Today I’d like to share an excerpt from my book 10 Core Practices for Better Writing.
This excerpt is from “Chapter Seven: Feedback,” which offers tips for giving and receiving critiques as well as coping with public criticism. The excerpt I’ve chosen to share today explains how to use critiques to make your writing better, and it also touches on dealing with difficult critiques.
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” – Winston Churchill
There are two schools of thought about whether critiques of your work are beneficial.
One school of thought says that art is subjective; a critique is nothing more than someone’s opinion, and critiques might harm the artistic integrity of your work by interjecting someone else’s ideas and visions into it.
The other school of thought says that art may be subjective, but other people’s opinions matter and can actually be helpful. Writers may be too close to their own work to view it objectively, so a second opinion reveals strengths and weaknesses that the author simply can’t detect.
In my experience, when approached thoughtfully, critiques do far more good for your writing than harm. In fact, a critique can harm your work only if you let it, and let’s face it: ultimately, you’re the one who’s responsible for what you write.
It’s true that a critique is mostly someone else’s opinion about your work. But critiques also include ideas to improve your writing—ideas that may not have occurred to you. Additionally, a good critic will point out mechanical errors—grammar and spelling mistakes that slipped past you.
Critiques are designed to help writers, not to offend them or make them feel incapable. But the human ego is a fragile and funny thing. Some folks simply can’t handle the notion that despite all their hard work, the piece they’ve written is less than perfect.
As a writer, you have to decide whether you truly want to excel at your craft. If you do, then you need to put your ego aside and learn how to accept critiques graciously. If you can’t do that, there’s a good chance your writing will never improve and your work will always be mediocre.
Critiques are not tools of torture. They are meant to help you. If the critique is put together in a thoughtful and meaningful way, it should lift your spirits by pointing out strengths in the piece, but it should also raise some red flags by marking areas that need improvement.
Usually, critiques sting a little. That’s okay. Sometimes, you’ll get lucky and your suspicions about what is weak in your writing will only be confirmed. Other times, you’ll be surprised that the critic found weaknesses in parts of the work that you thought were the strongest.
Whether a critique will be beneficial or harmful depends entirely on you. Obviously, nobody can make you change what you’ve written; it’s up to you to pick and choose what you revise.
Tips for Accepting Writing Critiques and then Writing Better
With practice and by following the tips below, you’ll learn how to overcome your own ego; how to obtain a beneficial critique, evaluate it objectively, and apply it to your writing thoughtfully; and for all that, you’ll be a better writer.
- Find someone who is well read, tactful, honest, and knowledgeable about writing. If you can find a critic who possesses all these traits, then you have overcome the first hurdle, because such persons are not easy to find.
- Polish your work as much as you can before handing it over. Do not send a rough draft to someone who will be critiquing your work, otherwise much of the feedback you receive may address problems you could have found and dealt with yourself. The point of a critique is to step beyond your own perspective and abilities. Note: Some writers get developmental edits or use alpha readers who read the rough draft and then give general feedback on the story or idea. This is not a critique in the traditional sense. It’s more for bouncing ideas around.
- Don’t harass the person who is critiquing your work by calling them every day, especially if they’re doing you a favor. If you are working under any kind of deadline, plan accordingly.
- If possible, do not review the critique in the presence of the person who prepared it. The best way to first review a critique is to set aside some time alone. In some cases, you’ll do critiques in workshops or writing groups where you have to be prepared to hear live feedback. In these situations, there is usually an instructor guiding the critiques to make sure they are presented and accepted graciously.
- You may have an emotional reaction. Some of the feedback may make you angry or despondent. Know that this is normal and it will pass.
- After you review the critique, let it sit for a day or two. In time, your emotions will subside and your intellect will take over. The reasonable part of your brain will step in and you’ll be able to absorb the feedback objectively.
- Revisit the critique with an open mind. Try to treat your own writing as if it were someone else’s. As you review it, ask yourself how the suggestions provided can be applied, and envision how they will make your work better.
- Figure out what is objective and what is personal in the critique. Critics are human. Some of their findings may be technical—mistakes that you should definitely fix. Other findings will be highly subjective (this character is unlikable, this dialogue is unclear, etc.). You may have to make judgment calls to determine where the critic is inserting their personal tastes.
- Decide what you’ll use and what you’ll discard. Remember, the critic is not in your head and may not see the big picture of your project.
- Thank your critics. After all, they took the time to help you, and even if you didn’t like what they had to say or how they said it—even if the critique itself was weak—just be gracious, say thanks, and move on. Don’t argue about the feedback.
- Now you can take the feedback you’ve received and apply it to your work. Edit and tweak the project based on the suggestions that you think will best benefit the piece.
- You can apply the feedback to future projects too. Take what you learned from this critique and use it when you’re working on your next project. In this way, your writing (not just a single project) will consistently improve.
In some cases, you may not have control over who critiques your work. If it’s published, anyone can assess it, and they can assess it publicly. If you’re taking a class or workshop, peer-to-peer critiques may be required. In cases like these, it’s essential that you keep a cool head. Even if someone is unnecessarily harsh or rude in their (uninvited) delivery, respond tactfully and diplomatically.
If you can obtain useful critiques and apply the feedback to your work, your writing will improve dramatically. Critiques are one of the most effective and fastest ways of making your writing better.
Good luck with your critiques, and keep writing. Pick up a copy of 10 Core Practices for Better Writing for more tips and ideas to continuously improve your writing.
This article is quite priceless – if the reader can apply it!
I have ‘enjoyed’ some extremely harsh and destructive feedback from anonymous critics on a short-story site I have recently started to use – I am a very new and inexperienced scribbler, with all the insecurities that entails – and now I honestly feel that my work is worthless, that all the effort I put into it was wasted and that I have merely shown myself to be trying to do something I can’t in fact manage.
I did receive one or two reasonably positive comments from some other writers but they, of course, seem tiny and insignificant in relation to the negative ones. Even the most ‘upbeat’ of my ‘angels’ advised me to ‘Keep writing — to tick off the critics if nothing else.’ I’m sure it was well-intentioned, but if the most I can expect from my efforts is to achieve annoyance in my critics, I really do feel I am wasting my time.
As I said above, a fine and positive article – for those able to benefit from it. Unfortunately, I am not one of them.
Writing Forward is a marvellous web-site! I wish I had discovered it earlier, in which case I might not have been writing this now! Thank you.
Traci, my recommendation is to steer clear of sites that have open and anonymous critiques. The person to whom you turn for feedback should be someone who knows how to cite the strengths in your work as well as the weaknesses. It sounds like the site you’re using is frequented by a bunch of insensitive amateurs. In my online travels, I have found decent critique sites very few and far between. In fact, I’ve only found one and last time I checked, it was offline. I certainly wouldn’t take the opinions of an anonymous critique to heart. You’d be much better off joining a local (live) writing group or taking a creative writing course at a community college. You should definitely know how the person who is critiquing your work is qualified. So, my suggestion is just move on and put that particular site behind you.
Thank you, Melissa, for replying to my post, which was little more than a ‘poor me’ whinge, truth be told.
I suppose that my expectations were too high, that I thought everyone would love my writing and that everything in the garden would be lovely.
I knew I couldn’t please everyone, but it was the ‘this is rubbish – my cat could write better’ comments, those that offered no clues as to where I had failed to communicate that were the most hurtful. One of these, and I know it’s crazy to say so, ‘knocked out ‘ more than one positive one.
How do I overcome this crippling vulnerability without becoming so hard and self-centred that I wouldn’t be able to write anything anyway? I’m sure if absolutely nothing can ‘get in’ then exactly the same can ‘come out’.
Thank you again for the advice already offered. I really love this site – even if I have to stop writing I will still visit!
Traci, I think the first thing you can do to overcome the negative (and nasty) feedback is to simply find people who are more qualified to critique your work. The kind of comments you’ve mentioned are neither professional nor helpful. For all you know, the comment was left by some jerk who’s having a bad day and found an anonymous way to take his or her problems out on others. You cannot expect all feedback to be praise. Even after you’ve been writing for twenty or thirty years, a strong critic will be able to find areas in your work that can be strengthened and improved. That’s just the way it is. If you truly want to improve your writing, you’ll learn to accept the feedback graciously and use it to improve your work. There’s no reason you should become hardened, and if anything, learning to accept feedback will make you less self-centered. Good luck to you!
I think one of the most important things about writing is receiving constructive critiques. This is what helps you grow at your craft and turn a good piece into something far better.
I have just had my novel critiqued by a writer friend, who is a published author and a writing coach. Her insights were most valuable and although I had done the rewrites to this novel already, (I spent eight months doing this, after a year of writing the initial draft) her constructive critique has helped me see where I can just tweak it a bit more to put the final polish on it and give it a chance at being published.
Helen, thanks for sharing your experience. It shows that we writers have to work and rework our words to get them ready for the reading public. I’m afraid many young and new writers don’t quite understand why all the fuss about revision.
You are right about that Melissa, but I have actually only been writing myself now for just two years, and I have found it’s the revision that helps you learn such a lot.
I have just done one of your exercises for flash, which involved taking a story previously written and reducing it to a flash. I took my story The Key which was originally 2,350 words and reduced it to 994. It will be posted on my blog as flash for this week. Now that is an exercise worth doing. It teaches you how to be economical with how you can say something and yet get keep the important elements of a story.
Helen, that’s one of my favorite exercises, and you said it well: “It teaches you how to be economical.” Many writers have a habit of fluffing up their work with unnecessary words, phrases, and sentences as well as paragraphs and long passages. I’m glad you found the exercise helpful 🙂
I was expecting something else. The thrust seems to be about the critiques during the finalization of the writer’s work.
Could you please tell us how should one respond after, say, your work is published in the Blog and the critic gets too personal in which case the easiest thing is not to publish his comments, treating it as a spam.
I came across a comment in my Blog in which I was told I had painted my subject in poor light. That was indeed annoying, since I had actually written about my idol, praising him. The first thing was to discard his comments. I, however, published it thinking that since I had received bouquets there was no harm in receiving a brick too. I trusted my readers’ who were favcurably inclined. I did reply to that comment tactfully. Another nasty one was where even my creed was questioned and I was threatened. This I thought it fit to consign to the dustbin.
Anyway, thanks for the article, but would like to read something more on this subject.
Nasir, if you’re going to publish your work for all the world to see, you might as well get used to the negative comments now. It doesn’t even matter whether the commentator was right or wrong, rude or polite. One of the perks of being published (even self-published) is that you get to find out what complete strangers think of your work. I get negative comments here, too, and I usually go ahead and publish them. Everyone has a right to an opinion. If you don’t want to hear others’ opinions of your work, then disable commenting on your blog altogether. Of course, you can also weed out the negative comments so all you’re left with is the compliments, but that approach has never seemed fair and reeks of an inability to take harsh criticism, which is a skill every artist should possess.
Good article Melissa – I find it amazing how much of improving my writing comes from improving myself: being less lazy, being less judgmental, taking more time in looking at the world around me. I seem to recall reading a quote somewhere along the lines “the only way to become a better writer is to become a better person.”
Seems it applies to absorbing critiques too!
Thanks, Simon. I love that quote. It bears repeating: “The only way to become a better writer is to become a better person.”
Melissa, this is so spot on! I had to laugh as today I also read a post from a literary agent who explained why rejection letters don’t have a “why.” Feedback is tough but when you want to be a “real writer” it comes with the territory. I’d rather have professionals critique my work rather than have readers rip it apart. I’m not made of stone, but a little bruising of the ego comes with the territory. It takes guts to do what you do Melissa, and I appreciate the comprehensive info in this post.
Thanks, Karen! I know why rejection letters don’t have a “why.” It’s because many of the writers will come back and argue with the editors! One of these days I’ll have to write a post about the time a young poet asked me for a critique and then proceeded to argue against every suggestion I made, including “don’t write the entire poem in all caps.” That’s when I started charging for critiques. Haven’t had a problem since. It’s unfortunate, but writers who are willing to pay for a critique seem far better able to handle it. Anyway, no guts required. I just call it like I see it and keep encouraging people to write or do whatever else they’re passionate about.
It’s true. Critiques are necessary, and not everyone is emotionally prepared to hear what those critiquing have to say. It is an art to itself, and this advice is very useful for creative writers.
Yes, I think critiques are an ideal way to improve one’s writing most effectively. Thanks, Stephen.
The biggest improvements to my writing was during online classes where my work was critiqued. It stung beyond belief, but I knew I needed it. It also builds tough skin for those bad reviews when you do publish. 🙂
I had a similar experience. In college, the critiques elevated my writing dramatically. It was one of my strongest growth periods as a writer.
I can’t help but to agree. I’ve had some crituques that helped onan incredible level.
If you can find a skilled reader-writer to critique your work, it’s probably the fastest way to improve your writing!
Very well said. It’s always interesting to see the difference in critique style between lay-readers and fellow writers. Writers tend to be more critical–of course, because they’re looking at it from a professional standpoint–while lay-readers come at it from a purely entertainment viewpoint. A writer will criticize my use of a certain type of dialogue attribution; a lay-reader will say, “This character’s a jerk, why does HE get the girl?” Both are important perspectives to consider when I do my final edit.
The only negative feedback I ever got that really bothered me was a bad review on Goodreads. It was irritating because the review consisted of about five words and offered nothing of note, just that it was “terrible.” Yeah, and?
Yes, there’s a big difference between a critique and a thoughtless review. When shopping for books, I often read the reviews and am surprised at how many of them are meaningless (they don’t explain what they liked or didn’t like). A lot of reviews also rehash the story instead of explaining its strengths and weaknesses. Most readers probably ignore negative feedback that isn’t meaningful. I know I do.
Sound advice. Thank you very much. I took a creative writing class recently and we had to review our peers’ work. It was very hard at first to be told that this or that part was unclear but eventually, I got used to it and used the comments to correct what was wrong.
I once showed a chapter of my novel to my partner and when he told me that he was confused, I was completely shattered. I had felt that the chapter was amazing. It made me lose confidence but after the emotional reaction passed, I was able to see the problem and fix it.
I guess I’m lucky because I’ve never really been personally hurt or offended by feedback, although I’m sure I will, eventually. Usually, when someone has pointed out a weakness in my writing, I feel more grateful because I tend to agree with them and am glad I get the opportunity to fix it. Also, I go into critiques with the desire to find out what needs improvement. I just had a critique session last night and almost all the feedback I got is going to make my story better. The thing to remember is that the vast majority of writers are so close to the work that it’s impossible to view it objectively and see every little thing that needs to be fixed or every opportunity for improvement.
The only writing group I have found is a group of “snowbirds” (retirees who go south in winter) that meet weekly in Jan and Feb. Often the critique is simple approval. We want to be nice. But we would also like to be helpful. May I make an attributed abstract of your post to share with the other seven this Friday?
Yes, you are free to share content from Writing Forward privately with a writing group. The content here cannot be republished or distributed for commercial purposes.
HI Melissa, I don’t know if this comment will be seen, as it’s rather long after your article was published. It came up in my search re managing critiques, you may be glad to know. Since I see you take the trouble–a rare thing!–to answer each commenter in depth, I thought I would ask your opinion on two questions. To wit: I am in a critique group and have received somewhat contradictory feedback on a novel chapter from two different members. One has a quite a few suggestions but is generally positive, saying that my writing creates suspense and hooks them. The other suggests a great deal more cutting of language and says that I would create suspense only if I do so. I actually love paring down words, so my reservation is not about that. However, I wonder about minimizing words to the point where this value dictates style and tone, i.e., becomes a minimalist style, more spare than I want. How can I know if I am just holding on to my darlings or resisting a suggestion that might take me away from the style I want to cultivate? Thanks! Juliana
Hi Julia. Thanks for your comments and questions. There is no strict tool of measurement to determine whether you’re holding on to your darlings, and only you can know why you’re keeping some language (or other elements) in a piece of writing. What’s most interesting to me is the contradictory feedback that you received, which could speak to the expertise of your fellow critique members. Is one of them more experienced or knowledgeable than the other? Or it could speak to their personal taste: which one has taste more similar to your own?
Some readers like minimalist writing; others enjoy being immersed in language and detail. I think most probably want something in between. Ultimately, it’s up to you decide what kind of style and voice you want you evoke. I’m sorry. You were probably hoping for a more concrete answer. A couple of other options: get a third opinion or hire an editor or coach whose expertise you trust and whose style you like.
Most importantly, keep writing!
Thanks very much, Melissa! (I came upon your response just now!) I think it is quite concrete. And complete!
You’re welcome. Glad you enjoyed it!
I am a member of 2 online critique groups. They have been most helpful in improving my writing.
The biggest problem with this type of group is that any member of the group can critique your work. As there is a limit to how much you can post at one time, it means that you may get a critique from someone who has not read previous chapters. This can make for them saying something is confusing because they haven’t read the background.
However, there are some critiquers who try to follow a story, and I try to do that, too. It helps.
That sounds like a strange way to run a writing group, but maybe it wasn’t designed for getting continuous feedback on long-form writing, such as a novel. That would also be true if the group is open to anyone and has a revolving door. Finding a good writing group is hard, though, to it’s nice get help where you can.
Fantastic list! I especially love the one about first polishing your work before letting ANYONE else read it. I’ve had so many writers ask me to read their work, yet it is always, and I mean always, riddled with basic issues they should have resolved before sharing their writing with anyone. It’s frustrating. And I’ve gotten to where I give it back to them (as soon as I realize they haven’t self-editing properly) and tell them I’ll read it once they’ve cleaned it up. It’s funny but I’ve yet to have a writer do this, clean it up and resend it. I think writers assume you will see “their brilliance” in the true first dirty draft. Again, so frustrating.
Thanks, Cindy! I have had the same experience and agree that it’s frustrating. I always let writers know that if the piece is littered with typos and grammatical mistakes, the edits and feedback is going to be wasted on issues they could have fixed themselves. For a developmental edit, I strongly recommend a clean but detailed outline (for story feedback). Great comment!