How to Make Sense of Critiques

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

Sooner or later, you’re going to get feedback on your work.  Whether it’s from an editor or agent, or from friends and family, or from trusted writer friends, you might as well get used to the idea.

But what do you do when you get all that feedback?  My temptation is often to cut up the papers and make a pretty decoration, but that wouldn’t be productive.  The truth is, sorting through feedback on your work can be a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be.

Here are some tricks I’ve learned that have helped me digest reader feedback in a way that’s helpful to me.

1)  Compile the comments.

This can be very tedious, but can end up also being the most useful thing you do.  I’m a bit old-school so I compile comments by hand, rewriting important margin notes from each critique onto a clean copy so that I can see the comments side-by-side.  I can get really obsessive with this step, color-coding comments according to who said what, using different color highlighters, and so on.

Why compile comments?  Ultimately, you need to get a sense of where there was consensus about your work and where people’s opinions differed.  Compiling comments allows you to put individual critiques into perspective.  Are there places where every reader is suggesting the same thing?  If so, your readers might be onto something and you should probably consider that suggestion.

2)  Focus on big picture issues first.

The temptation is often to tweak and mess with the nitty-gritty aspects of your work like word choice or style.  You can play with details all you like, but if you don’t address big picture problems first, you may end up having to undo or redo all the fine-tuning work you’ve done.

When you implement the feedback you receive, first think about those things that could change the overall shape of your story.  This includes major changes in characters (or adding/subtracting characters), adjustments to the plot and story-arc, or the decision to try a new point of view.  Once you’ve made these big picture changes, then you can comfortably play with the details knowing that you’re not wasting your effort.

3)  Listen to the “tough love.”

Last summer, I got some tough love from various critique partners and mentors regarding the overall brand of DIY MFA.  Following their advice would mean making huge changes to the DIY MFA brand, both in terms of design and also in the overall “attitude” of the project.  Needless to say, I was not exactly thrilled with that feedback initially.

My initial reaction was: “Dagnammit!  I like DIY MFA the way it is.  I’m not changing anything.  So there!”

But then I got to thinking, and I realized that the advice my critique partners and mentors were giving me was all spot-on.  I ended up changing the DIY MFA brand completely, severing it from my personal website and creating its own site and social media presence.  This feedback is what spurred me to reboot DIY MFA in the form you see here today, and overall the project is stronger and more cohesive because of those changes.

Did I like being told I had to redo my brand from scratch?  Of course not.  Am I glad my critique partners and mentors were honest with me and told me to do it?  Absolutely!  It is because I can count on them to be honest even when the honesty is tough to hear that makes these people my most trusted readers and advisers.

4)  Revision is a process, not a one-shot-deal.

I like to think of writing projects as being similar to cooking pasta: you throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and then see what sticks.  Some writers like to hammer out a draft, read it over for typos and grammar, then send it to critique partners expecting to get glowing praise on the project.  These writers are often in for a rude awakening.

I see revision as a constant process of reevaluation.

Again, I’ll use DIY MFA as an example.  When I first launched this site in September, I could have agonized about every tiny detail and spent months… even years… perfecting everything.  One of my mentors pushed me to “just do it” and launch the project, and that was some of the best advice I could have gotten.  These last few months have been an amazing learning experience for me… and who have I been learning from?  You, of course!

I’ve been learning from everything, from comments or emails you send with suggestions, to seeing which posts resonated with you all.  Every day I tweak and adjust to make the project better and in the process I have learned so much!

5)  Write forward, but write “as if.”

When I work with students, I always tell them to keep writing forward.  Don’t go back and tweak or edit small stuff because then you’ll never finish a draft.  Instead, keep writing, but write “as if.”  In other words, if you suddenly decide to change your main character from a man into a woman, don’t go back and rewrite the previous chapters.  Just note the change and move forward accordingly with your now-female protagonist.

I have a colleague right now who’s blasting her way through revisions and I’ve been learning a lot by how she’s approached her project.  She wrote a fast draft, just to get the ideas down, and has now been going back and filling in holes.  She’s made adjustments throughout the drafting process, but hasn’t let those changes get her bogged down.  Instead, she just made notes to herself and kept writing forward.  Now in her rounds of revision, she’s implementing those changes.

Finally: Remember that it’s YOUR project and no one else can write it for you.  So don’t let them.

Sometimes I worry that I offer my students and critique partners too many suggestions, but to me it all comes down to the pasta analogy.  I throw lots of ideas options on the table and figure it’s up to the writer to decide whether to listen to any of them.

Critiques are just suggestions and not all suggestions are created equally.

It’s up to you to choose which suggestions are right for your work.

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