Critique Comments: Remembering to Give them Time

Yes, I’ve written about receiving a critique. I’ve spoken to groups about receiving a critique. I’ve received critiques. Time and time again. You’d think I would remember, right up at the front of my writing and revising brain, the most important parts of the process.

Oh, if only I were that good.

Here’s the rule: Don’t always assume your initial reaction to a critique comment is going to be your final reaction. Or even just your second and third. So, so often, feedback from one of your critique partners makes you shake your head vehemently (to yourself, of course!) and scream a silent, internal, “No!” They suggest a character or plot change, a major shift in voice, and all you can think is how wrong they are. How absolutely crazy wrong.

Um…

Don’t lock the door on that belief. Don’t drop it into a pile of wet concrete and let everything harden around it. Because, odds are, you’re going to get to a point in revision where you want to take it out again and look at it. Closely.

It happened to me (again!) last week. I’d had a critique session on a new picture book, and one of my wonderful critique partner had talked about getting the action to more fully and accurately bring out the theme of the story. Now, it’s just possible that, in all our years of critiquing together, I may actually have never mentioned my aversion to the word theme. Yes, I know it’s important. Yes, I know stories have them. Yes, I know it’s something I should be at least understanding about my writing, even as I carefully work not to hit the reader over the head with whatever it might be for any particular book.

That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Anyway, so of course, unbeknownst to my critique partner, my hackles were up at the first sound of the word. Which may have had something to do with my initial (internal!) reaction to her description of what the theme was in the picture book.

Critique Partner: So the theme is …..

Becky: The theme is SO NOT….!!!!

Hopefully, I kept my face blank and/or semi-smiling so she didn’t get the full blast of that response.

Anyway, you can see where this story is going. I sat down over the weekend and did my usual first step of revision: reread the critique comments. When I got to this critique partner’s notes about the theme, I was still shaking my head, but it was a milder shaking–with a bit of an amused and tolerant smile as accompaniment. Hey! You’re going to have these feelings. You’re going to turn into an intolerant, conceited, patronizing jerk when you get feedback, and it’s okay…as long as you do it in private! It’s a defense mechanism, we all have them, and they need to be let out occasionally–off-leash–or they get really cranky.

So I put the comment aside, and I started thinking through the other problems I knew were there, as well as the other more head-nod-provoking suggestions from this critique partner and the others. And pretty soon, I was doing what all good critiquers get their pet authors to do: asking myself questions about the story. Questions like: How can my little hero direct more of the action? Why does that secondary character react differently to him than everyone else does? What is that other guy’s problem, and what is he afraid of?

And pretty soon, despite (or probably because of)Β that one comment about theme, my brain circled back to it–this story’s theme. With a slightly different take at first, but one that, ultimately and totally connected up with the original definition from my crit partner.

What did I do?

  1. I sighed.
  2. I thunked my head a few times on my desk.
  3. I posted a paean of gratitude (AKA a buried apology) to my critique partner on Facebook.
  4. I took more notes about the new (and better) revision path.

The moral, once again, is sometimes your gut reaction is not the best one to follow for your writing. Yes, trust yourself. Yes, value your own experience with and understanding of your story. But listen to the people who have come from outside your story to read it and help you with it. Whether it’s the newness of an idea, the shock to the system of a direction so totally different from where we thought we were going, or even just an irrational fight-or-flight response to something we’re not sure we can handle…there are lots of reasons we react negatively to critique feedback.

And, believe me, there are lots of reasons to take a second look.

43 thoughts on “Critique Comments: Remembering to Give them Time

  1. Good stuff, Becky. I’ve been writing a series of “Critique Technique” blog posts and it might be a good time to take a breath and remind my readers there’s another side to critique–receiving it. I’d like to link a post on that topic back to this one. No need to rewrite what’s already been well-said.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Feel free, Ross! And I’m glad you’re posting about critiques–it’s something people need to keep talking about, I think.πŸ™‚

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  2. This is such a dilemma for most writers. How long do I mull over the critique, or how many times do I have to read the same comment before I make the decision to cut, edit or rewrite? And it can be a very tough call. I usually roll my eyes at first, but if a comment niggles at me, and I keep coming back to it, I find that there is usually something I need to revisit.

    On the other hand, I was once asked to cut an opening scene, which established a good deal about the heroine in an quick, entertaining way. My editor told me it was too theatrical and that it didn’t have enough GMC to keep it in. Since multiple, multiple readers had read and enjoyed the scene, I instantly knew I would go to great lengths to save it. I ended up editing a few paragraphs and adding a bit more internal dialogue (GMC) and the editor was happy.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Great example, Jillian. You took a comment from someone who you respected and made the revisions your own. We do, obviously, have final choice, but I do like to look at how other people see my scenes!

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  3. Bebe Willoughby says:

    This comment was wonderful, gentle and wise. I have lost a few short letters from editors because they were so off about a novel. When I came around, I didn’t remember the remarks very well. When I was an editor, and an author called up attacking me about my not taking his or her work seriously,I never forgot them.

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    • Hi Bobbie. I had a hard time finding a critique group–I live in the Caribbean, and there’s precious few scribblers down here. Last year I found the Internet Writing Workshop (http://internetwritingworkshop.org/) and joined; it’s all done through email with excellent moderators to keep things running smoothly. Maybe you want to give it a shot? It’s international, people from all over the world (but English-based), which means you get a LOT of different feedback, different perspectives. I’ve learned a lot there. Oh, and the email-based communication plays beautifully to Becky’s advice hereπŸ™‚

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  4. yep, quite to the point and never to forget. maybe the worst behaviour advisor is initial emotion, so … as old children’s tales say, “Before speaking, count to ten.”
    Nice article, Thanks!

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  5. I do a lot of critiquing, and receive a lot of critiques. I’s got all dees grate storys, but I’m not a grammarian and sometimes the mechanics get rough. Sometimes I’ll get a critique (less and less over time) that drives me insane. What in the heck don’t they get, can’t they see what I’m doing? My bird hides; the fish swim deep; the trees lean away from the house. I’ve learned to release it, sit on my fingers, and soak the critique in. The bottom line is: if they don’t get it, they don’t get it. And regardless of what way the critiquer expressed themself, just remember the amount of time you spend critiquing and thank them for that. Then, go back to your story and see if there isn’t a way to end the critiquer’s (that is, readers) confusion. I’ve found Shakespeare to be right: the fault “usually” lies with thee.

    Keep giving and getting critiques. I’m tired of reading sloppy self-pubbed stories.

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  6. Great advice and a great reminder. It’s easy to appreciate critique partners when they love your work. Sometimes not so easy when they point out flaws that we just don’t want to see. I usually set aside my critique partner’s comments for a week, or sometimes two, before taking a look at them.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Such a good point, Annette. Yes, it’s easy when everyone’s patting you on the back and telling you great, great! But the work, the not easy, is what makes our writing better, I think.πŸ™‚

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