A Last Word on Critique by Katy

Katherine Longshore 3 Thursday, January 27, 2011
Notice the indefinite article in that title.  I don’t pretend to be the last word on critique.  I just have one more thing to offer.

You’ve received a critique.  It might have been from a group you just met – full of a variety of Nicey-Pieceys and Snobs and maybe a Picker or two. Or a group you have been with forever.  It might have been a written critique or face-to-face at a conference, or something you won in a contest.  It might be a rejection letter.

You’ve taken notes.  You’ve given yourself time to think.  You come to the hard part. And you have to look it in the eye.

Do you follow the advice?  Or not?

All of us Muses, and our expanding circle of friends, have said at one point or another, “Oh, shoot.  I was hoping no one would notice that.”  Well, that’s the critique that’s true.  The one that needs changing.  And you knew it already.  So do it.

But what about the critique that’s wrong?  And how do you know?

As Talia said, we writers are fragile creatures.  For many of us, our first reaction is to believe the critquer.  Especially if that person is an industry professional.  But what about your opinion?  If the critique is only of a few pages, only you know the full body of your work.  And ultimately, you have to decide if the critique applies.  And how to apply it.  And sometimes that can be the hardest part of our job.

So as a fun little illustration, I’m going to share some of my own experiences with you.  Some of these are from conferences.  Some are from groups.  I will not name names.

1. These characters lack dimensionality.  Ouch.  I am still obsessing over this one.  I managed to let it sit for 14 hours before calling a friend who had read the whole book and getting her opinion.  She said she hadn’t seen that at all.  Which of course, didn’t stop me from obsessing but at least made me feel better.  The upside of this criticism is that I just keep digging at my characters.  And hopefully that shows.

2. This is where I would stop reading.  This was said by an agent in a critique group at a conference.  Not something you want an agent to say.  The scene being read was a difficult one.  One I considered cutting, especially after this comment.  But one I ultimately felt was necessary for the growth of my character and the development of the plot.  It stayed.  But I did rewrite it.   Many times.

3. You’ve actually made this worse. This came after a long and arduous rewrite, one full of pain and angst.  The person who said it is still my friend.  Because she was right.  The piece was broken beyond repair. 

4. I don’t think you need to change anything.  This was both the best and worst critique I’ve ever gotten.  The first fifteen pages of my first novel were chosen as the best manuscript at my local conference.  For that, I won a face-to-face with one of the keynote speakers – an agent.  These were the agent’s words when we talked.  To which were added, “I can’t offer representation, though, because I don’t do middle grade.”  Even in my relatively newbie status, my brain blinked as if.  I knew that no agent offers representation on fifteen pages.  And I also knew the rest of the book needed a lot of work before I even started querying.  Eventually, I learned it was broken beyond repair.  So the agent dodged a bullet on that one.

5. If you were my client, I’d suggest you write the Catherine Howard book.  Yes, I made the mistake of pitching all my ideas at an industry professional at a conference.  But the advice paid off.

So what do you think?  Don’t let ego get in the way.  Remember that sometimes your darlings have to die.  But also keep the integrity of your work.  Follow your vision as only you know how.  This is your creative project – be it short story, novel, creative non-fiction, memoir, whatever.  You do know when the advice is right.


Love this post--a definite must-read. :)

For me, taking criticism, filtering it, not getting hot-headed or feeling despair (no matter who is critiquing my work) is an exercise I am hopefully getting better at. There is always something to be learned from any critiquer---usually---sometimes I'll try a suggestion I vehemently disagree with, just to see---but mostly it is so important to just let the sting go and move forward and keep to my gut feeling. This, too, takes practice! (for me, anyway)

Thanks, Pam! I know we've all had similar experiences. And PB, you're right. Even the harshest critics teach us something -- if only what NOT to say to someone else.

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