Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Being critiqued - treading the minefield

Being critiqued can be overwhelming. I've talked about the need to pay attention to things that you might not want to hear, and not disregard painful advice out of hand. Now, I'm cautioning against the other extreme - trying to pay heed to everything.

There is a skill to scanning a critique and picking out things to take action on. An equally important skill is deciding what to ignore.

Not all advice is equal. Not all advice is good. Even good advice is not always applicable.

Here are some reasons to be cautious, and things to watch out for...

The compulsive rules junkie: This is the critiquer who likes to wave the rule book at every opportunity. Some "rules" seem to acquire inviolate tablet-of-stone status. No adverbs. No passive voice. No telling. I'm sorry, but adverbs and passive voice have their place. If I see someone embarking on a relentless mission of adverb annihilation then I can see that actual critical thought - the point of a critique - has flown the nest.

Inaccurate advice: More insidious than the blatant rules junkie is the "wrong rules junkie" - the critiquer who insists on some rule that simply isn't true. I once had someone tell me that every piece of dialogue absolutely had to start on a new line. He'd clearly misunderstood the actual rule where someone new is speaking, but was most insistent. He then went through my MS pointing out every single instance of my "error". The trouble is, that was the sum total of his critique.

Plain old unhelpful: "Boring" or "this sucks" is simply not helpful. If you make no effort to explain why something is not doing it for you, I'll probably make no effort to listen.

Personal taste: Some advice amounts to little more than personal preference. That doesn't necessarily mean it's worthless - it is a genuine reaction from a reader, after all - but neither is it gospel.

Trying to rewrite your story: Personal taste taken to extreme can lead the critiquer to try to rewrite your story how they would have written it. This is far more dangerous. Write your own darned story and leave me to get on with mine!

Wrong audience/just doesn't get it: Personal taste is especially dangerous if the critiquer is clearly far removed from your target audience. There's no problem critiquing outside your comfort zone, you can give a fresh perspective as well as general writing comments, but if you don't "get" the specific conventions of the genre then be wary. If this is a hard military sci-fi story, don't bleat about the technology or the lack of a mushy love triangle.

Wrong advice for your story: This is very hard to detect, and needs great confidence and judgment to stick to your guns. Sometimes none of the above is true, and the advice might even be good in its own way, just not right for you.

Conflicting advice: In my previous post I mentioned looking out for things several critiquers agree on. The converse is also something to watch out for. If different critiquers are leading you in conflicting directions then it's a sign you're in territory where there's no clear right answer. This is bad news if you are looking for definite advice, because you're on your own. The good news is, you're on your own. If you aren't doing anything clearly wrong, then you are free to carve your own path.

Cheerleading: It's always good to be told nice things about your story. The trouble is that if the critiquer is overly complimentary then you probably aren't getting any worthwhile advice. I am more inclined to pay attention to odd bits of praise if the critiquer has also shown no qualms about shredding bits that needed shredding. Then I know it's genuine, and not just empty cheerleading.


  1. Sounds like a lot of critiquers bring their own agenda to the table lol.

  2. Love that quandry over conflicting advice. I love this because... I hate this because... Ahh! I don't know about you, but I often get the far ends of both sides in those particular situations. Those are the spots where I really have to evaluate what I'm trying to convey.

    You forgot my least favorite critique type: The butter you up so you'll pretty-please-with-sprinkles-on-top crit my work. It's right here. You'll love it. I know you will because I love your work. Click the link. Please?

  3. Delores, they do indeed. Remember, these are not paid professional editors, just other writers - at various stages of the writing game.

    Jean, you're right, I forgot about that one. I guess I was focused on people at least trying to give a critique without worrying about other agendas. There's a whole - and no doubt contentious - other post to be had on these kinds of non-critiques!

  4. I just read through your whole series of posts on critiques. Good stuff!

    Cheerleader critiques drive me nuts. Oh yeah, sure, the ego-stroking is "nice", but it doesn't help the writing process at all.

  5. Very good, I think you name-checked all my least favourite parts of the receiving critiques process. I can take most of these on the chin these days - mainly by remembering a quotation by Neil Gaiman about how readers can spot what's wrong in your work but rarely tell you how to fix it. If I've got lots of complaints about a section I know I need to focus on it, even if I'm not sure how. That alone is very helpful.

  6. Susan, nice, yes, but not at all helpful :)

    Wordfoolery, that's the difference between readers and critiquers. As writers, we are looking to the latter to help make things better.

  7. It seems a fine line to walk at times but in the end you make the call and wear what ever consequences.

    I have enjoyed learning about this process that you are going through

  8. Hi Ian .. I think it's probably like most things in life .. we pick what we want to hear and I would hope if we've asked for a critique .. we can then make sensible choices as to the roses amongst the thorns ...

    Very interesting set of informative paragraphs though around the topic ..

    Good luck with wherever you're at with your novel .. and hope to read it 'soon' .. cheers Hilary

  9. Just as accepting criticism is hard, finding A fair person that can not only tell you that your story doesn't work, but why. It's the why that is important.



  10. Mynx, you make the call - exactly right. That will be the topic of my final post on this subject.

    Hilary, the challenge is picking what we don't want to hear but we know we should :)

    Valerie, the "why" is oh-so important indeed. Only then can we do something about it.

  11. I am thoroughly enjoying this series, Ian! I can't stop my head from nodding up and down as I read.


    (Oh, I hope you group these and put a link in your sidebar. :-)

  12. Thanks, Teresa, I did group these posts with their own label, but maybe a specific link would be a good idea.


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