With the new year upon us, a lot of writers are making resolutions to join critique groups to take the next step with their manuscripts and ask for feedback—some for the very first time (and kudos for those on this path).
In the rush to get that feedback, however, we don’t always take the time to learn the strengths and weaknesses of the people we’re asking to critique our writing. Sometimes, that leads to feedback that hurts our novels instead of helping them. The newer a writer is to the critique process, the more damaging a “bad crit” can be, so it’s good to know a little bit about who’s reading our work. Because really…
What do you know about the people critiquing your manuscript?
We’ve all heard the horror stories about bad critique groups and brutal critiques, but there are far more good tales of helpful writers than bad. But the smart writer knows what they’re getting into—or at least tries to. Sometimes those bad critiquers sneak in even when we’re vigilant.
Despite this scary-sounding warning, I’m very pro-critique group, and encourage writers to find others to help them. It’s a great way to learn and improve no matter what stage of your writing career you’re at. None of the below questions are set in stone either—they’re just things to think about to help a writer evaluate feedback and critique partners so everyone gets what they need.
Here are a few questions to ask before you dive in:
1. How much experience does the critiquer or reader have?
Someone new to the process doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t do a good job, but they might not know what’s expected of them. It’s not a bad idea to discuss what the group is looking for so everyone gets the feedback they want. For example, someone might think critiquing means:
- Only checking for typos and grammar
- Doing essentially a book review
- Explaining how they would have written it
If this is the type of critique you’re after, that’s fine, but if you expect something different, getting less than you wanted can lead to disappointment and frustration on both sides.
2. Does the critiquer or reader read or write the same genre as you?
Although not necessary, it’s helpful to get feedback from someone who is familiar with the genre and all its expectations. There are rules and tropes for every genre, and someone who doesn’t read that genre won’t know what’s common, clichéd, or required. For example, someone might:
- Give feedback that suits their chosen genre, not yours
- Suggest changes that remove or lessen the genre aspects readers will expect
- Frequently be confused by things a regular reader of that genre would understand
- Suggest things that the genre readers have seen over and over, but are new to that reader
It can be quite useful to see how someone new to your genre sees the story, but it can also make a difference in the feedback. If you know that going in, you won’t be blindsided by out-of-the-blue comments and weird suggestions.
3. What stage of the critiquer’s writing journey are they at?
If you’re looking for someone at a particular level, this matters. But I’ve also met newbie writers who were amazing critiquers and professional authors who did terrible critiques, so again, there are no absolutes with writing. But if you’re at the “revise and resubmit” stage, someone who hasn’t yet finished their first novel might not have learned enough to help you reach the professional level prose you’re after. And if you’re just starting out, someone with advanced knowledge can expect you to know more than you do and not give you detailed enough feedback to help you fix what’s wrong. For example:
- New writers might not feel they have the right to critique a more experienced writer and hold back their comments or suggestions
- Established writers might forget what it was like starting out and be too harsh—or suggest things far above the new writer’s skill or comprehension level
- Writers in the middle might be caught up in the rules and overlooking the story aspect (and vice versa)
Having critique partners both a little ahead and behind your skill level makes for a nice balance. The more experienced writers can help you improve, and the the less experienced writers help you understand your own writing better as you help them improve. You learn a lot when you have to explain a technique or aspect of writing to someone.
Of course, even the seemingly well-suited critique partners can be a bad match. Not all critiquers have the same skills or objectives, and “bad crits” can happen at any time.
Some things to consider when you get a bad or miss-the-mark critique:
1. Is the critiquer trying to help you develop the story you want to write?
Some critiquers can get overzealous about an idea and all their feedback pushes the story how they’d write it. While this can lead to ideas you never would have thought of on your own, it can also waylay your story and make it something it doesn’t want to be. This can be particularly dangerous if it’s an established writer or someone whose work you admire—you might go against your own instincts and follow their lead.
Don’t forget—sometimes great advice is wrong for the story you want to tell.
2. Is the critiquer more interested in writing rules than writing a story?
I think we all go through a stage where we get “rule focused” and feel if we follow them exactly all will be well. Eventually we grow past that, but sometimes you get the critiquer who has clearly read every book on writing out there—and feels every rule must be adhered to above all else. The slightest variation from a rule gets noted, even if there’s nothing wrong with the writing, or worse, the “broken rule” is done on purpose for positive effect.
3. Is the critiquer just interested in tearing you down?
There are critiquers out there who would rather rip your work apart to make themselves feel better than try to help you. They attack the writer, not the work, and view writing as a contact sport. It’s not you, it’s them, so don’t let their comments hurt you or your confidence. When you run into these folks, run fast and far and don’t look back.
4. Is the critiquer just interested in praising every word?
On the flip side, some critiquers love everything they read and have nothing constructive to say. While this is great for the ego, it’s not helpful when you’re trying to improve your skills or your novel, especially when you know you have weak areas that need work.
5. Is the critiquer just not your reader?
Not every book is for every reader—just look at the one-star reviews for books you love. And not every critiquer has enough experience or self-awareness to know the difference between a bad book and a not-for-them book.
When getting feedback from critique partners and beta readers, take all of it seriously, but understand where that feedback could be coming from when something seems amiss. It’s possible it’s not an issue with the manuscript but a miss-match between critique styles, skill, or expectations.
Just don’t let that be an excuse to ignore feedback you don’t like (grin).
A heads up if you’re looking for a critique group or partner: I’ve just opened for the Winter 2019 session of Janice Hardy’s Critique Connection Yahoo Group. It’s a private group for writers to find each other and form groups and partnerships.
How well do you know your critique partners? Have you ever gotten feedback you used even though you had doubts about its validity?
Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.