— Photo by Kennedy Library
While I don’t claim to be an expert, after receiving critiques from fellow writers and editors for nearly a decade, I feel I have a pretty good handle on what critiques to give credence to and which ones to ignore.
By ignore, I don’t mean dismissing the critique partner or disregarding the entirety of their comments. Most critiques cover a variety of points, so I rate each individual criticism on its own merit. Otherwise, I risk missing out on valuable feedback or never being able to keep a critique partner.
But there are definitely signs that can help filter out the good from the bad.
Note: The article assumes the critters you work with have a good understanding on the topic of writing/crafting a good story. If you feel a critter lacks good understanding, I suggest leaning toward rejection.
When to lean towards REJECTING the feedback:
Intentionally intentional. If you feel you have a good handle on this whole writing thing and you intentionally introduced something that generally makes critters go wild (such as: passive writing, adverbs, unique structural/grammatical choices, etc.), then it’s probably safe to ignore a critter when they send up the red flags. If multiple critters jump on that bandwagon, it might be time to lean toward giving the feedback credence.
Fable frauds. Unless you are surrounded by critters that live in your story’s genre (Science Fiction, Fantasy, Noir, etc.), you will field comments from those who live in other genres. Now, it’s an absolute benefit to have critters from all walks of life, including those whose genres are different than your own, as it often provides perspectives that you wouldn’t find among your own kind. That said, be very careful when someone outside of your targeted genre tries to tell you something is wrong because “it’s not what they’ve seen” in your story’s genre. Especially when they explain how the story “doesn’t work for them” as they simply may not appreciate or relate to the genre you are writing in, let alone truly know how to write for those seeking the genre. If you’ve studied up on your genre (typically by reading A LOT of what’s published), then trust your gut to know what flies and what doesn’t in that space–at least, when facing someone outside of that circle.
Demeaning douchebags. If someone is critiquing you (you are terrible at X) versus the story (the story needs work here), then it’s likely the person isn’t focused on helping your story to be the best it can be, but instead is using this as an opportunity to feel better about themselves. This, of course, is the lowest form of douchebag known to authors (at least, in my humble opinion).
There is one exception here. If the comments come from someone you know and trust AND their writing knowledge and experience is solid AND they very respectful with their feedback. Then it’s OK for them to offer critiques about you as an author. But again, only if it’s meant to help! Examples of what I feel is respectful:
You tend not do well in developing [the scene, characters, etc.] in your stories. For example, [cites several examples in your work]. I think you should really focus on learning more about this. Here are some handy [books, articles, suggestions] that could help.
Something like the above would go a long ways with me as it shows true effort to help me as an author. But again, I wouldn’t necessary buy into everything a single person is saying–even one you know and trust–as they are but one voice. At minimum, use your own mind to decide if the comments have merit. If you can’t decide, seek out the opinions of others who you trust.
When to lean towards ACCEPTING the feedback:
Reminder: If you do something intentionally, then it probably overrides the below.
Authorial agreement. If you get feedback that you agree with, then it’s likely a good fit for your story. Fairly obvious statement, sure, but it’s worth mentioning that your greatest assessment tool is your gut. If it’s telling you the feedback is worthwhile, then go for it–even in the face of other critter comments.
Grammatical gaffes. Misspellings, comma mistakes, apostrophe misfires, misplaced modifiers, run-on sentences, poorly constructed paragraphs, boring sentence structure, and so on are commonly flagged and are often worthwhile to correct.
Vocabulary vomit. Repeated words, using BIG words when smaller ones will do, overusing a thesaurus, inappropriate or ineffective word choice, and so on. For skilled writers, word choice is often intentional. But that doesn’t mean words aren’t up for discussion. If your goal is to craft the most interesting and beautifully written story possible, be open to opinions on word choice. The right word at the right time is a thing of beauty!
Authorial addiction. All authors have a voice that is unique (at least, for the most part) to the individual. Unfortunately, authors often have addictions or ticks that ride upon their voices. Examples include: overusing a word or phrase, weird or overdone metaphors, always having the characters doing the same thing (for instance, my characters tend to suck in deep breaths A LOT!), starting scenes the same way, and so on. Ticks are often hidden to the author, sucking the life out of the story, until someone comes along and helps to pluck them out.
Note: Highly suggest you add any uncovered ticks to your editing checklist, that way you know to look for them later.
Character crisis. To the best of my knowledge, the majority of fictional stories have characters in them. If these characters fail to elicit an emotional response from the reader, the story will suffer. As such, pay close attention to comments regarding character depth, development, goals, and so on to ensure this critical component doesn’t flop in your story.
Factual flops. Logic failures, inaccurate sciences, presenting busted facts, etc. Be sure to research the topics you write about and do your best to present a story that cannot be poked through like a wet napkin. If your target audience loves science, then you have better make sure your material covers those bases. If your readership devours history like a ravenous pack of…well, history nerds, then make sure you don’t misfire when injecting specifics into your historical fiction.
Dialog debacles. Stilted, lifeless, flat, and other critical comments towards dialog should be taken seriously. Dialog, in my humble opinion, breathes a whole lotta life into a story and if it fails, your story will likely fail with it.
Structural snafus. Issues with major structural components can sink a story’s ship faster than a torpedo. Pay special attention to comments on story/scene openings, conflict or tension concerns, point-of-view problems, pacing issues, themes, poorly timed infodumps, plot holes, etc.
Clarity confusion. Are your critter friends complaining that they can’t see the picture you are attempting to create? Do they get lost where your characters are or what they are doing? Has the plot done so many twists and turns your readers are upside down and facing backwards? As an author, you should seek to create clarity for every element in the story (except for intentional misdirections, of course) or you risk the reader losing interest or getting so confused they put down the story.
Stylistic stymies. Telling where showing is better or vise versa, poorly executed symbolism, cliches, flat tone, etc. While a lot of this is opinion driven based on others view on style, it’s definitely worth noting if more than one critter points out the same concern as it may ring true for the general audience.
Ultimately, it’s your choice as to what feedback you listen to and what you choose to ignore. I often use the Rule of 2 (no, not the Star Wars/Sith doctrine!): if at least two solid sources provide the same feedback, then give the feedback extra consideration. This includes the author’s mindset as well. If an author hears something that they agree with, then I strongly urge them to go with it. Your own instincts are often the best assessment tool you will ever have at your disposal.
There you have it, one author’s experience in filtering critter comments. I hope this information helps you in some way. If you have any thoughts or ideas to share, please leave a comment or like this post.