There may be no shortage of advice offered at your critique group, but how much of it is useful? It's important to remember that not all critique is created equal, and some of it should be ignored utterly. But which advice should you ignore and which should you carefully consider?
In order to get the most out of your group, you have to learn to ask for what you want, as well as separate the good advice from the bad.
Help your group give you the critique you need:
Tell the group what type of advice you're looking for.
Before you take your work to the group, figure out for yourself what kind of advice you're seeking – plot? characterization? dialogue? If you point out the specifics of what you're concerned about, then your group can focus on that. If there's something you're not concerned about, let them know as well so they're not wasting their time or yours.
Set up the scene.
Unless your group has a fixed membership who always attend, you will find yourself reading a scene to some member who isn't familiar with your work. Therefore, be sure you give the information they need to understand the significance of what you're reading.
Example: “Billy is confronting Rick, who he believes killed his father. There is a red bird in this scene, and every time we've seen a red bird, violence has followed.”
This will help prevent non-helpful comments like “Why is Billy being so mean?” and “Why did you spend so much time describing the bird outside the window?”
Ask for what you want.
Don't be afraid to ask for specifics. Often if you say something like, “Did the description of the red bird work?” then you'll get more helpful answers.
Evaluating your critique:
Perhaps the worst mistake you can make is to comply with every suggested change from your group. Carefully consider the source of each comment and decide if it works for you and what you're trying to say with your writing. Some advice can and should be ignored!
Damning with faint praise.
We all love to hear that our writing is just perfect – but that's not terribly helpful because it's almost certainly not true. People want to be nice, and that will sometimes prevent them from saying they don't like something. They may offer non-specific praise because they weren't paying attention, and people rarely press for more information on a compliment.
Be thankful for the negative.
Would you rather hear the criticism from a group of friends or from a publisher rejecting your work in a form letter? Someone responds to your writing with, “You went on about the bird for half a page, and then it just flew away! I got bored with the description and then I felt cheated because it seemed to be an unimportant waste of my time!” It would be easy to focus on “bored” “cheated” “unimportant” and “waste of my time” and either get angry or depressed, but instead, look at what he's saying. Is the bird important? If it is, then you failed to communicate that adequately. This is an opportunity to find a way to make it clear how important that is, or, if you have to admit that it's not that important, to maybe cut it down to a few sentences and then get on with your action.
Beware of the personal preference.
If one of your group prefers cozy mysteries and historical romances, they will probably not love your dark and gritty post-apocalyptic tale of revenge. Hopefully, your reader will understand the problem is the genre, but if not, they may inadvertently offer advice that could drastically change the tone you're striving to set, like “I think he should be able to save the girl!” or “Did you have to describe all the bodies at the pillaged farm? I thought it was just too much.”
Also beware of the “expert”
Unless the person in question is an actual publisher, they can't speak for the entirety of the publishing industry. And if they are a publisher, they can only speak to their own preferences. Watch out for comments like, “Publishers aren’t interested in these kinds of stories!” and “Publishers are tired of dark stuff and want happy!”
Respect “the rules” but know when to break them
Never open with a discussion of the weather. Never open with waking up. Never open with looking in the mirror. Never open with a flashback. Never use the words “suddenly, almost, or seemed.” Never open with a prologue or dialogue. Never, never, never...
If your story is about tornadoes, opening with weather is probably appropriate. If your protagonist suffers from a sleep disorder, then starting with waking up may work for you. Most of the items on the writing “never” list are more appropriately on a “you should be careful with” list or a “use sparingly” list. While these things got on the “never” list for a reason, if that “never” is appropriate for your writing, then ignore the never and do what's right for you.
Having said that, many of these rules are so entrenched that your writing may be dismissed as soon as the reader encounters it. I received feedback from a writing contest that one judge quit reading as soon as the story started with a character waking up. Was it fair? No. But we don’t live in a fair world.
You'll need to handle conflicting advice.
“I love symbolism of the red bird!”
“I hate that red bird and think you should get rid of it!”
This is real life. No matter how wonderful or terrible your work is, someone will love it and someone will hate it. This is where it falls most squarely on you. Do you love the red bird, or is it not that important to you? If you believe in it, keep it!
I don't understand why...
“I didn't get why Billy blamed Rick.”
“I don't understand what happened to the girl.”
“I don't believe Rick would just accept the blame.”
“I'm sorry, but what's the deal with the red bird?”
Always pay attention to “I don't get” and “I don't understand.” These kinds of comments tell you one of two things – your group wasn't paying attention (which begs the question: why aren't you holding their attention?) or you failed to adequately express your point. As writers, we walk a careful line between making things too obvious and making them too obscure. Sometimes, the confusion comes from someone missing an earlier scene, but if not, you need to address that problem.
Someone telling you they don’t believe what happened doesn’t mean you have change what happened, it means you may need to change the set up for it.
What is the importance of this scene to your story?
“Where is the conflict?”
“How does this scene advance your story?”
Perhaps the biggest red flag of any comment, questions about the importance of a scene to your story should make you look hard at what you've just read. Does the scene progress your story? Does the scene have conflict? Is it important for establishing character, setting, or plot? How would the story be changed if this scene were removed entirely? If you can't answer those questions, you should consider removing it or heavily editing it.
Or, maybe it is you.
“I am SO tired of hearing about that red bird!”
If you keep getting the same comment, over and over, from different people, take the time to carefully consider that advice. No matter how much you love the symbolism of the red bird, if it's just distracting your readers, it either has to be fixed or it has to go – or you have to accept that you're going to keep hearing criticism for it.
That is the challenge: When you have something in your work that you love, but you consistently receive negative feedback on it, it is time to make that hard decision.
Taking it home:
Once you've asked for the critique you need and then sorted out the wheat from the chaff of the critique you got, you just have to take it home and make the changes. Be thoughtful and remain true to yourself and what you have to say. Remember, it's your work, it's your voice, and in the end, it's going to be your name on that cover page.
This post has been modified from one originally published on The Chipper Muse
Donna A. Leahey
As a child in school, Donna Leahey turned her vocabulary homework into short stories. Years later, she is still crafting stories. Geek, gamer, writer, mother, procrastinator, and pet lover, Donna is a practicing veterinarian and free-lance writer as well as an active creator of podcasts. You can hear her and her friends on Beyond the Cabin in the Woods: A Good Ghouls Guide to Horror, Collective Snark, and Once More With Feeling: A 20th Anniversary Buffy Fancast as well as her 4th podcast, The Family Business: A Supernatural Fancast. You can follow her on Twitter.