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The Dangers of Critiques: A Blast from the Past

(I am hip deep in edits and my brain isn’t focusing on anything but those. So here’s a post from December 2016 about critiques. I’ll add a few additional comments at the end.– ASG)

As writers, we are going to see our work critiqued, whether we want to or not. Most of the time we don’t want to. Let’s be honest, no one likes hearing that their baby is ugly and that is what we risk when we read a critique. However, before we ever see our work in print, many of us workshop our work in critique groups or we have alpha and beta readers look it over. Then there are the editors. We trust them to tell us what is good about our work and what is bad about it.

But what do we do with that information once we get it?

That is where a number of authors, usually those new to the field, run into trouble. Do they try to incorporate all the changes their critique partners and beta readers suggested? Or do they simply nod, say “thanks” and move on? Or is there something in the middle?

Unfortunately, there is no “right” answer. But there are guidelines. There is also the author’s gut, something the author must learn to listen to.

When I first started getting serious about writing as a profession, Sarah offered me a bit of advice when I was lamenting about how I didn’t understand what someone in a critique group had said. It’s been long enough now I don’t remember exactly what the comment was. What I do remember is that what they wanted me to do would result in basically breaking the character. But this person, who had more experience than I did — or so I thought at the time because of the way they conducted themselves in the group — was adamant that I do what they said.

So, after anguishing over it, I talked with Sarah. She was silent for a moment and then she asked if anyone else had voiced the same concerns about my work. No. Then she wanted to know if, after this person voiced their opinion, anyone else chimed in with an agreement. Again, no. That’s when she told me about the Rule of Three. Unless three people tell you basically the same thing, do NOT automatically decide you need to make the suggested changes. After all, people are different. They read differently, have different tastes and, let’s be honest, they can make mistakes.

Then she went on to tell me that even if three people say the same thing, that doesn’t mean you have to instantly make the change.  But it does mean you need to consider what they said, and do so dispassionately.

Here is an example from my current critique group. My critique partner is a very good writer, very serious about her craft and open to critique. She wants to do whatever she can to make her work better. In a recent meeting she talked about how, in another group, someone had suggested she redo her current WIP so that she was alternating POVs of her main characters. Their reason was because they did not feel like they were learning enough about one of the POV characters and felt having scenes from his point of view might help.

Now, we have all read books where there are different POV characters. Some of those books are written in 3rd person omniscient and some 3rd person limited. Others are written in 1st person. So my crit partner knew it could be done but her question was should it?

Our group discussed the options, as well as the pros and cons of doing it.

So here’s the thing, whether my crit partner needed to do as suggested — and, in my opinion and the opinions of the others in our group, she did not — there were issues with doing it. The biggest is, if you switch points of view, you have to be ready to have a distinct “voice” for each POV character. This is especially true if you are writing in 1st person. There are writers out there who can do that without problem. But it is difficult and not something to do if you, the author, don’t have that second voice firmly in your head.

Sure, there are easy ways to cue your reader that you have switched points of view when in first person. You can make sure each chapter or scene change is tagged in such a way that you actually give the POV character’s name. Or you can have another character call the POV character by name in the first paragraph or so and making it clear it is your POV character responding.

In this particular case, however, the author didn’t need to go back and rewrite a good chunk of her book. The one thing we agreed with the person wanting another POV character on was that we wanted more of a feel for the other main character in the book. So we brainstormed ways to do so. The suggestions we came up with meant a little rewriting, but it was more along the line of a sentence here and a paragraph there. Letting us more into the mind of the POV character and her reactions to him, especially at the beginning of the book.

Now, was the original critique wrong?

Not necessarily but it wasn’t necessarily right either. However, what that person did was offer a concern with a solution and not offer any other ways to address the concern. By raising that person’s concern with our group, our critique partner wound up with a discussion of not only some minor weaknesses we saw in her work but also different ways to address them. What solution she finally chooses is up to her, as it should be. She is the one who knows her book the best and who will be able to determine the best way to fix the concerns, if they really need fixing when the entire book is looked at, without breaking the book or the characters.

Here is another point we, as authors, need to keep in mind when we workshop a book in a critique group. More often than not, our critique partners are seeing only a chapter or two at a time and it may be weeks or months or even years before they critique that last chapter. That means critiques tend to be centered only on the chapter or scene they are currently working on in the group, not on the work as a whole. It means details from previous chapters can and will be forgotten. The flow of the book won’t be there. So, when someone says you need to do something that impacts the entire book, you have to ask yourself if they made the comment with the entire book in mind or just the current chapter and maybe the previous one or two in mind.

This is where your writer’s gut has to come into play. If what the critique partner says feels wrong, ask yourself why. If it feels right, examine that as well. Don’t be afraid to ask that person if they had the same concerns about earlier chapters they had seen.

If I have to point out one rule when it comes to critique groups/alpha and beta readers it would be this: do NOT try to make everyone happy. If you try to insert every change that every person suggests, you will probably wind up causing yourself more headaches and problems than you find solutions. This is, to repeat myself, where you fall back on the Rule of Three. If three folks say basically the same thing, consider what they said and why. If not, make a note, think about it but remind yourself that others did not have the same problem or suggestion.

Most of all, learn to trust your writer’s gut — and when to realize you really shouldn’t have had that three-day-old slice of pizza that hadn’t been refrigerated. Now go forth and write and, if you aren’t a writer, read.

UPDATE:

Most writers are insecure when it comes to their writing. That is one reason we look for critique groups or have more than a handful of beta readers–or both. We want and need the validation that we aren’t putting out a fish instead of a book folks want to read. The danger in this goes beyond what I mentioned in the original post. In fact, there are several dangers we need to be aware of.

First, you risk over-editing the piece to such a point there is no life left in it. Sarah used to kick me–and beat me about the head and shoulders–for doing this. It is part of the trying to satisfy everyone syndrome I mentioned earlier. It is also in great part an indication that you aren’t trusting your own instincts.

Second, most critique groups critique only a part of a novel at a time. I’ve been in groups where a novel might be workshopped over the course of a year. that leads to a myriad of issues, not the least of which is that those critiquing the piece don’t get the flow of it. Then there’s the fact that memory is a tricky thing and the critique partners won’t remember everything that happened in chapter one a year later. At some point, you need to thank the group and ask if they would consider critiquing the entire book at one time after you finish it. That is the only way to insure you get a solid critique of the book, its flow, character development, any plot inconsistencies, etc.

Third, you can belong to too many critique groups or have too many alpha and beta readers. There comes a point when you get critique overload, especially if you have folks giving your critiques who don’t know your genre. Yes, it is good to have at least one non-genre specific reader among the number. But if you are trying to keep everyone, including that person happy, you are going to wind up with a mess.

Critiques are good, essential at times. But there can be too much of a good thing.

So use some common sense, trust your gut and remember critiques are only one part of the process. Most of all, remember Sarah’s Rule of Three. Unless you have three or more people telling you basically the same thing, consider long and hard if the critique is something you need to worry about. Even if you have three people telling you something, you still have the final choice of following their suggestion or not. Be open to criticism but don’t think you have to always do as someone says.

Now go write. I’m off to find more coffee and then it’s back to the edits for me.

14 Comments
  1. For a while there I was actively seeking feedback on my work. But actually -getting- feedback was extremely upsetting. Being hit with a bat level upsetting. (Not you, Robin. Yours was excellent.) The items that required change were small, but my level of upset around it was out of all proportion to the criticism. Like, wow.

    Which is -stupid-, and I was annoyed at myself, but that’s still what happened.

    Clearly, this was something going on with -me- and not the people giving the feedback. What became clear was that seeking the opinions of others was not going to improve my mental state. Since the corrections were fairly minor it wasn’t going to improve the work much either.

    Truthfully I got more out of printing Sarah’s “You are a Real Author” certificate and forging her signature on it than I did from well meant, accurate and constructive criticism.

    You’d think that a grown man approaching retirement age would have the emotional maturity to accept a well-intentioned opinion, and that is what I expected of myself. Turned out that no, that is not the case. I can only imagine my response to reviews. [insert eye rolling sound here.]

    So be a little careful, my fellow fledglings. Sometimes the truth hurts a hell of a lot more than you think it will.

    January 15, 2019
    • This is so true. I always have thought that emotional distance is really important because I remember being so invested in my “baby” and needing affirmation more than anything.

      And just now I’m thinking that what it actually needs is… volume. If that “baby” is an only child it’s too easy to invest your entire writer identity in it.

      January 15, 2019
      • I kept writing, thankfully. I’m up to book 5 now, last scene to tie up all the loose ends and say bye to all the characters until the next shitstorm comes over the horizon. 198,000 words this time.

        When I go back and look I can see where the first book is a little “thin” in spots. But when I compare Larry “bought my own mountain” Correia’s book one “Monster Hunter International” to book 4 “Monster Hunter Alpha” I see the same thing. MHI was a little thin in spots compared to MHA. He grew as an author.

        Should he have waited until Book 4 to hit the market? Nope. MHI was more than good enough. Should he have listened to the people who said there was too much gun nerdery in there? Nope. That’s what makes it awesome.

        SELL IT! Get paid! Move on to the next one and sell that.

        So, that’s what I’m going to do. If I ever get my damn cover rigged up, anyway. I’m doing DAZ again today after I get done making sawdust in the barn.

        In encouraging news, an acquaintance of mine has a new mystery out. Dr. Ritu Sethi, “His Hand In The Storm.” She’s zooming up the Amazon ranks, her download numbers are large. Much larger than anything I expected, even though it is a very good mystery. In my mind quality of the work had little to do with success on Amazon, but I’m pleased to see I was wrong about that.

        I’ll post a link to Amazon.ca for interested parties. https://www.amazon.ca/His-Hand-Storm-Detective-Inspector-ebook/dp/B07MNDFJG9/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1547571675&sr=8-1&keywords=his+hand+in+the+storm

        January 15, 2019
    • My first reaction is often “Grrrrrr, how dare you criticize that!” Then I stop, take a deep breath, and look carefully to see what the problem is (if there is a problem) and where can I change things, if changes are needed.

      But I also respond to most undesired life-events that way, too, so it’s me, not the critiquer.

      January 15, 2019
      • Mine was more like an incipient fainting spell. I believe I said “What?” and then there were stars in front of my eyes and I had to sit down.

        Having a reaction that strong, that’s a Sign. Do not stick your finger back in that electrical socket again.

        January 15, 2019
    • Mary #

      One thing I’ve found helps is taking notes. You’re not trying to analyze, you’re trying to get down the gist of what they said. . . including tick marks so you’re not relying on memory to remember how much support a point got.

      January 16, 2019
  2. Uncle Lar #

    There is of course the consideration of whether your editors’ inputs are objective or subjective.
    The objective case is fairly straightforward, things like typos, or simple mistakes of fact. Stuff such as using a silencer on all but a small handful of revolvers, or in one notable case claiming that astronauts were using up the nitrogen in their cabin air rather than the oxygen.
    Subjective is harder and what I think Amanda is mostly referring to here. If I beta read a work in progress I’m looking for, forgive me for saying this, the feelz, what pulls me in and what disrupts the flow. I recall one collection of short stories where the author was constantly shifting tense often within a scene. It was entirely random and kept taking me out of the story.
    After an article I wrote for MGC on edits one published author sent me her current WIP for comments. Loved it, very Heinlein human wave sort of story. But filled with typos and grammatical errors. I checked her Amazon reviews and the low rated ones invariably were either based on her libertarian politics or her spelling and grammar mistakes.
    So because I liked the story so much I went ahead and did a full copy edit, probably between two and five corrections per page in a 300 page novel, and sent the MS Word document back to her. I never heard back, and attempts to contact her went unanswered. I was afraid that she’d died. Discovered over a year later that the WIP was now up on Amazon. With my corrections by the way. I have no idea as to whether she was horribly offended by my critique, or if she thought I was expecting payment.
    On the other extreme I did a read on, of all things, a Regency Romance for a friend of a friend. Found one typo in the entire 40k book, but made several comments about my subjective impressions of the characters, in particular how they acted and were formed by the culture they found themselves in. I not only got a nice thank you e-mail, but credit for my assistance in the forward to the book.

    January 15, 2019
    • I think that good manners requires at least a “thank you”, even if someone gives feedback that you felt was completely wrong for the book you were trying to write.

      January 15, 2019
  3. TRX #

    Feedback can be useful… but you don’t *have* to follow it, even if it’s relevant and useful.

    Sure, fixing factual errors and missing words and the part where you forgot to mention something important you depended on later, those have to be dealt with, and thank your first readers kindly.

    Elements of style and nuance… unless it’s something that slaps you in the face when pointed out, let it go. If you’re a hobbyist you can polish a story forever, but if you’re writing for money, “perfect is the enemy of good enough.” Past some point, you’re putting more time into a story than you’re likely to get back. Things are better now with the Long Tail, but still, how many hours or days of editing and tweaking are you going to put into something that, realistically, might make you a couple hundred bucks over the next ten years? The trick is being able to tell when it’s done *enough*, kick it out into the world, and put your effort toward the next one.

    Do you know when your task is done? Because if you don’t, it’ll never be done; you’ll just give up working on it and either send it off anyway or file it away.

    January 15, 2019
  4. Reading what I said above, I must give all due credit to Robin Munn whose reading and comments were extremely useful to me, and not at all upsetting. Spelling mistakes, grammar, places where I said 27 and then said 28 in a different place, That was great. Very welcome indeed.

    But with other readers, none of whom comment here incidentally, I felt like I got punched in the gut. They were also honest, respectful of the work, enthusiastic, but it -hurt-.

    I’m so weird sometimes. 😦

    January 15, 2019
  5. 23 skidoo

    January 15, 2019
  6. You know, when I have my “reader hat” on, this is exactly why I avoid snippets like the plague. I’ll also put the latest (but not last) book of a series on the TBR pile until the next one is out, or close to it.

    My reread right now is the Ringo/Weber “Empire of Man” series. I’m just barely past the part where Kostas Matsugae is killed. I still remember my reaction when I first read that – “Good thing I’m not on their side of the country, they’d have some rotten eggs thrown at their houses!”

    Thing is, that death (and the later death of Armand Pahner) are essential to the development of the Prince Roger MacClintock character. Drop those elements, and the Roger of “We Few” is just not completely believable.

    January 15, 2019
  7. If there was one useful thing I learned in my university creative writing classes (I must have been a masochist, insisting on taking them as a writer of fantasy) it was the ability to look at rather scathing literary critiques and say “what is actually the problem here.” If there were two, it was how to get my day’s quota out in an hour. ^.^’

    January 15, 2019
  8. Mary #

    I note it’s much more likely for a person to be right about their being a problem than what the problem is.

    January 16, 2019

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