I’ve been working on a lot of critiques in preparation for a writing workshop next month, so I’ve kind of got criticism on the brain right now. I generally find critiques to be hugely helpful. I sure as hell have my blind spots when writing, which makes good crit partners invaluable for pointing out the things I’ve missed, be they plot holes, muddled character motivations, inconsistencies, or what have you.
The hard part for some writers is figuring out what criticism to take. You can’t—or shouldn’t, rather—try to address every single comment you receive. Fiction is a largely subjective thing, so inevitably, people are going to have different opinions. Try to incorporate all of their comments and you’re going to end up with a serious headache and a hot mess of a story.
So which comments do you address?
When I was attending the Odyssey Writing Workshop, Michael A. Burstein was one of our guest lecturers, and in reference to critiques, he paraphrased the Talmud: “If one person calls you a donkey, pay him no heed. If two people call you a donkey, buy a saddle.” In other words, if one person has an issue with your story but no one else does and you’re happy with it, then leave it alone. But if multiple people all point out the same issue, then that’s something you should probably address.
Unfortunately, there are also those head-desk inducing times when you get conflicting opinions. Half the people in the room were blown away by your twist ending while the other half thought the story was too predictable. Four people think the story’s well paced, four others think it moves too slowly, while yet four others think it speeds along too quickly. Or worse yet, everyone agrees that the story doesn’t quite work, but they all have a completely different opinion as to why.
That’s when things get tricksy. There’s no scientifically proven method or magic spell for figuring it all out. The best I can do is offer up some things to keep in mind:
1) What people say the problem is may not actually be the problem. Ending doesn’t work? It could be that your ending is fine; you just didn’t set it up properly, so it’s the beginning that needs to be tweaked.
2) Give the story, the critiques, and yourself some temporal distance. Writers are only human, so often your initial reaction to receiving a critique is going to be a bit raw—you just handed people your baby, and they’re telling you it has three eyes and a missing ear. I usually set critiques aside for at least a couple days, often longer. When I come back them, my reaction is less defensive and emotional, and I’m therefore able to look at the comments more objectively.
3) Not everyone is going to be in your target audience. If you’ve written a story about albino goat herders and there’s someone in the critique group who absolutely detests stories about albino goat herders, then there’s probably not much you can do to make the story work for that person. Don’t automatically discount all of their feedback by any means; there might be something useful there. But, there will probably also be comments that you can safely ignore since this simply isn’t the reader you’re hoping to please.
4) Inevitably, there will be someone who critiques your work in the most dickish way possible. I’ve been fortunate enough not to run into too many of them, but they’re out there. Luckily, the dickishness means that you can generally ignore about 90% of what they say since it’s usually unconstructive feedback along the lines of, “Your story sucks.” Still, occasionally you’ll find a good point or two buried in the I-am-a-sad-tiny-person-who-needs-to-feel-superior snark that is a dickish critique.
5) Always remember that it’s your story. Be grateful for critiques, but don’t feel obligated to address every single comment. Even a perfectly valid point might be best discarded if it turns the story into something other than the one you want to write.
6) When in doubt, trust your gut.
Barbara A. Barnett is an avid rejection letter collector (aka writer), musician, orchestra librarian, coffee addict, wine lover, bad movie mocker, and all-round geek. You can learn more about her and her work at www.babarnett.com.