Ask Becca: The Give and Take of Critique: Part 1

by Becca Jordan
published in Community

“Nobody in my critique group understands my writing style. They don’t get the type of art I’m trying to create. Do I suck at writing, or should I listen to them? What should I do?” –Artist in a Sea of Mediocrity

I’ve never been to a pageant, and I’ve never been a mother, but I’d imagine that walking doe-eyed into a fiction critique is a lot like being a pageant mom. You spend months getting your baby all dolled up and drilling her in the box step and jazz hands. Sweating so profusely you waft some of her hair spray on your pits to stay dry, your baby gets up on stage and does her dance perfectly, in tutu and heels and everything. You roar with pride when she rushes shyly offstage.

Then come the backhanded compliments: “She’s cute, for her age group.” “If you could just get her to lose a pound or two, she’d rock that dress.” “That routine is so last year, but if you got a coach she could really shine.”

Do you feel that knee-jerk reaction? That throbbing blister of roiling rage ready to explode and cover everyone (including your story. I mean baby) with goo? Some of you are probably having a knee-jerk reaction right now to the blog. Some of you are clicking away. No, don’t leave! Nooooooooo–

Over the past months, I’ve joined a super awesome critique group. I know how tough it is to hear your baby being ripped apart, but I’m a better writer for it. So never fear! Super-Becca is here (that’s me!) to help you defend against a barrage of critiques and actually get something out of it with these 4 steps.

1. Shut up

People who are bad at taking critique (listen up, self) are going to have to learn to curb that knee-jerk reaction. Does this sound familiar?

“But you missed the whole point of the story! Anyone with any smarts at all would see that this piece is genius, and if you think it needs editing there’s obviously something wrong with you!”

That fight-or-flight response is going to scare your readers into giving you less-than-honest critique, and if you refuse to listen, you’re not going to get any better at your craft.

So bite your tongue. Sit on your hands if you’re afraid they’ll punch the smug know-it-all on the left. Seethe and simmer and force yourself to listen to the critique. No, I’m not letting you ignore the critique, even if it is like swallowing glass shards. You’re a big kid now, not a spoiled baby who gets to hold the gold medal because you whined about it onstage. Pretend, for a moment, you are an open-minded person. Write down what everyone says, no matter how pointless it seems now.

2. Talk to yourself.

While you’re seething with rage, some self-talk might be helpful.

Here are some things you need to realize:

  • The critique is of the particular piece, not of you as an author or as a person. If your baby trips over her box step in the Act I finale, that doesn’t make you a bad parent. It just means your kid might need some practice. Same thing with writing.
  • Nothing you write is all bad. Sure, there might be a bit of baby fat here and there, but your characters really pop off the page. Or, if you’re like me, your characters’ motivations suck, but at least you’ve got a few interesting twists and turns in your plot. A good critique should focus on the good as well as the not-so-good.
  • Be interested in honesty. Thank your readers for it! In college, I had a writing class where everyone was so nervous about offending anyone that they only mentioned the positives and never gave actual critique. And do you know what? Nothing I wrote in that class ever got published, and neither did anyone else’s.
  • Everyone has a different opinion. While this is true, that doesn’t mean that differing opinions are wrong (or that you can dismiss differing opinions out of hand). Take everything with a grain of salt. Then (for some of you metaphor-driven people), pinch some of that salt into your pasta, and toss the rest over your shoulder.

3. Take a break

As the author/mommy of your newborn draft, you’re still very close to your words. You remember writing them, and why you wrote them. You remember what the setting smells like. You remember what your characters feel like when they’re inside you (in the spiritual sense, of course).

But that isn’t necessarily how your story is coming across. Especially if you get a lot of negative feedback, you might need to take a breather. Take a walk. Take a road trip. Immerse yourself in a completely different story. This will give you the distance you need to come back and look at your story more objectively.

4. Edit and rewrite.

Read the notes you took during your critique, and feel out if any resonate with you. Cross out the ones that obviously feel wrong—remember, your authorly instinct will usually be right, but try not to cling to your darlings too tightly.

Now read your story again with sparkly-fresh eyes. Those new eyes will invariably catch hiccups that made perfect sense while you were writing them but now just look like a kid failing at the box step (can you tell I was scarred by childhood theatre yet?). Cut everything you can. Rewrite. Check out this article.

You’ll end up with a much cleaner, clearer draft that ensures you’re meeting the needs of your reader.

At the end of the day, you’re still the mother. Father. Author. Whatever. Extended metaphors are overrated, anyway. If you don’t want to change something about your baby/story, that’s fine. But at least give the critiques a fair chance, and now you have actual readers’ impressions of your work. Chances are there is someone in the group who is your target audience. As an author, you need to please yourself first. But then think about making your potential readers happy, hmm?

Check back here in two weeks for the other (more fun) part of critiquing: dishing it out!

Got a question? Tweet me @beccaquibbles with the hashtag #askbecca, email me at becca [at] DIYMFA [dot] com, or just leave a comment below! You could see your question answered right here at Ask Becca!


Rebecca Ann Jordan is a speculative fiction author in San Diego. She recently won Reader’s Choice Best of 2013 for her short story “Promised Land” at Fiction Vortex and has published poetry and fiction in FlapperhouseYemassee MagazineBravura Literary Journal and more. Becca regularly columns for Quibble with her @beccaquibbles.

  • Becca, this is great advice! One of the first habits I learned in workshop was the “code of silence” where the writer wasn’t allowed to speak while their work was being discussed. Its a difficult, but valuable way of getting insight into your work. And it gets easier with time.

    Also, so important to highlight that difference between “critique” and “criticism.” A critique is a detailed analysis and a criticism is an expression of judgement based on perceived mistakes. The goal should always be to critique, to help the writer understand how their work interacts and engages the audience to, like you said, make the writing better!

    And oh! I love what you said about taking time away, I think that is most overlooked aspect of revision.

    • Rebecca Ann Jordan

      Danielle, I love the distinction you make about criticism. Criticism doesn’t help you; critique does. I’ll be sure to mention that in Part 2! So glad you liked the article 🙂

  • Lisa

    Mixed feelings. I definitely think the writer should be silent during critiques. In the workshops I’ve been in that was enforced and it benefited everyone. I have had a lot of critique groups (in college, in the community, online after graduation) give me really good advice. They tore my work to shreds, but the truth was my work wasn’t very good and needed major overhaul.

    At the same time, I have been in critique groups before where some or all of the members did not get my work and didn’t try. Instead of looking at what I might be trying to do with the piece I turned in and helping me accomplish my goals with my writing, they tried to persuade me to write differently or write about something else. Good criticism is when they see you are trying to go to California and they tell you which way is west..not trying to change your route to Canada because it’s lovely this time of year and that’s where they are going.

    Most people who have unusual writing or who get experimental with subject or structure or voice (or all three!!) will be met with confusion and disdain in workshops. The new or exotic often repulse and repel. If you are really breaking ground with your language and substance, a lot of workshop groups will just shut you down. You have to be really discerning with who you allow to critique your work.

    Of course this carries the caveat that you have to be sharp enough to tell the difference between between the two, between genuinely bad work and work that is just misunderstood. But that is the first ingredient in the making of a great artist of any kind.

    • Rebecca Ann Jordan

      You make a good point, Lisa. I think it comes down to being able to determine what is helpful critique and what isn’t–as well as finding similar/understanding critique partners.

      LOL @ the “way west” analogy. I just got a critique regarding how the editor would prefer to change the beginning, end, and the main character. Our job, then, is to determine where the disconnect is–and then decide whether or not our intentions are being met, and whether or not we’ll change the work after all.

      This is where beginning workshoppers can go wrong–they’ll take the criticism to mean “this sucks and I should rewrite it for my audience”, instead of having the experience to realize which critique is helpful and which isn’t. Balance between inner artistic instinct and outer influence is key.

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