Interpreting criticism

As a follow up to my post on ego vs criticsm, I’d like to do a post on how to read critical comments to get the most out of them.  I have plenty of examples of my own, but I would also love to have some examples from other people.

It can be the best you’ve received, the worst, complete praise, or something you found totally incomprehensible.  The more difficult to interpret, the better!

If you’d like to participate, leave some examples of criticism you have received in the comments trail.  Please remove any names to protect the innocent.  I’ll turn on anonymous commenting if that makes you feel better.

21 thoughts on “Interpreting criticism

  1. Pingback: How to Interpret Criticism « Not Enough Words

  2. Least Helpful Feedback: The all-time winner is still “Good story.” I started writing at 11. I started letting others read my stories at 14, and those others were my friends at school. I should have had a clue with how I was the only one to stay awake during English classes. :p

    Made Me Giddy Feedback: “Good story; the characters were real for me.” Same scenario, I had passed my latest attempt at a novel around my friends and I didn’t have to use interrogation techniques to pull out a reason why. To this day, he probably doesn’t know why I had to choke back tears.

  3. My most confusing comment was a contest critique, ages ago, that said my English heroine needed a reason to move to Ireland. Apparently, marrying an Irishman who lived in Ireland was insufficient.

    I get revision request letters that say “The first part reads a little slow–a lot of talking heads.” Usually when I mention the parts I think could use thinning out/cutting altogether, they’re the scenes the editor thought needed work.

    I do a fair bit of contest judging/critiquing, and the comment I find myself writing the most is “So what’s his reaction to that?” or “How does that make her feel?” Makes me feel like a character shrink. Hopefully it helps…

  4. What I consider my worst:

    “Each paragraph should be, for the most part, quotes and actions by the same person. There are exceptions of course, but open any book and that’s what you’ll see.”

    I consider it my worst because I took the ‘open any book’ bit of advice and immediately debunked that bit. I was honestly baffled as to why they seemed to think I was writing a five-paragraph essay instead of a romance story.

  5. I recently had a critique from Caroline B. Cooney! She fine combed my manuscript for fifteen amazing minutes. She told me my idea was great, but I had some major problems which she not only spelled out but told me how to fix them. She wanted my MC to be tougher and made terrific suggestions on how to do this.

    On the negative side, I had a critique by a different famous person, who I’ll leave nameless. I didn’t understand his irrational and confusing rip of my manuscript about a character searching for God while lost in The Rockies, until I later learned that he’s an atheist. I don’t think he really read the chapter–just put his defenses up when he saw the word “God.”

  6. The best critique comment?

    “Cut out anything, even beautifully written nuggets, which don’t move your story forward.”

    Too true.

    The worst critique comment?

    “Never use semi-colons in fiction.”

    I find that statement preposterous.

  7. The very best and most useful comments were any where the agent or publisher took the time to answer me personally rather than by form. That consideration always lifts my spirits and tells me I am being taken seriously as an artist, even though the answervmay be no. In these cases, the handwritten rejections, which I value greatly, have usually been to the effect that, although my style is strong, the agent or publisher cannot see fitting the particular story into their current agenda.

    The most perplexing rejection I’ve received was from a gentleman, most respected in the industry in NYC, who told me that in his opinion Americans would not be interested in a story set in Asia.

    Since the thing I have always loved about books is their ability to take me to other places, I found this strange. Who knows?

    Donna Carrick

  8. I had comments/critiques that go along the lines of “Your story has an intriguing premise/concept, but needs more polishing in a writing group.”

    One that lifted my spirits was a lady saying that she connected with my story (The Basics Of Flight), because she had a daughter who was visually impaired and loved the way I depicted the visually impaired character in the story.

    Ditto about the barf-inducing comments on Authonomy. Not really helpful… but there were some good comments as well.

  9. Worst criticism (from a NY editor to my agent regarding a submission): Your hero is kind of unsympathetic.
    My hero is a demon–what do you expect?
    Your heroine is a tramp
    this was from an rwa contest judge who also told me I didn’t know how to write romance. and btw i didn’t change my heroine–and I DID laugh (after I got done calling her a lot of bad names LOL)
    I tend to write stuff people love or hate and I’m okay with that–actually I’m more than okay with that. I’d rather have a strong reaction than “That was nice.” IMO ‘meh’ is the kiss of death. ‘Meh’ is the #1 reason I put down a book.

  10. The worst criticism, sadly, came from family.
    1. Me: *shows a scene I struggled over wildly, involving a stark and frightening landscape with black towers and barren land*

    Him: “It’s boring.”

    Me: *ow* “Okay. Can you tell me why? Give me some direction? Is there too much description, do the characters not appeal, etc.?”

    Him: “No. It’s just boring. The whole thing. Everything. I think you should go back into the music field.”

    2. Me: *presents a scene involving an elf, who uses his child-like appearance to keep him safe among unsuspecting humans*

    Him: What is this? Is he a fag? What is this?

    Me: Huh??

    Him: All that long hair. He’s a fag, isn’t he? I don’t understand what’s going on here.

    Me: *speechless* *gave up showing family after that*


    Funnily enough, the best and most useless criticisms I ever received both came from agents.


    Best: “While I actually like your idea, the first book needs to be able to stand alone as a novel and this just didn’t feel – from the synopsis – as though it were a full story. You can’t always be sure that a publisher will buy a book as part of a series, which is why it is imperative that the first book be able to read like a stand alone. This feels a little unfinished to me.”


    That feedback revolutionized my writing. I had to analyze why it ended where it did, and how I could change that and be true to the story. By the time I’d figured it out, I knew *how* to write far better than I had before.

    As for the incomprehensible feedback:


    “Many thanks for sharing with me the opening chapters of your novel GUARDIAN, which I am declining with my regrets. In all honesty I’m afraid I just couldn’t follow this, and without having a sense for the characters or their situations, found it impossible to care what happens to them.”


    This really made me pause. The section she read followed ONE character, not multiple ones, and was extremely simple to follow. No crit partner had ever had difficulty with it. No beta reader had ever found it hard to follow.

    Eventually, I decided this was an attempt at a “personal” form letter, because it honestly didn’t make sense otherwise.

  11. My most useless comment was part of a crit group that was supposed to provide detailed, workable insights into how your writing was working. The comment was:

    “Your work is not saleable because this genre has not been fresh for 40 years.”

    And that was it. The only thing this person said.

    If they’d been an agent or an editor, I could see this being acceptable, but as part of a group dedicated to improving the participants’ writing, it was mind-blowingly useless. Furthermore, the one who wrote it had absolutely no background to suggest they had any idea what would be saleable or not, so I couldn’t even take the comment seriously.

    My strangest comment was for a story with no female characters that took place in a single room, was very dark, and dealt with a parent dying. The comment was: “I loved the part where she had trouble hearing the guy at the drive-thru! So true!”


    My BEST comment was in an early draft of The Vector, where my long-time friend said: “Show, don’t tell.” To which I said: “Where?” and he said: “EVERYWHERE, you moron!” The result was me finally getting a handle on my writing style. Not many comments can change your life, but his did!

  12. All-time worst, and now most entertaining: one of my undergrad professors told me, “Your poems make my head hurt.”
    Thankfully, Poetry magazine thought otherwise.

  13. Best: (paraphrased) “I love this character. I want to read more about him. But there’s (x number of) words before I figured out that I wanted to read more about him.” That helped so much! I cut an entire section.

    Worst: Someone went through a story of mine and ‘edited’ it for me. In the process of doing so, the story became unintelligible. Tense change, no literary tone, the actual bones of the story weren’t there anymore. It was a mess.
    Two weeks later I got high praise on it from a top magazine… sans changes.

  14. Best bit of critique: “Your style is full of high octane adjectives and metaphors. It’s the writing equivalent of big explosions, fast cars and women with blonde hair and boobs so big they need a back brace to stand up.” It not only pointed out the problem very clearly, but it actually made me laugh while doing so.

    To me, the worst type of critique is the one-sentence “I really like your story” type. Even my slavering little ego isn’t appeased because I have no idea *why* the reader liked it.

  15. I so hate those threads on Authonomy where people are asked to ‘name their best comment’ and invariably we get a profusion of barf-inducing slime (exactly of the type that I think is so damaging – see blog post).

    I can’t name a single comment that is the best I’ve received, but there have certainly been people who have done a very good job at making comments that have made me see my work in a different light. I thank them for that.

    My worst comment? Honestly? A while ago, I was a member of a local group, and after reading some horrible sex scenes, we set each other a challenge: write a story with a raunchy sex scene. My story involved an alien species with predatory breeding habits (like a cuckoo, but using wombs as a cuckoo uses nests). Naturally these creatures have but one thing on their minds… Anyway, I finished the story, and flung it onto OWW, where there is a fairly large contingent of deeply religious Americans. One of these dudes was extremely offended by the story and wrote: this story was a mistake you wouldn’t have made had you thought about it.
    LOL! It’s about five years ago, and I still haven’t stopped laughing.

    • Best recent criticism (paraphrased): “I feel as though this character is so emotionally closed off that just feeling anything at all is a step in the right direction for him. I don’t think he needs to do (action) at the end of the story.”

      Worst relatively recent criticism (paraphrased): “I think you should vary your dialogue tags more. Don’t use ‘said’ so much.”

  16. Here’s one I had recently. “Thank you for submitting ‘Brilliant Title’ to Top-Tier Sci-Fi Mag. It was well received here, but after some thought we have decided not to accept it for publication. This one came close but needs more polishing.” I’d love to “polish” this more but I’ve already edited it to death and need a bit more of a clue as to what is needed!

    Here’s another. “Thank you for submitting ‘Must Read Story’ to Big Name Magazine. Unfortunately though, we have to say no to it. The writing is very good but the story is not suited to our needs as at the moment our inventory is well stocked so the competition to get in is very strong.” The word “as” after “needs” is the killer here. Does it mean it would be suited to their needs if only they didn’t already have some really good stuff?

  17. Most useful critique comment (also most common) – “could you show more than tell, just HERE?”

    Least useful critique comment, on a new WIP aimed at straight SF adult market – “I think children would have trouble understanding the big words like ‘spacestation'”

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