Monday, June 16, 2014

Having Your Writing Critiqued

“There are only two people who can tell you the truth about yourself – an enemy who has lost his temper and a friend who loves you dearly.”—Antisthenes  

Shut up and listen. That's the first and best thing you can do for yourself when sitting down to hear someone's critique of your writing. You've given them your work to see what they think, so give them free rein to tell you.

There is nothing gained by defending your work against someone who is trying to help you. Every critique is a learning experience, a chance to better understand your writing, flaws and successes alike. Treat it as such.

If you have specific questions for your reader, write them down ahead of time and wait until you are well into what should be a one-sided conversation before you bring them up. Don't ask your reader to watch for anything before they've read your work. You don't want to influence their reading. They have to come to your writing fresh, just as they would anything off the shelf. Say as little as possible to them about what you've written. It is for them to tell you what you have done.

With that in mind, keep your questions open ended. First ask, what did you think of this character, before specifying, did you find them funny. The most of what you should say during the critique is why, why not, and can you tell me more about that.

Not everyone offering you a critique is a master at the craft. Even editors and writers with endless bestsellers and lavishly awarded works can be uncertain what needs to change in a given draft, or how. The best readers will critique your work with an eye for helping you achieve your vision instead of manipulating it into something they want to see. If your reader does not appear to make an effort to understand your intent, consider the value of their advice accordingly, but do not disregard their reactions.

Your reader's reactions to your work is the single most important feedback you can ask for, whether or not they have any interesting suggestions. Faults may not be where a reader thinks they are, but that does not mean nothing is wrong. Sometimes a moment would otherwise work if it were better supported earlier in the story. But if your reader was confused, or put off, or bored, it falls to you to discern why that might be and what you can do about it. Every comment is a question you have to answer to in your writing. If you don't have good answers, you have work to do.

There is such a thing as bad advice. Listening to everybody is as mindless as listening to nobody. What you do with your work is up to you, but the better you know your work, the easier it will be to tell the good advice from the bad.

As a last word on intent, what you first wanted from your writing is not always what needs to happen for it to be the best it can be. Despite what your intentions may have been, not only may your execution have been poor, but the intentions themselves may lack merit. What is most interesting about your work is not always what you assumed. Sometimes you have to do what is right for the story, not your ego.  


  1. These are terrific suggestions. I actually wrote a post suggesting that honest criticism of your work is the make-or-break difference between success and failure - particularly for writers who intend to self-publish. Thanks for your insights - particularly about setting aside ego to improve the story.