Wednesday, August 20, 2014

How to Take a Critique

by Sherry Wilson
Taking a critique can sometimes be difficult for those of us who toil in private for a long time, churning out work and not really knowing how it will be valued by others. Giving up your work for critique is difficult, and receiving a critique with dignity can be challenging.

If your story is the subject of a live critique, you have a great advantage. You're going to receive immediate, honest feedback on your story. That is a privilege. It can also be hard to take. Most of us would like to bury our heads in the sand at this prospect.

I remember my first live critique. It was at a writer’s conference, and I was so nervous I’m surprised I didn’t pass out in the chair. Time was short so she concentrated on what would make the story better and she didn’t pull any punches. I felt like I’d been a few rounds in the ring by the time it was finished. It was probably the longest three minutes of my life.

It is difficult to take at first, but you do develop a thicker skin rather quickly. The most important rule to follow when receiving a critique of any kind, but especially with a live critique—do not argue.

As soon as the writer starts arguing with the person giving the feedback, all feedback stops. People will give you their opinion until you argue about it. Then they won’t bother anymore. As hard as it may be to take, you have to realize that what they are doing is a true gift. You cannot argue with readers once you have sold your work. They will interpret your story in their own way. You can’t control that. So you shouldn’t try to control the feedback from your audience either.

If the feedback is given in an on-line group, it is inevitable that you will receive an upsetting critique at some time or other. The distance of on-line relationships and the mood fluctuations of people will no doubt cause some to send off a hasty critique.

When this happens, do not write a note back arguing with the critique.

Really, don’t do it.

Let it sit for a day or two to gain a bit of distance and then re-read it.

Yes—re-read it.

You don’t have to agree with it. This is one person’s opinion, and that is all it is. But you might as well get something out of it.

So re-read the critique with an eye for what problems the person saw in the manuscript. You may not agree that these are problems, but you will see that there is a reason the person stopped there and made a comment. Perhaps they misinterpreted what you were trying to do. You may decide not do as they suggest, but you can see that you need to make your intentions clearer in that section.

Often, just the distance of a day will let you see that, while the critique might be a bit rude or brusque, there is something to be gleaned from it.

If you are paying a professional for a critique or an edit, you should find that the communication is professional and framed in a positive light. The editor should tell you what you’ve done right as well as point out any problems and give you suggestions on how to improve the story. But there is the occasional editor who will be more negative with his critique. If this happens, again, don’t argue.

If you don’t understand something, it’s perfectly fine to ask for further explanation.

If you can’t figure out why he made a certain comment, ask for clarification.

But don’t argue with him about it. You paid for the editor’s help and you want his opinion. You don’t have to agree with it.

In fact, receiving another critique from someone else can be a great help to you. It will show you which points really need to be changed and which are more a matter of personal taste.

If two individuals make the same point, you should look closer at their suggestions.

You need to develop a thick skin. That only comes from being subjected to critique repeatedly. Being able to use the critique to improve the work is the most important thing in making it. That is how you get better. The writer who gets published is the writer who perseveres.

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