The time comes with every manuscript when you need to share it with someone else before publishing it. That someone could be your spouse, best friend, writing group, beta reader, a pitch with an editor or agent, or a first chapter contest judge. There will be times when one of these critique partners makes a suggestion that doesn't sit well with you. You'll be left with a bucket of insecurity, wondering whether to make changes based on the suggestions or to keep the manuscript as-is. It can be especially crippling when the person commenting is close to you, like a family member, or someone you perceive as having authority in the writing profession, like an editor or already-published author.
Receiving critiques is difficult. No one enjoys hearing they have more work to do, especially after doing something that took a lot of work. But we all have something to learn and improve on, whether it's our first manuscript or our fifteenth, whether we are published or not.
We don't improve when we ignore everything our critique partners tell us. They can be incredibly valuable, teaching us more than we could ever learn otherwise. Even unhelpful comments can teach us things like who isn't our niche reader, or if a part of the story is not quite right (even if their wrong about why). Get multiple critique partners (or, better yet, a writing group), and take their comments with a fat grain of salt.
This article will discuss what makes a critique “wrong” or unhelpful, what to do when you realize a critique isn't right for you, how to respond to a critique partner who frequently gives unhelpful feedback, and how know when to follow a critique.
When is a critique wrong or not helpful?
First and foremost, a critique given with a rude or condescending tone is never helpful. It's stressful, which is counterintuitive to inducing creativity and collaboration. If your critique partner often sounds rude or hurtful, you have two options: let them know in a kind way that the way they deliver critiques is hurtful, or stop utilizing them as a partner.
When a suggestion takes your story in a wildly different direction that changes the plot significantly and destroys the heart of your story, that's a suggestion you can disregard. In this instance, the critiquer is likely imposing their own vision on your story or characters, rather than helping you hone your vision for it.
Sometimes, a critique just isn't the type of suggestion you asked your partner to look for (for instance, grammar corrections should pretty much never be given in a first draft. First draft critique should focus on plot and character and world-building almost exclusively).
And finally, if it feels wrong and doesn't sit well with you, then don't take it. It's as simple as that.
What to do when a critique isn't right for you
The best thing to do with any critique you're uncertain about is to get a second, or even third or fourth opinion (writing groups come in handy here). Also, analyze where the critique came from. Who is your intended audience? Does the critiquer fit that audience?
Consider that something else could be wrong with that part of the story. Maybe your critiquer doesn't quite know what it is and their comments are a stab in the dark at figuring it out. In that case, asking clarifying questions and getting another perspective will help the most.
How to respond to an unhelpful critique partner
First off, always keep your tone even, respectful, and kind. No need to fan the flames. Thank them for taking time to read your story and either ask clarifying questions or move on. That's right, I said don't engage. Your time is too valuable to spend arguing over details that will probably change in revision anyway. Here's where that ‘fat grain of salt’ comes in.
However, if you receive chronic unhelpful comments from a critique partner, you'll want to do something to avoid having your time and energy wasted. Either get more specific (tell them what you're looking for, be VERY specific if you have to), teach them how to give better critiques, or, as a last resort, break up with them as a critique partner.
If they're offended when you don't take their suggestions, remind them that the story is yours and you felt it needed to go a different direction that was better for the majority of your readers. Your only responsibility is to be true to the story. Getting offended is a red flag that they may not be an ideal critique partner.
Bring up your concerns to initiate a discussion, either with that person or with someone else. “I don't think that will work, but I agree something isn't right with that part. Can you think of anything else that might work?” Having a writing group for multiple opinions is really helpful here!
Be a great critique partner, especially if you're trading manuscripts with someone, like in a writing group setting. Model the type of critique you want to see. Definitely do not get vindictive or seek revenge for critiques you've received. Be the example. It will serve everyone in the end.
How to know when to follow a critique
As vague as it sounds, you'll likely know when a critique is spot on because it feels right. It might feel uncomfortable, too, especially if it's a big change to a plot or character or its something you recognize is a weak point for you. Uncomfortable doesn't mean a critique is bad, so make sure you pinpoint that, and maybe get a second opinion, before brushing it off.
A good critique highlights or solves a problem you already knew existed (even if you didn't know how to define it). It sometimes repeats critiques others have given.
A critique should be given added consideration when it comes from someone who is published in or frequently reads the genre you're writing, or someone with unique applicable knowledge, like a retired cop reading your crime novel manuscript, or a medieval weapons specialist reading your epic fantasy manuscript. We call these “niche readers” and they're invaluable for helping your story achieve high levels of accuracy. Don't argue with niche readers!
If you're still feeling uncertain about taking a critique, it's time to step away and put the manuscript down or move on from that scene. After giving the idea time to sit in your mind, you might find that the suggestions weren't so far off. Don't be so attached to any part of your story that you refuse to consider a comment that might have value, either.
These aren't hard and fast guidelines. At the end of the day, tell the story you want to tell, stay true to your characters, but be honest with yourself.
Remember, you are the author of this story. You get to decide how it goes, in the end, and moving forward with confidence will serve you best in writing and in life.
We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.