping too much), it might work better to rework one or two chapters up to a place where you are satisfied and those issues are tackled. That way, you save yourself a lot of time revising the rest of your story and your next chapters or story won’t get swamped with commentary over the same issues.

Ask for help from your critique partners, other writers on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, whoever is willing to help. Read blogs like ours. Dive into grammar books. Research the issues that are mentioned. Having a few chapters clear of the issues can work as a motivator and example of how you want all your writing to be. Clearing the issues before moving on also prevents the rest of your book from getting the same type of comments, about the same issues. If they’re in one part of your writing, it’s probably in all of them.

How to interact with your critiquers

Circling back to interacting with your critiquers, it’s important to build a relationship with them. When I ask for their opinions, my critiquers feel like they spent their time well.

Since I’m in an online writing group, I’ll make sure to review their work too, as I’ll want to repay their efforts. That also makes it more likely they will return to my future chapters. The more you put into a writing group and critiquing others, the more you’ll get out of it. In this form of critiquing, you can usually gather more critiques by giving out more.

Other situations might not have the same input-output payout. For example, you’re in a class with a mandatory peer review element. Your comments could be from a paid editor. Maybe you only receive critique, or your partner hasn’t posted any new writing. In any case, be sure to thank those who critique you for their time and effort. Most likely they are volunteers. As long as they help you improve, they deserve your gratitude.

This was a long one, but hopefully, it convinced you to work together with other writers. Who knows, you could end up making a friend that lives half a world away and run a website and blog together. In such an event, I highly recommend visiting the Arctic circle as a bonding activity.

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