Every writer knows there are varying levels of quality in the critiques they’ll receive. Some will be extremely helpful, offering ideas for fixing particularly troublesome areas, or finding plot holes/inconsistencies you missed during your 142 times reading the manuscript. Others will be glowing, fluff-filled ego strokes that feel amazing, but offer virtually no help. Still others will be harsh, brutal and make you want to curl up in a hole, never to write again. And the worst part is, you can never predict which type you’re going to get. Sometimes the horrible, hate-filled ones come from the people closest to you, and the fluff-filled ego strokes come from the professionals you’d expected to tear it to pieces. So how are you supposed to deal?
The most common advice you’ll receive is to simply “grow a thicker skin.” But that’s right up there with “show, don’t tell” and “kill your darlings” in terms of prosaic, vague responses that ultimately provide no help at all. Instead, I suggest learning the various categories of critique, that way you’ll know instantly what you’re dealing with and whether or not to pay it much mind.
(Disclaimer, these are not official categories. They are completely fabricated by me, and therefore, contain the appropriate amount of tongue in cheek– lots. 😉 )
These are the ego-flatterers. The “OMG!!!! I LOVED IT! SQUEEEEE!” type critiques we all secretly want to receive by the millions. But as much as they puff our chests with pride, they actually aren’t very helpful. Once you come down off your pedestal of hot air and strip away the loudly screamed outpouring of emotion, you realize that you’ve learned absolutely nothing of value. Except how awesome you are, and you already knew that, didn’t you?
A helpful critique, even a glowing one, should tell you why– why they loved it, what they identified with, what the strong points were. But the overwhelming, star-struck gushing of love from a Fan-boy/Fan-girl doesn’t usually contain a shred of this. You have their reaction to your work, (and probably a new stalker), but you don’t have anything you can take away and replicate in your new project. So at the end of the day, soak up the adoration, but know that these kinds of critiques are fairly worthless.
The Thinly Veiled Swap Request
Similar to a Fan-boy/Fan-girl critique, these will include a generally positive diatribe of how brilliant you are and how you’re the best author they’ve ever read ever, and oh, by the way, would you read and critique their story now too, please? Yep, the Thinly Veiled Swap Request is really just a bait and switch. A cleverly positioned “I scratched your back, now you scratch mine because you owe me.” You’ll usually see these kinds of critiques on public writing sites like Wattpad, Figment, and Authonomy, where the popularity system relies on the number of favorable reviews (or hearts) a story gets. These requests are vaguely insulting and usually best ignored. Upon close inspection, many will reveal that the person asking for a return critique hasn’t truly read your work at all. So be careful with these ones. Don’t fall for the fluff.
Your Mom (AKA Friends and Family)
No, that’s not meant to be a badly worded “Your Mom” joke. (I can’t believe you would think that of me! 😉 )
One of the scariest groups of people to share your work with is those closest to you. I’m sure it stems from the fact that they are close to you, and we tend to trust them over strangers. But that’s a double-edged sword. How many people really believe their mom won’t wax poetic over everything they’ve created, even if it’s the worst thing on the planet? She loved your stick-figure blobs and macaroni/toilet-paper-roll art, didn’t she? Yeah, exactly. Now tell me again why you’re worried she’ll hate something you’re hoping people will pay for.
This category is its own special blend of helpful and unhelpful. Chances are good that even though you’re more terrified of showing your friends and family your work than having your wisdom teeth removed, these reviews will generally come back positive. Even if they hate it, these are the people that love you, so they’ll pull their punches. Which is also what makes this batch of reviews hard to trust. Instinctively, we do, because we value their input, but that can lead to a skewed perspective if we’re not careful.
The best approach is to bask in the positivity, but then cull the review for anything valuable. Surprisingly, this is where you’ll get your first really helpful tidbits, as these readers are comfortable enough with you to point out potential plot-holes or problems with your story. Just make sure you keep your ears open and take the criticism graciously. You do have to live with these people, after all.
The Critique Partner
Every writer should have at least one of these. Seriously! Every. Writer.
Critique Partners are an amazing blend of friendship and writing ability. Typically writers themselves, these are the people you can be your absolute strangest with. The people who won’t just smile and nod when you start talking about your characters like they’re real people, but actually join in! They understand all your writerly eccentricities because they have them too. But the best part about a critique partner is they’ll give you brutally honest, valuable feedback. Of all the critique categories, listen closest to this one. Critique Partners are a step away from the professionals, and their suggestions are usually right. They can be the difference between handing an editor the equivalent of dog-poo and a beautiful, ready-to-publish masterpiece.
The Aspiring Writer Knock-Down, Drag-Out
Alright, on to one of the less happy styles of critique. The Aspiring Writer Knock-Down, Drag-Out is a particularly nasty one. Stemming from insecurity and a fear that success is a limited resource, this critique will unfairly rip your work to shreds in an effort to beat you to the finish line. Most writers don’t fall into this category. Most of us are genuinely friendly and want to help our fellow authors succeed. But there are those out there with superiority complexes that thrive by tearing others down.
The worst part about these is that they come from people who sound knowledgeable. These insidious, evil creatures are armed with an intimate familiarity of the writing process and they’ll attack your work at its core. The key to surviving one of these critiques is to see past the intentionally hurtful language and look for something positive you can use to grow. Don’t listen to the individual words, but look at the overall viewpoint. If they’re going after your character development with a butcher knife, consider that might actually be a weak spot in your story and use that clue to improve. The best way to defeat a bully is not to give them any power, so turn their negativity into something good that helps you, or ignore them completely. (Easier said than done, I know.) Politely thank them for their feedback and then go home and stab the voo-doo doll you made in the eye.
The Editing Writer
This is another insidious type of critique that masquerades as helpful. These reviewers assume that because they’ve written some drafts of novels or some short stories that were well-received in school, they’re qualified to offer feedback as an editor. But that’s a slippery slope to go down. Not every writer is a good editor. And not every English degree equates mastery of storytelling. Writing and Editing really are two completely different skill sets. Some writers, like me, genuinely do possess both. (You’ll be able to tell by the solid feedback that can be easily verified against known writing rules.) But it’s not as common as you would think.
Usually, these critiques will try to rewrite your work. They’ll be couched in personal preferences and will try to get your writing style to conform to theirs, citing made-up rules and questionable storytelling approaches. A good editor will preserve an author’s voice, offering suggestions that strengthen it rather than try to replace it with their own. Take these critiques with a grain of salt. Likely there will be some beneficial morsels regarding areas that need work, but find your own path. Don’t necessarily take theirs.
The Grammar Nazi
Who doesn’t love a good Grammar Nazi? These people go through your work and pick it apart punctuation by punctuation. Their review will consist entirely of technical suggestions and pretentious gloating over every mistake you made. It will feel like you’ve suddenly been sent back to your least favorite English class, with dangling participles, evil adverbs and misplaced commas haunting your every move. But as horrible as it can feel to be schooled by a Grammar Nazi, these critiques are actually helpful. They did just flag all the really technical stuff that needs fixing, after all. So as painful as it is, listen to these people. Someone has to be the Grammar Nazi, and thankfully, now it doesn’t have to be you.
The Structural Editor
Now we start to get to the really meaty types of reviews. The ones you’ll receive from the professionals if you’re lucky. And from the freelance professionals if you’ve got money. 😉
Structural editing focuses on the actual elements of storytelling, the underlying framework of your story. Critiques of this type will talk about things like character/world development, pacing, dramatic tension and suspense, to name a few. They won’t go into detail on the mechanics of writing, but will go into heavy detail about what’s working and what isn’t, and most importantly, why. This is one of the most valuable critiques you’ll receive during the pre-publication phase. Often, your book won’t go to press until the issues found by a Structural Editor are taken care of. So they’re definitely good people to pay attention to.
The Copy/Line Editor
Right up there with the Structural Editor is the Copy/Line Editor. Where the Structural Editor’s domain is everything storytelling, the Copy/Line Editor lords over all things technical. Similar to the Grammar Nazi, but with a bit less pretension, the Copy/Line Editor will go over your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, providing valuable suggestions on everything from word choice to sentence phrasing to punctuation usage. These people are masters of the English language and will help you refine your work into it’s most clarified form. Also similar to the Structural Editor, they tend to stand between you and your final goal of publication, so it’s wise to listen to their advice.
The Reader Review
This is the holy grail of critiques. Ideally, the Reader Review is a coveted blend of Fan-boy/Fan-girl, Your Mom and the Structural Editor. The best ones will go into detail about what they loved and why, convincing other readers of your awesomeness without you having to lift a finger and providing insight into what you should include in your next book. But, though these are the reviews that matter most, they can vary widely in quality. Readers are just that, readers. They won’t have the expertise that some of the other critique categories do, nor will they try to sugar-coat their thoughts. You can get everything from a Fan-boy/Fan-girl reaction, to the complete opposite– the Hate-boy/Hate-girl, (Yes, I totally made that up, but it could be a thing, right?)– to everything in between.
A lot of writers recommend not even reading these reviews, as the negative ones will undermine every shred of self-confidence you have. But if you don’t know why your book is bombing, how will you know what not to do in the next one? I think you should periodically check up on what people have to say, just don’t obsess over it. (Again, easier said than done, right?) Negative reviews happen, and the internet allows people to be far less civil than necessary, but regardless of whether it’s good or bad, the Reader Review trumps everything else. So it’s good to pay attention to it.
The important lesson here is that feedback of any kind is good. Even the worst review can be helpful, once you learn how to see past the negativity. (There’s that darned thick skin requirement again.) No matter what, thank the person for giving their time to your work, and for bothering to review it. Receiving a bad review hurts, but I can imagine nothing worse than receiving absolutely no feedback at all. I’d rather hear that someone felt passionately enough about my work to voice their thoughts, even the nasty, hurtful ones, than fade away into obscurity to a symphony of crickets. Wouldn’t you?