So you’ve sent your story out to impartial and honest readers for feedback. The results come flooding in, and suddenly you are overwhelmed with pages of conflicting advice, comments, praise and condemnation, often all in the same critique.
How do you deal with this? Even if you only get comments from a few readers, you’ll be very lucky if they all say the same thing. How do you decide what criticism to accept, and what criticism doesn’t serve the needs of your story?
Like any phase of writing, applying criticism works best when a logical process is used. In this post, I’ll show you my method and explain why I do things the way I do.
I’m not dictating that you must do it my way, just demonstrating. This process was developed mainly for short stories, but I’m sure you can apply it, or something similar, to a novel. Take from this article what you find helpful.
Step 1: Don’t do anything
When the crits start rolling in, by all means read them. But whatever you do, don’t start applying the suggestions just yet. The fastest way to lose the voice and the freshness of your work is by niggling at it over and over, making many little small changes until suddenly you’ve got a story that’s so badly overworked that it’s like reading cardboard.
So don’t do anything until all crits are in. Give yourself a reasonable time limit (1-2 weeks) where you will collect crits. After that, accept no more comments.
Step 2: Say thank you, and no more
Even if you think the crit was a complete waste of yours and the critiquers time, be polite and say thank you. Someone spent their time reading and making comments on your work, and that deserves recognition, even if the crit itself makes you wonder if the commenter even read your story. So send them a little note to say thank you for taking the time to critique my story (or words to that effect).
Do not be tempted to say more. Do not respond to the critique, or argue, or clarify, no matter what. Just say thanks.
The only time I would be tempted to say more is if I have received an exceptionally detailed and enlightening critique. In those cases, I usually follow up with a more personal thank you. Because effort like that is appreciated.
Step 3: Organise the comments
This is the time-consuming part and, lets be honest, the boring part, but ultimately, this is the part that will help you get a good overview of what you need to work on. I organise comments in the following categories:
- Queries and inconsistencies
- Grammar and spelling
- General comments
I organise my comments this way because I am going from large to small. There’s no point fixing grammar and spelling if you have confusing scenes. There’s no point fixing a confusing scene if your writing is peppered with adjective abuse. And why bother to fix your overuse of adjectives if your characters are spiritless and your plot going nowhere?
You don’t need to type out all the comments, just make a brief note of everything mentioned. This is easy when you’ve only got a few crits, but can be an evening’s work if you pull in 37 critiques, which I did with my last short (unintentional, I assure you!).
Now that you have your comments in categories, you can start grouping similar comments together. For example, in character, you might have received three comments on the motivation of your character, two on a particular action they have taken, and one general comment about characterisation. Group these together within your categories.
By the end of this stage, which may take you a couple of days, you will have discrete areas of your story to look at in more detail.
I also rank each group as to how important it is. Rank 1 means it’s a story killer. Rank 9 is praise. Praise should always go at the end. It’s nice, but not ultimately helpful.
So in the example on the right, I have three comments about the narrator not being seen to make a choice. This is potentially damaging, so gets ranked at one. Then I have four comments from critiquers who were not happy with the ending. These get rank two, and so on.
Step 4: Weighting criticism
No, that’s not a typo. “Weighting”, in scientific terms, means giving certain data points more weight than others. It’s something you should definitely do with critiques, as not all critiques are equal.
I usually weight using the following formula.
1. Agree completely with the comment
Number 1 should be obvious; sometimes you read a comment and go “duh”. It’s your story; have faith in your intuition to guide you towards the right answer. Just be wary of the dratted ego. It doesn’t matter who the comment is from; if it’s right, it’s right.
2. Comment from someone whose writing I admire
If I get a comment from someone whose work I have read and who I think is a good writer, I will give it solid consideration, even if I initially disagree with the comment.
3. Comment from someone who writes/reads in my genre, but I don’t know
If I know the critiquer is familiar with the genre of the story, I will give their comment more weight than, say, a person who only reads romance. All genres have their tropes, and someone familiar with the genre will be more likely to notice relevant issues, rather than raising comments that don’t apply to that genre.
4. Other comments
But just because someone doesn’t read/write in my genre, doesn’t mean they can’t make a pointed and accurate analysis.
5. Comments that induce blank confusion or homicidal rage
You will always get comments like these. Read them, say thank you, then tuck them away in a separate file. Don’t delete them though; they are deserving of a second read through at a later date, when the ego is not so prominent. There may be hidden gems in there.
Look over all the issue groups you have in your comment summary. Decide which ones must be addressed, which ones could be addressed, and which ones you don’t think are relevant.
Relevance of a crit depends on a number of factors. Your voice, the tone of the work, the theme, what you want people to take away from it. Think about whether addressing a particular issue will still enable you to retain the original intent of the piece. Try and keep that intent in mind as you work.
Step 5: Mull, and mull again
Now is the time to start work. And the best way for a writer to work is in their head.
Remember that I have my comments organised in categories? Take the rank 1 issue in the Plot category. Read the comments relating to that issue. Read the story through. Then sit back and think about the issue. Don’t put a word on the page until you have solved the problem in your head. That way, you can usually preserve the freshness of the work. Start changing, and changing again, and you risk over-working.
Sometimes I will mull for a couple of days before a promising solution presents itself. Don’t be tempted to jump at the first fix that enters your head.
Step 6: Put it away
When you’ve worked through all the issues to the best of your ability, give the work one final read-through to ensure you haven’t lost crucial information, then put it away for a couple of days.
Come back to it with fresh eyes and read again. If you have made significant changes to the work, consider sending out on another critique round. But if you think you’ve made the work as tight and clear as you can, then package it up and send it out there.
I hope you’ve found this article helpful. Feel free to ask questions in the comments if any part isn’t clear.