How to Apply Criticism and Not Lose Your Mind

Here, at last, is the final post in my series on criticism, which started with The Yin-Yang of Writing and continued with How to Interpret Criticism.

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:

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Writing
  4. Queries and inconsistencies
  5. Grammar and spelling
  6. 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.

Excel spreadsheet demonstrating how I arrange my crit comments.Still confused?  Here’s a screencap showing one of my crit spreadsheets. (Yes, I am a complete nerd.  Click on it for a full-size version.)

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.

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20 thoughts on “How to Apply Criticism and Not Lose Your Mind

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  4. Very good. This is very similar to my approach, though I am not quite so organized with spreadsheets and the like–perhaps because I don’t get quite as much feeback. But I can definitely appreciate your methods. I hope I would be so disciplined with so many critiques.

  5. This is a wonderful article with points I think we should all bear in mind when dealing with others reading our work. And it comes back to that whole issue of Let the work sit!

    When I first got crits, I would immediately apply them and I ended up with more of those overworked scraps of writing than you can count. Thankfully, I already knew to save all edits to a separate file, but still… Now, I try to do just what you mentioned and work things over in my head, address the big issues first (like am I wasting my time making this scene work first—maybe it should come later), and then finally, sitting down and applying to the work.

    I’m saving this out for my next round of beta stuff. I’m sure I’ll need it.

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  7. I think I have managed to figure out how to do the critique division without the use of spreadsheets, but then I’ve never dealt with 37 at once (how in blue blazes did you managed that one?). But overall, a great way to break down the process and keep the ego in check.

  8. Oh, Merrilee, you know how I share your love for an organized process! I love this. I haven’t gotten to this point in the process yet, but I’m saving a link to this post for when I do. So many great ideas – the spreadsheet, the ranking, the weighting…it’s a wonderful system to help process any number of helpful (and not-so-helpful) comments. Lovely! Thanks! :)

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  10. This is an excellent post, Merrilee. I love it. Did you tweet it? I’d def RT if you did.

    I can remember the first multiple crits I got back. I thought my mind was gonna esplode. :-)

  11. Well said! Getting critique isn’t very helpful if you can’t find the ways to apply it (and stay sane).

    This sounds very similar to my own technique, certainly learning how to deal with critique in bulk, as you do get sometimes through critters.org (particularly on short shorts) makes the whole process less painful and will ultimately lead to a much better story.

  12. I recognized which story those comments were from! :-)

    Very good article, and the idea of making a neat table pleases my inner OCD self. You clearly have editing down to an art form.

  13. Great advice, Merrilee. I might not make spreadsheets from my crits (I only ever get 3 – 4, max., on any given piece), but ranking the comments is a little stroke of genius. Thanks for the pointers!

  14. Actually, this article was tremendously helpful. It divorces useful commentary from emotional response to that commentary AND allows a place for the less useful commentary to go.

    Something about this just fits my brain. Thanks!

  15. Hello Merilee. I usually enjoy your posts a lot. I particularly like *How to Apply Criticism and Not Lose Your Mind* I am a writer and editor from Kenya. I run a writers’ community for a publishing company in Kenya (www.storymojaafrica.co.ke) and would like to share your post with our writers here. I would of course credit you for it and link back to you if you do allow me to. Keep writing! Juliet Maruru.

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