How to Take a Critique

Anyone who’s had a look around at some of my other blogs probably knows that I am in the process of having a couple of books come out this summer (one under my name, one under a pseudonym). Anyone who follows my Twitter account (or Facebook Fan Page) also probably knows I just sold a short story to a magazine that will be printed in the near future.  All of that, combined with the fact that I edit projects freelance means most of my time lately has been editing/reading edits/reworking edits… and the list goes on and on.

Now, I fully believe being a writer helps you be a good editor. The two don’t necessarily go together (I’ve met some editors who are awful writers and some writers who are awful editors) but part of both jobs is to have a good ear (eye?) for what sounds right on the page.

The other way around, though, I don’t think there’s quite as strong a connection. Great editors can be great writers, of course, but all the other little things that make for a good editor don’t necessary flip straight over to being a good writer. What being an editor does do for writing, however, is help you take critiques.

Luckily for my editor side, every author I have recently worked with has been great (thank you all if you’re reading) but I know very well how bad things can get when you’re editing something for someone who really just wanted a pat on the head to say how good their work is and for you to catch typos.

Now, the writer in me fully understands how hard it can be sometimes to have someone ripping apart your work. As much as I might not like something I’ve written, it seems to fall into a “no one can beat up my brother (erm, writing) but me!” situation when someone else starts pointing out flaws.

But, having been on both sides of the editing process, I also know how helpful editors can be (and not just for the typos). Looking at the most recent round of edits I got on one manuscript, I see my editor pointing out things here and there that I’ve pointed out as problems in manuscripts I’ve read. Obviously I agree that those things need to be changed, but I didn’t catch those problems when it was just me reading my own writing. It’s possible to be too close to your writing to see problems that are obvious for someone else, and thus I always suggest having other people look your writing over before moving on with plans (be it submitting to agents, publishers, or self publishing). It doesn’t have to be a professional editor if you don’t want to pay for one, but at least have a writing group or go through a novel swap with someone else.

To get the most out of editing/critiques though, you have to fight down that urge to automatically defend yourself, so, some important things you can do to make editing most helpful and least painful:

1. Listen silently. This is perhaps most important if you’re speaking with your critiquer/editor in person, but the same holds true any time you are reading a comment. Don’t start defending yourself before they’re done speaking. It’s hard–believe me, I know–but sit silently, listen to/read what they have to say, and then take a deep breath before going forward. It’s possible your reviewer/editor/critiquer has no idea what they’re talking about, but cutting them off to tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about (or not reading a comment because you disagree) won’t help you at all. Listen, absorb, then speak.

2. Just because the edit is “wrong” doesn’t mean you should ignore it. Ok, this of course doesn’t go for edits that make a sentence grammatically wrong, or that introduce typos (sometimes, especially with MS Word Track Changes, typos can appear based on where the program thinks you want something deleted. If you suddenly have “I hadd a boat” feel free to take off the extra ‘d’). This goes for an edit that reworks a sentence into something you didn’t mean. For example, in my recently edited manuscript, the editor changed this sentence:

“The girl stood outside, half-hidden under the overhang.”

to

“The girl stood, half-hiding on the overhang outside.”

Um, no. I didn’t mean the girl was hiding on top of the overhang, I meant the overhang was hiding her. (Someone on the second story can only see part of her past the overhang). Those sentences mean two very separate things, and I definitely didn’t mean the second one. Still, that doesn’t mean I automatically reject the change and move on. It is more helpful to go back, explain that’s not what you meant, and ask if there’s something that would make the sentence clearer. It’s possible the editor was reading too quickly, but it’s also possible that “under the overhang” was confusing the image in her head (sadly readers don’t automatically see exactly what us writers do).

3. Critiques/Reviews/Edits aren’t personal. All right, if the review is “Your writing sucks, your parents should be ashamed of having you as a child” or something along those lines, you’re more than welcome to think the reviewer is a jerk and ignore them. Most of the time, however, edits aren’t personal attacks on you, or even your writing style. A comment that says “This part is dragging, I’d be tempted to stop reading” or the like isn’t an attack. It’s an honest opinion that says that some of your readers might be getting bored and skip ahead (or worse, set the book down all together). Don’t be hurt by it, take it as a chance to rework the section so people love reading it.

4. It’s OK to disagree with your editor/reviewer/critiquer. Going along with not throwing out an idea just because it’s not what you mean, it’s also all right to completely disagree with your editor on some points. Editors aren’t perfect, it’s possible they’ve changed something that you know you had right (and have the grammar guide to back you up on). It’s possible they just aren’t familiar with a word and thus changed it to something that doesn’t quite mean what you meant. If they’re connected to your publisher, yes, you’ll have to work it out with them (often publishers have final say), but if it’s a friend or someone you’ve hired for an edit/critique it’s all just suggestions as to what they think would be best. You can take or leave any of the changes.

5. Figure out if you actually want a critique. While I fully believe all writing can only be completely at its best after some outside edits (be them from a friend, professional or publisher) some people really just don’t want them (see my point about people who want a pat on the head and typos taken out). If you don’t want to work on your story/don’t want anything changed, ask someone to go through and look for typos, and then move on. As a professional editor, I’ve had one or two cases of people who–while they are willing to pay a few hundred dollars for me to go over their work–don’t actually want me to tell them I’d suggest changes. For the most part, it just ends in several emails about how all my edits are wrong, and then me giving up and only pointing out typos and things that are blatantly wrong/confusing to keep them happy. If you want to pay me content edit prices for copy edit work, fine, I won’t stop you, but it would save money and headaches to just say you want a copy edit/proofreading*.

Edits (good ones at least) help make a story the best it can be, and as hard as it might be, not trying to defend yourself is going to be the best way to learn from them. Nobody is perfect, nobody’s writing is perfect. If you’re willing to hear that, even an imperfect editor can help make your writing that much better.

*Before hiring anyone to edit your work, it’s always good to get an editing sample–even if they’ve come very highly recommended–so you can see if how they edit is what you’re looking for. Offering a 5 page sample edit isn’t just how I prove myself, it’s how I make sure my clients would be happy with my in-depth edits. Edits should be helpful, not a headache.

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10 thoughts on “How to Take a Critique

  1. bwtaylor75 says:

    So many writers think their work is a precious little thing instead of a story. I see the “tell me what you think about my story” people who need major rewrites, but only wanted you to tell them how fabulous they are. I couldn’t agree more with what you’ve written.

    If you can’t take crticism, then why do you write? Even big name authors get edited. It’s part of the business. As writers we need to be humble, honest, and realistic.

    You run an excellent blog Jessica, and one that all new writers should read. You could save a lot of headaches if they did. I’ve been following for a while and you’ve impressed me with each new post. Keep up the good work.

    • Jessica Dall says:

      Thank you so much for your compliements! It’s simply what I see far too often as an editor and reviewer (I just had to explain to an author who was unstatisfied with a review I wrote that requesting a review doesn’t necessarily mean it will be glowing, unfortunately). As a reviewer and an editor I do my best never to be mean, but it can be awful when people really do just want a pat on the head…

  2. coffee zombie says:

    Do you have any suggestions for how to weed the ones that want a pat vs the ones who really want critique?

    I freelance edit (mainly at b2b level), and I have friends who know this. Once in awhile, they ply me with requests to read their MS. I’ve tried to feel them out beforehand to see which category they fall into, but am usually wrong in my assessments. Which translates as: sobbing fits and “you hated it!” when they get a MS full of red marks and edits.

    I wish I was kidding.

    • Jessica Dall says:

      I’ve totally been there.

      First, for either group, I would always say something along the lines of “I marked everything I’d change in my own writing. They’re just suggestions.” Along with telling me the general good and bad things you saw in it. (It can be hard seeing so many things marked up in your “baby” but it can help if you point out the good things first).

      Other than that, it can be really hard to tell the difference until you start editing sadly. What can make me suspicious/worried is how invested someone seems in the project. Is it their first project? Have they spent the last X years writing it? It’s harder to take criticism if you’ve put so much of yourself into it. Of course, that’s not a hard and fast rule, but it can be something to worry about.

      Also, the better an author the person thinks they are, the harder it tends to be to give them suggestions. If they start with something like, “You should read this. Everyone else thinks it’s really good.” That’s a big red flag. They’re focusing on the validation they’re getting from other people, it’s possible they just want another head pat.

      Hope that helps!

  3. Alex Gaines (@AlexAboard) says:

    Yikes, I’m getting to the stage where I’ll soon be looking for critiques and it’s slightly terrifying!

    I’m planning to be extra harsh during editing to ensure the manuscript passes muster; then they’ll have to love me, right? RIGHT?

    Although I have told lots of people about my work, nobody has seen any of this draft which currently stands at 80,000 words with about 15,000 to go.

    I am received plenty of rejection in the past (it turns out that it’s tough to write an award winning sitcom) but this will be the largest project I have ever completed. I wondered, once editng is complete, should I show it to people before submitting to publishers and if so; who? Not sure I can trust family and friends!

    I’d better shut up now, thanks for the blog.

    http://www.spottednovel.com

    • Jessica Dall says:

      The more you pick apart your work in editing, the less there will be (hopefully) for people to pick apart later.

      If it’s your first novel, I’d strongly suggest having someone look it over before submitting it. It’s possible you’re naturally a brilliant novelist, but even great works can use a little editing/a second pair of eyes.

      Friends and family can be good cheerleaders/pick out some gaping plot holes, but if possible you should try looking for other writers to give your novel a look over. Possibly there’s a writing group in your area, or you can find some critique groups online. Of course, if you want to spend the money, you can also hire a professional editor. You certainly don’t have spend any money on it though if you don’t want to. Just try to find someone who writes/edits/reviews books. Casual readers don’t tend to see all the things other writers do.

  4. Allyson Marrs says:

    It’s funny because when I put my journalist hat on and write those stories, it’s harder for me to be critiqued because all I have to work with is facts and my own style. So if someone questions my style, I put the defense up.

    But with novels, everything is created, so there are bound to be mistakes and questions. I was nervous at first, sending my MS to you to edit, but I honestly can say that I didn’t have one negative retort after looking through you’re suggestions. I’m damn happy I had a professional editor look at it as there were a lot of freshmen mistakes (head jumping, etc.).

    The way I see it, if you want a “critique” then prepare for advice. If you want assurance, call your mom. But unless your mom is an editor, writer, or the like, she won’t help you get published.

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