What I Learned From Critiques

Posted on 1st July, 2016


Have you ever submitted your writing for a critique? I have - both through the Romantic Novelists Association and via an authors' advisory service. Last week, I posted a blog called What I Learned From All That Editing. This week, I thought I'd do the same with critiques.


The single most important thing I believe about critiques is that if you are happy to accept the praise, then you should also swallow the criticism and take it seriously. You can't have it both ways. I was once at a meeting in which a fellow writer had just received her RNA report and naturally she was revelling in the positive comments; but when she was asked about the advice she had been given to improve her book, she became rather sniffy and said her reader hadn't appreciated certain aspects of her novel. Sorry, love, it doesn't work like that. If you want the praise, you have to take the criticism too.


Which brings me to my second point. Some criticism is hard to take. When you've poured your heart and soul into your writing, it hurts to have someone pick holes in it. My advice would be to set the report aside - and don't return to it until you know you are ready to give it your full consideration. Chances are the reviewer was right. Chances are that this is your opportunity to learn something. Even if you end up disagreeing with the reader, it is essential, for the sake of your development as a writer, that you think seriously about what s/he says.


Are you suprised that I've gone from "Take criticism on the chin" to "If you end up disagreeing"? Well, it's true - you might end up disagreeing with your reader - the operative words being end up, meaning that you have given the point proper consideration. Here's an example. I once received a reader's report in which my reader took great exception to something my MC did.


"The heroine of a romantic novel cannot possibly do this. There's another character in the scene - let her do it."


Well, yes, the other character could have done it, because she too had a reason - but my heroine did what she did to protect her child and I decided that if she didn't take this action, not only would she be weaker as a character, but the scene would have less impact and the book as a whole would be weaker.


Because my final point is this - it's your book. It's your decision what you do with it. Yes, pay attention to the critique. Learn from it. A good critique will give you ideas to develop your book fully. A good critique can be of enormous benefit - even if parts of it are hard to read first time round. But ultimately it's up to you, the writer, to write your book in the best and most effective way you can.


Have you been helped by having your work critiqued? What is the best piece of advice you can pass on?


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Comments (6)

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jessica. You make a good point. It's important to think about what a reader says about your writing and try to accept criticism dispassionately. That's why I recommend allowing time for comments to sink in. And you're right - it's your book and you have to write it in the best way you can, and that doesn't always mean following advice. As for your beta reader... words fail me! Lovely to hear fro you. I am looking forward to reading your third Whitsborough Bay novel. The first two were excellent.
Another great post, Susanna. It's really valuable advice. I particularly like your last point about it being your book. You'll never please all of the people all of the time and there are those who think your novel should be longer/shorter or the protagonist should have done this instead of that. As long as you think about why they've made that comment before thinking about it, then you can choose whether you agree or not. I had 2 incredibly good RNA critiques which really helped shape my debut novel, but I had a critique from a writing friend in the early days where she ripped it to shreds. She presented me page after page of criticism, with no positive whatsoever. At one point she said she'd wanted to throw my MS across the room! It absolutely destroyed me. I'd therefore say that, if you use beta readers, pick them carefully!
Jessica xx
Thank you for taking the time to leave such a long comment, Jen. I too have learned a great deal from critiques and I know much they can help a writer to develop. As you say, even a less helpful critique can still contain something important and relevant - that has happened to me twice, in fact.
This post should be required reading for any writer who wishes to grow their craft. Critiquing is a skill that, like writing, needs to be learned and all critiques are not created equal. However, as Carol said, if the critique comes from a source you trust, reflect on the advice given and learn from it.

I've learned so much from the RNA NWS critiques as well as RWA contest feedback and wouldn't be where I am as a writer without having taken that feedback on board. Yes, some of it was hard to hear but in the end it helped me grow and work on weaker areas of craft.

In even less valuable critiques, I've usually found a kernel of truth because those who critique are also readers and if something takes a reader out of the story, I should pay attention to it.

One final point...the RNA NWS critiques prepared me well for my first round of editor's revisions.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Carol. You raise an important point - the issue of trusting the reader. You are fortunate to have two beta readers with whom you have a solid working relationship and clearly your writing benefits from that. The kind of critique I am referring to in this post is the type where you may not even know who the reader is. Certainly all RNA scripts are critiqued anonymously. But the main thrust of my argument is good for any critique, I think - listen to the advice you are given and take it seriously.
A good post. I have 2 Beta readers who check my Victorian books ...one has a very sharp eye for plot holes and storylines that don't go anywhere...he is also good at eliminating all my 'wonderful puns' that I out in coz I think they're funny. I have learned to listen to him. Mind, that's coz I trust him implicitly...some critiques can be made by people whose credentials one doesn't know. I think the same applies to reviews -though maybe in a lesser way.. It is easy to get off on the wondeful 5 star ones, and not to bear in mind commnets on the lesser starred ones.