Critique Enlightenment – What you can learn from critiques of your creative work

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

My debut adult sci-fi novel, Divided Elements, is currently going through its final pass by my critique partners before it gets shipped off to the copyeditor. (Yes, it turns out that I still love this manuscript and we are finally ‘tying the knot’). Getting your creative work critiqued by an objective outsider, while crucial for elevating the work to its maximum potential, is never easy. For insecure writers, critiques can lead to wholesale changes. For stubborn writers, critiques can trigger lots of defensive replies about why their work doesn’t need changes. So, which response is the correct one?

A recent blog post by a fellow CP, Angela Sylvia, got me thinking about this and here is what I have come up with:

For every critique I receive, I have one of three reactions:

  • The lightbulb moment, where I say to myself “How did I miss that? (despite the seven times I’ve already re-read it!)”
  • The dig my heels in moment, where I say to myself “Nope, you just don’t get it”.
  • The let’s agree to disagree moment, where I say to myself “This is more about you as a reader, than the writing itself”.

The lightbulb moments are great – they are an immediate call to action to fix something you can see is broken (even if it took a critique to reveal it as broken). I tend to find lightbulb moments gravitate towards:

  • Areas I know that I am weak in (e.g. overcomplicated sentences, dialogue tags, adverbs)
  • Areas I have a limited grasp of/exposure to (e.g. dangling modifiers)

When you can recognise your weaknesses, it’s easy to be grateful to critiques that point them out and offer solutions.

The dig my heels in moments usually fit into two categories:

  • Stubborn, obstinate author ego (e.g. “That’s my darling, how dare you demand that I kill it!”
  • Confident author authority (e.g. “I can see this objectively and know that it is right for this scene/chapter/story”)

Correction - Dave Mathis

That being said, it’s hard to know at the time which category my response falls into, which is why I employ these two methods for finding out:

  • Look at other reviews by the critiquer – do you agree with them? do they seem reasonable?
  • Review the critique again in time (usually on the next edit pass) – does it seem more relevant/necessary now?

If the answer is ‘yes’, I then have a begrudging acceptance moment (“Okay, you may have a point”) and enact the required changes – sometimes as suggested, sometimes with my own spin.

If the answer is ‘no’, then I sit back and try to understand the motivation of the critiquer – which inevitably ends up at the let’s agree to disagree moment. I find there are generally three reasons why a person is critical of something:

  1. It legitimately doesn’t work – in which case, you fix it.
  2. They don’t have the skills/expertise to offer accurate critiques (e.g. someone telling you that you need more adverbs in your dialogue tags) – in which case, you run a mile! (Or maybe just ignore that criticism)
  3. They are projecting their preferences, rather than pointing out an issue – in which case, you politely thank them for their suggestion and move on.

The third reason is an interesting one. It reminds me of a point made in the writer’s manifesto of Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat):

… most writers value feedback and dialogue with their readers. But ultimately, a reader’s role is different to that of a writer. And a writer’s role is to try to convey a series of ideas as honestly and as well as we possibly can, with minimal interference, and most of all, without being distracted by heckling from the audience.

The fact is that the writer cannot please everyone all of the time. We shouldn’t even try – fiction, by its nature, should present a challenge. Books allow us to see the world in different ways; to experience things we might never encounter – or wish to – outside the world of fiction… Fiction is often uncomfortable; often unexpected.  Most importantly, fiction is not democratic. It is, at best, a benign dictatorship, in which there can be an infinite number of followers with any number of different ideas, but only ever one leader. Like all good leaders, the writer can (and should) take advice from time to time, but where the actual work is concerned, they, and no-one else, must take final responsibility.

The manifesto was most likely penned after this incident, where Joanne responded to a critical review of her book – labelling it as a “Terrific example of the “if I’d written this book I would have done it differently” review”. Now, I’m not going to get into that whole ‘authors behaving badly’ debacle, because that is just a nuclear bomb waiting to go off (everyone gets so twitchy around that button…) – but I agree with her point – “A review should be about the book you’ve actually read, not the one you wanted to read, or worse, the one you wanted to write.”

Same goes for critiques. Sometimes a reviewer will have an issue with your protagonist’s characterisation, or the tone of your opening chapters, or your word selection, or the pacing, or… (you get my drift). Sometimes these can be legitimate, objective concerns rooted in a solid understanding of best practice. But, sometimes, it can just be what they like as a reader OR how they write as an author.

If they are your target audience, you may wish to listen to them a bit closer,  but never forget that there are two goals in writing a book:

  1. Engaging the reader
  2. Creating something in your unique voice from your unique perspective

Long live the benign dictatorship!

How do you respond to critiques and/or deal with ones you disagree with?

 

Image courtesy of Dave Mathis via Flickr Creative Commons.

 

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Critique Enlightenment – What you can learn from critiques of your creative work

2 thoughts on “Critique Enlightenment – What you can learn from critiques of your creative work

  1. No way! Your post was excellent! (and very inspirational – obviously :))
    I also struggle to take my own advice when writing critiques – I usually can’t help myself and add ‘an example’ for clarification of the critique 🙂 Hopefully my CPs read this and know to ignore me if they don’t agree! 🙂

    Like

  2. Ah, you put this so much better than I did!

    “For insecure writers, critiques can lead to wholesale changes.” This is my issue, which is why I often prefer broad critiques rather than line edits. I have a hard time not acting on every comment I receive.

    I have to be so careful in my own critiques to not suggest just “what I would do if I was writing it…” Like, if a sentence is clunky I’ll point it out, but it’s really hard to not just rewrite the whole sentence for them the “right way” (a.k.a. my way).

    Like

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