In my first post for Pub Crawl I confessed that I was just coming back to writing after several years away. To help me succeed in the effort, I have recently put together a Critique Group.
Steph and Stacey’s excellent Critique Cheat Sheet is a fantastic resource for how to give useful, insightful critical feedback. But I’ve also been thinking lately about how we respond to critiques. I believe that knowing how to respond to critical feedback is a skill as important for writers as knowing how to give meaningful critical feedback to others.
Today I’m talking strictly about critical feedback that you receive during the drafting or revision process. I am not talking about how to respond to reviews of your published work (because almost always the answer to “How do I respond to a review?” is: DON’T).
Writing is by nature intensely personal and solitary. In fact, that’s why so many of us seek out critique partners or beta readers to begin with. We are so immersed in our own stories that sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. Trusted beta readers or critique partners can provide a more objective, holistic view from a distance, which also makes it easier for them to spot problems.
Inviting others to critique your work is an intimate act. And sometimes receiving critical feedback is difficult. You’ve laid yourself bare and and made yourself vulnerable in sharing your work with someone else. Even if the praise and encouragement you get back far outnumbers the issues that are highlighted, it’s the things that aren’t working that will haunt you. Especially when it’s not that there’s a problem with your book, it’s that the reader just doesn’t get it. It’s natural to want to explain, to defend or dismiss. But I’m here to argue that you shouldn’t.
All readers bring their own unique perspective to your work. Everyone will see different things in your writing and interpret it in different ways (for proof of that all you need to do is scroll through a handful of reviews on Goodreads). Sometimes the things readers see in your work are unintentional, or even the opposite of what you’re trying to convey. You can’t lean over the shoulder of every reader and explain your book as they read it; your story has to stand on its own. And so no matter how tempting it is to defend your work to your critique partners, to explain away the misconceptions or state your intentions, it’s not actually useful to do so. Not if you want to write a better book.
So what should you do instead?
Listen to the feedback people give you. Listen without waiting for them to finish speaking so that you can address their points. Simply listen, attentively, and quietly. Take notes. Bite back the urge to respond, and just take the time to acknowledge the things that your readers are pointing out to you. Listening doesn’t mean that you have to agree with all the feedback you receive. Later you can examine these critiques and weigh them against your desires and intentions for your writing and decide what to do about them. But that’s later. First, you need to listen.
Make sure that you understand what people are telling you. If you aren’t clear on something, wait until the critique is finished and ask for clarification. Ask for specific examples of the problems cited. Critiques are only useful to you if you understand them. Ask questions, but again, resist the urge to explain.
Now that you’ve received your critique and are certain you understand it, it’s time to evaluate and determine how to proceed. Give yourself some space and distance. You need time to absorb all of this feedback before you can begin to dissect it. This is still your book, and you don’t have to incorporate all of the feedback you receive into your story. But if you’ve taken the time to carefully consider what your critique partners have to say, it’s likely that you’ll find that much of it is worthy of your attention. Sort through all of the feedback and decide which issues you want to resolve in your next revision.
Answer with your writing
The best way to respond to critiques is by addressing them in your writing. For feedback with which you agree, make the necessary changes to correct those problems. If you’ve received some feedback that doesn’t feel right to you, comb through your manuscript and see if there are things you can strengthen so that your intentions are better communicated. The best place to defend your writing is in your writing itself. Rather than insisting that people are misinterpreting your work or that they just don’t understand, take it upon yourself to make your writing stronger, clearer, and more resonant. Your work is going to have to stand alone, so make sure that it does. Critiques can make your writing better if you’re willing to embrace them and get to work.
In the comments, lets us know if you have any other tips for grace under fire when receiving critical feedback.