by Tiffany Yates Martin
No creative soul likes receiving negative feedback on their work—no matter what we might tell you, beloved crit partners, beta readers, editors, agents.
Yes, we may admit we need it, and that it helps immeasurably to get objective input on what may not be as effective on the page as it is in your head, but as one author I work with memorably put it, having someone offer positive, constructive critique of your story is like an Orange Theory workout: You dread it going into it, hate every second while it’s going on, but afterward you feel great having done it.
But receiving negative, destructive input—criticism—can do more damage to your writing, and your creative efforts in general, than almost any other pitfall of writing life. I’ve heard too many horror stories—one just this week that inspired this post—about feedback that shut down authors’ creative impulses, filled them with self-doubt about their story and their writing in general, and in one awful case decimated the author’s confidence so badly that she told me she was giving up writing. (Don’t worry—ultimately she didn’t.)
“Positive” feedback in this sense doesn’t mean all praise, or empty flattery. It means framing feedback as the carrot, not the stick. “This scene isn’t working” feels a lot different from, “This scene might be a bit stronger/have more impact if…” Just like in a marriage or any relationship, as soon as someone feels under attack, they shut down.
So how do you solicit useful critique, and perhaps more important, how do you assess the input you receive to determine what’s helpful for you and your story and what isn’t?
As with so many areas of life, asking for exactly what you want gives you a much greater chance of getting it.
With beta readers and crit partners, you can save yourself—and them—a lot of wasted effort by offering specific guidance for what kind of input you’re looking for:
I advocate giving your readers not only your manuscript, but an actual accompanying questionnaire. They will appreciate the clarity and structure of knowing what you want from them, and you will guide their feedback to the specific areas where you need it.
That also lets you set the tone of it with your questions so that you elicit information about their reactions to the story, but don’t leave a ready opening for their unsolicited elaboration on what you did wrong and how to fix it. You are looking for objective input into how well the story you wanted to tell is coming across on the page—so what you want to know is how it impacts readers, and your betas and crit partners are your “test cases.”
To paraphrase the famous Nail Gaiman quote, when someone tells you what’s not working for them in your manuscript, that’s good information. When they tell you what you did wrong or how to fix it, that’s generally not.
That brings us to agents and editors—the trained and experienced professionals who will, occasionally, offer more prescriptive input: not just how the story comes across to us on the page, but why certain areas may not be as effective as they could be, and sometimes suggestions for ways you might address the issue.
It pains me to say this, but some of the horror stories I’ve heard—no small number of them, in fact—involve these industry professionals. They may be harsh in their tone or assessment; might try to tell an author what she should or must do with her story; might co-opt her vision with the person’s own preferences, biases, or market needs. None of that is helpful to you as a writer.
A good editor/agent should offer feedback that, as with beta readers and crit partners, reflects her reactions—“Readers may not understand why she would leave her husband here after such a minor disagreement,” for example—as what they are: personal impressions and opinions, not absolute fact, as in, “It makes no sense why she leaves here.”
That may seem like a hairbreadth distinction or simply a nicety of phrasing, but it’s more than that—the former fulfills the proper function of any objective feedback, which is to hold up a mirror to the author so she can more clearly see what she actually has on the page, rather than what she’s filling in because she knows the story so well.
Our job is to tell you how what is on the page may come across to readers, based on our hopefully broad experience not only with many other manuscripts, but in your genre and in the current market. Good agents and editors weigh and need intimate knowledge of all those areas.
Trained professionals also ideally have a broad and very deep knowledge of writing craft so they can share with an author why something may not be working—the kind of actionable, practical input that lets her figure out how to address the issue. For instance, in the above example an editor might observe that the character’s motivations feel unclear and the stakes feel a bit low, because readers aren’t yet specifically seeing why saving her marriage is important to her.
Industry pros may even offer occasional suggestions for how an author might address areas that might benefit from strengthening (all respect to Mr. Gaiman)—but it should be a suggestion only: “Perhaps you could let us see a scene where her goal of becoming an artist is a bit more concrete, and how her husband doesn’t support it—for instance, maybe she’s throwing a new piece of pottery and he casually walks in and criticizes it, or she gives him one of her pieces for their anniversary and he tucks it into a drawer, or something similar that illustrates their dynamic more clearly?”
Suggestions like that should be used simply as a “for instance,” to illustrate the point and perhaps spark ideas. The author might love one of the specific suggestions and run with it, or she might use the ideas as a springboard to come up with her own version that accomplishes the same end—showing this fuzzy dynamic more concretely—but in a way that feels more organic to her vision.
But even with these pros, the tone should always be positive, constructive, and respectful of your work, your vision, and you as a writer.
Indie publishing has marvelously democratized the industry…but it also means a lot of people are hanging out their shingle who perhaps don’t have the qualifications or temperament to do so, from small presses to agents to developmental editors to book coaches.
I can’t stress this enough: Vet the professional you are paying or contracting with to assess your work. Not just by checking their experience, track record, references, etc.—although that’s also crucial—but get a sample of their work. See how they approach your writing.
Just as editors can tell from a few pages what areas of a story may benefit from strengthening or clarifying, authors can tell from a few pages of sample edit whether an editor is offering practical, actionable, positive critique. (You can find a free 13-page guide on finding and vetting professionals on my website here.)
This is worth boldfacing: All feedback is opinion—whether that of a professional or not.
Ideally professionals’ opinions are informed by their breadth of experience and expertise, but just as with any other reader, they are still subjective impressions, and can be based on more than simply whether they think the story is good. Readers may be influenced by their personal preferences, market trends, the author’s platform, a publisher’s or agent’s current list of authors/titles, even their mood.
Which means no critique or criticism is a referendum on the objective worth of you, your story, or your writing.
And if someone tells you in any fashion that your story—or you as a writer—has little or no worth, walk away from them and never look back—never give it a second thought. That kind of feedback is utterly unproductive, and frankly it’s flat wrong.
In almost thirty years of working as an editor with everyone from major bestsellers to first-time authors, I can truthfully say I have yet to see a manuscript without worth, that doesn’t have something we can work with and build on.
Nor have I ever seen an author who should hang it up and stop writing—because you are human, and as such you have a story to tell—multitudes of them—and you, and they, are fascinating.
And because this is the process: Writing is rewriting. It’s how we improve. Good critique helps you dig out that gold; it doesn’t blow up the mine.
What are your thoughts on critique vs criticism? What is your favorite (or least favorite) type of feedback? Do you have any questions for Tiffany? Please share them down in the comments!
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Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers, and is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller IntuitiveEditing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. She's led workshops and seminars for conferences and writers' groups across the country and is a frequent contributor to writers' sites and publications. Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she's the author of six novels, including the upcoming The Way We Weren't (Berkley). Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com or www.phoebefoxauthor.com.
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This is so helpful. Thank you. I've been part of a critique group that has helped me hone my craft. I value them so very much. I'm sharing this with them so we can be even better than we are.
Thanks for the comment, Mary. A good critique group is gold, isn't it? 🙂
I've been with my critique partners for about 15 years now. We want to know where characterization isn't working, where things clunk, where the flaws are. While we like the occasional happy face in the text, we're more interested in where things aren't working, where they need to be stronger.
We also understand that our feedback is the partner's opinion, and can take it or leave it.
From my editor, I also want to know how to make the book stronger. Since she's reading the whole thing rather than isolated chapters every few days, she can spot different weaknesses.
Yes, we all love praise, and those warm fuzzies can keep the motivation up there, but we need more help with the weak parts.
Yep, that's all great, appropriate, useful feedback, for sure. As I say above, "positive" doesn't mean praise. It means framing feedback in a way that is constructive, actionable, and useful. When I work on a manuscript, I will return upward of 5K words of feedback in an editorial letter, and hundreds of comments in the manuscript--and some of it is smiley faces and observations of what's working extremely well. But most of it is pointing out areas that could use strengthening.
The key difference between useful critique and useless criticism, to me, is largely approach. "This is terrible" or "You should start over" is ineffective and unconstructive--useless opinion. "These areas don't feel to me as if they're working as well as they could, for these reasons, and could perhaps be stronger if XXX" is positive and constructive. Useful and practical opinion.
How wonderful that you've found a great crit group! They can be magical for your writing. Thanks for the comment, Terry.
This is a great blog! I struggle to get the information I need back from my ARC team. A questionnaire will make the process quicker and easier for my team and give me information that will strengthen my story. Thanks so much for the post!
Glad it's helpful, Veronica! Kristin Kieffer has some excellent suggestions for more questions to pose to your betas, both fiction and nonfiction, if you're interested: https://www.well-storied.com/blog/how-writers-can-prepare-for-a-fantastic-beta-reader-experience
That's a great link, Tiffany!
Thanks, Jenny! I love Kristen and her blog.
Great post, Tiffany. One thing I've learned in my critique group, especially when dealing with new members, is to lead with a positive then build on that to get to bring out your recommendations for improvement. I try to avoid the B-word; "I like this ,but..."
With the members who've been around for years, we seem to like the new a little less sugar coated, but then we're familiar with each other's styles and temperaments. Bottom line is know your audience.
Absolutely--and always treat the writer and the writing with the respect they deserve. Thanks for the comment, Eldred.
Excellent post, Terry! I agree wholeheartedly with your definitions and their relative values. I am blessed with three wonderful critique partners whose never-failing eyes keep me writing at a higher level than I could alone. I value and cherish each for the individual strengths they bring to our partnership. Sometimes we venture into the more direct commentary that might be considered on criticism if we did not know one another so well. None of us offers our thoughts with any goal other than to help. Your description of criticism is an excellent reminder to me to couch my comments carefully!
I remind myself with every manuscript I work on to approach it with respect and frame my feedback in constructive, useful, actionable terms. Even if great insights are offered by a crit partner or reader, it can so easily fail to help if it's presented negatively or attacks the work or the author, rather than simply reflecting back what's on the page and what might help strengthen it.
Thanks for the comment, Linda. So happy to hear you have a good crit group! They can do wonders for our writing, can't they?
I used to be in a weekly critique group with Fae Rowen and Laura Drake and I miss that accountability so much. I also miss the wonderful line edits we'd automatically give each other. Early feedback is invaluable.
Oh, that sounds like a dream team, Jenny! I used to have a wonderful crit group too, but life pulled everyone away (and sadly death in one case). It's so valuable for our writing, if it's a good, supportive, constructive group.
It was absolutely a dream team! We met in person every week for several years and now we're scattered all over the nation.
And the laughter! Loved that time...
Always a good reminder, Tiffany!
The problem is when the so-called critique is a bit mean-spirited in one breath, and a carrot is dangled that if everything is done a certain way, a contract is guaranteed. But, the person doesn't have that authority.
Even if the person did, it's not a contract (edit/fix) for a contract (publication) which can be enforced if the latter isn't already in existence. It's one thing to trust they know what they're doing to help you become a success, but when you have a niggling feeling about a certain aspect which will change things significantly, it's hard to give in because of the way it was presented.
Presentation is a huge part of good critique, absolutely. I'm sorry--it sounds like you had a discouraging experience. That's one of so many reasons I am passionate about making sure authors get feedback that is positive, constructive, and useful--anything else can be destructive to the art and the artist.
Hopefully, though, we as creatives can also learn what's valid critique that we can consider and use, and what's useless criticism that isn't effective for improving our writing or skills, and that we can disregard. Thanks for the comment, Denise--hope things turned out well for your manuscript!
Thank you! (Still working on it. I changed direction.)
What an amazing post. Every author should read it. I'm a member of an online critique group that insists all critiques must be 'nice' and be helpful. This does not mean that they can't say what they feel does not work. Quite the contrary, but they must be constructive and polite.
I love that guideline! It's amazing how much delivery can affect the impact of the message (like in most relationships in life, I suppose). I always say creativity responds only to the carrot, never to the stick, and there are infinite ways to convey incisive, honest feedback in positive, constructive ways. Glad you found such a good group--and thanks for the comment!
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