I remember the first time I ever received some feedback on my writing. It was complimentary and encouraging; it fired me up to continue writing and spurred me on. Of course, I was about eleven years old and it was my favourite teacher who had told me I had a talent for it; who was I to argue?
Then, of course, I got older, more was expected and by the time I got to college my writing was being torn to pieces by my not-so-favourite teacher of English and I felt disheartened and discouraged. So I stopped writing.
It took me fifteen years to start up again, properly. And when I took my shiny new story to a writing group I was grateful for the good points and shamed by the negative feedback. I realised then and there that my fellow writers had good intentions and that I had been too close to my own words to see their faults. Then, when I shared the first three chapters of my novel and was told it was a ‘bit dull and repetitive’, I think my spirit deflated considerably. I’d spent hours trying to refine those chapters and they still weren’t good enough? Fortunately, the internet exists and I found support, advice and sympathy all over the place. That gave me the courage to accept the comments and forge on ahead. And now, I think my manuscript begins stronger because of it.
As I will very soon be providing some of my own feedback to a writer friend, critiquing is on my mind. So I thought, why not gather some of the helpful tips I put into place when I received my own feedback to ensure that receiving those comments can be a positive experience, rather than a roller-coaster of doubt and defensiveness? Here’s my guide to receiving a (written) critique:
1) Remember: you asked so you can improve
When you first get that piece of paper your critiquing partner has sent, before even reading a word, remind yourself why you asked them to read your work in the first place. Is it because you respect their opinion, admire their writing, consider them a friend enough to be honest? Remember that you asked for this and that the reason you did so was so that you could improve your writing.
2) Read through once
Read what your partner has written all the way through, without stopping, just once. Don’t react to the words, though this will be difficult. Just read it through as if it has nothing to do with your work at all. Take in the points they have made and then put it away.
3) Distract yourself
Now, go and do something that requires action. Do the dishes, sort the washing, bath the dog. It has to be something active that will not allow you to sit and stew in the comments that you’ve just read. You will think about what’s been said, but you don’t want to dwell on it. If you feel particularly tense, do something physical – move the furniture, clean the silverware, take all your books from one room to another and alphabetise your bookshelves. But, whatever you do, don’t do something mundane like go for a walk or a run – this allows thinking time, you’re looking for something to ‘do‘ to distract you while your brain mulls over what’s been said – not something that will give you the time to question it all.
4) Remember it
A step that I hadn’t ever done before, but found useful when I did try it. Before you re-read the critique, sit down and bullet point what you think it says. The things that have bothered you the most will likely be the first thing that appear on this list. It’s also possible, therefore, that the things that bother you the most do so because you either vehemently disagree or begrudgingly agree with them. Whatever the reasons, this step allows you to process some of the subconscious thoughts you’ve been having after than initial reading. It will also likely be bereft of positive things that your partner has said – because we’re blind to them when criticised – so try and make sure at least two of these points are POSITIVE things.
(If your critique partner has not included any positive material in their feedback then I would suggest you find another partner!)
5) Read it again
When you’re ready (at least one hour after first reading would be my tip) go back to it and re-read it. Again, try to not react. Read it slower and take in everything that has been written. Take note of how closely your re-written version is to the truth. Have you taken a small thing they said and made it a huge negative aspect? Have you missed all the positive things they wrote? Let your mind take in everything they’ve said and think on it; if they’ve explained themselves adequately then you should be able to determine if they have a point.
6) Annotate it
My favourite bit. Take a printed copy of the critique, some pens, pencils, felt tips etc. and annotate it. Highlight the things that you can agree with, that might have concerned you before you sent them the work that they also picked up on. Note down any questions you have where they might not have explained themselves fully about a certain point. Pick out all the positive aspects (this is an important one). And, the best bit, scribble over any feedback that you honestly feel is irrelevant – this might be because it’s your partner’s personal preference or simply because they have misinterpreted something (although, if this it the case, question if this misinterpretation might need to be addressed).
7) Put it away
This is the difficult bit. Put the critique away. Put it away for at least 48 hours – the same way you would a story or novel. You need to get some distance and let your mind ponder. In this time, if you want to send a quick ‘Thanks for the feedback’ note to your partner do so – but whatever you do at this point, don’t argue with what they’ve sent and don’t defend your work against the points they’ve made. Tell them you appreciate their comments and you’ll get back to them in a couple of days if you have any questions.
8) Work on something else
The same way it’s difficult to put a piece of work away and let it rest, the critique will weigh on your mind. You’ll want to fix stuff that you see solutions for immediately. You might, as is often the case, feel entirely worthless and that the manuscript will never be finished and you don’t have the skills to complete it to a decent standard anyway. Banish such doubts and work on something else. It might not even be writing based – it might be an art or craft piece. But, do something creative.
9) Repeat Steps 4 & 6 and compare
Before you get the old one out, repeat Step 4. This will likely identify the key pieces of the critique – but don’t forget those positive points! Then, get a fresh copy and annotate it again. This will help define the parts that you really need to concentrate on and the aspects of the critique that can be considered personal taste. If you compare the two and they are the same, you know which parts to focus on. If they’re vastly different, then there is some conflict in how you think about your own work. Try and identify something that you agree with that can be worked upon and, for the time being, just plan how you can fix that.
10) Plan of Revision
Using the two annotated copies of your critique and the elements of your remembered list of the critique, identify the main issues that your partner has pointed out that you believe can improve your work. Sit down and work out how you’re going to apply this to your novel. If required, now is the time to ask for clarification (or ideas) from your partner as to the points made. It can also, at this stage, help to list all the great things your partner has pointed out and print them out to stick on your wall – those are your manuscripts strengths and you can use these elements to improve the weaker parts.
It is worthwhile to remember throughout this entire process that your critique partner should be seen as a subjective reader. Everything they feed back is based on their own personal experience and opinions – whomever they are. If they have approached it sensitively the feedback should be about the writing itself, not you as the writer, and any criticism should be phrased constructively and encourage you to improve the piece and develop as a writer.
Remember that you’ve asked these people to be critical of your work. They are actively looking for aspects that seem a little ‘clunky’ and read awkwardly. Sure, they should also be highlighting the good – but the points they make that will most help you develop as a writer are the critical ones; questions they ask about character motivations, empty plot holes, forgotten revelations. All of these things are said to help you. So, try not to take the feedback personally. It’s about a piece of writing, not you as a person, and it’s based on a survey of one – one who is going to judge on their own standards and preferences.
In the end what you need to do is take what you can use and leave the rest. After all, this is your story. You are the only one who can write it, the only person who really knows all the ins and outs, who has crafted these characters and their lives to tell a story that would not have existed had you not thought it up. Your critique partner has spent time and energy giving you the feedback so that you can polish up that story for the world – if they didn’t believe in your ability, they wouldn’t have bothered. Whatever doubts might permeate in that initial reading of your critique never lose faith that you are the only one who can do this story justice.
Any other tips for receiving critiques?
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