Once my aunt asked me with novel writing if there’s some hard and fast objective way to tell if you as a writer are “good” or have “reached a professional level” before submitting to publishers. I had to answer that honestly I didn’t think there was, because writing, as an artform, is one of those nebulous things where what is “good” writing and what is “bad” is always going to be debated, even among professionals. It doesn’t mean there isn’t that line somewhere between brilliant and utter garbage, it’s just everyone’s going to have a different opinion about where various books lie along it.
She was a bit dismayed when I was trying to explain that the main way most writers improve and judge their writing is through peer critiques (sometimes professional paid critiques, but there are no standards for becoming one so I feel they often come out the same). Basically you’re asking someone else’s subjective opinion on your writing. No matter how many degrees they have or books they’ve published, ultimately they could still be wrong and completely miss the genius of your idea. Yet, on the other hand, if you completely ignore everyone’s advice you’ll never improve as an author. You’ll be ignoring important suggestions that can actually improve your writing. As the author, sometimes you’re just too close to your work to see your own flaws.
I’ve found five rules for myself to help me balance keeping my vision for my writing with accepting and using critiques.
1) Ask for a wide range of feedback
There’s a lot of readers out there, and a broad range overall opinions about a story in revision can be extremely valuable. Perhaps most of the feedback won’t actually be helpful, but it will highlight the range of reactions the final book will get. Try to get some target readers who are into the genre that the book fits into as well. For me, that means children, since I write children’s fiction. While these readers won’t be able to offer me line edits or detailed feedback, knowing when they get confused or bored while reading is invaluable. I also need feedback from parents and teachers, since those are the people who buy the book ultimately. Pretty much, I’ve found a reader reaction from anyone, even if I don’t use any of their suggestions, is valuable, because it gives me a greater perspective on my work.
2) Always give a positive thank you, even if the crit is pretty much useless
This person took the time to read your writing. It’s a gift and the professional thing is to say thank you. If the person offered something you found helpful, list what it was specifically and the thank you will mean more to them. What if the crit was rude or demeaning or the person was lazy and only read a couple of paragraphs before telling you how horrible they thought they were? Well, there’s no need to be enthusiastic I suppose in that case, but I still think a thank you is in order, even if it’s a one sentence email that says: Thank you for taking the time to read part of my story.
First, why sink to their level. Take the moral high ground and thank everyone. Secondly, it’ll effect your reputation and professionalism as an author if you get into arguments with people who read your work. You don’t have to ever ask that person again to read your writing, you can just move on. Obviously if a crit makes you too furious to say thank you, it’s better to say nothing than get in a fight, but in general it’s best to manage at least a polite sentence. It’s also better not to mention if you ultimately decide to disregard the person’s advice entirely. You’re going to ignore a lot of advice that’s not right for you and your story, but there’s no reason to rub it in people’s faces. It’s ultimately your work and the critiquer ought to know that, but no reason to stir things up unless you’re genuinely asking them to further explain their suggestions.
Furthermore, I believe in thanking paid editors as well. Yes, I’ve hired them for a service, but editing means putting a lot of thought and soul into making suggestions and these people work very hard for us. Even in that case while I might debate an issue with a paid editor to try to explain what I’m doing better so the person can fit their suggestions to it, a big thank you for their hard work is the right thing to do along with paying the bill. If a paid editor really doesn’t see the vision of a story correctly, then you thank them (and of course pay them) for their time anyway and find a different editor for the story, but there’s no reason you can’t be professional about it.
3) Keep the heart of your story in mind while looking at critiques
The biggest danger of taking advice from others is that sometimes your unique intention for a story can get buried. So, before looking at critiques I find it best to either list or at the very least make clear in my mind what’s most important about the story to me. What am I saying ultimately? What are my major themes? What is my character arc? What aspects of my world are non-negotiable to me? What is my voice/tone for the story? This helps me to recognize which advice might strengthen those aspects and which while perfectly fine for someone else’s story, doesn’t fit mine.
Sometimes hard critique comments create quite a big inner debate. When half my readers found my main character unlikable in one of my books, I really had to take a long difficult look at what aspects of my main character’s personality were important to me. Was what was making her unlikable so important to me that I had to keep it? I ended up keeping some of her personality traits but changing others in order to create a character more people could relate to, but still one who kept my central vision of her internal journey across the book.
4) Lean on a few people who really understand the vision/heart of the story
Once I have a wide range of feedback, I often turn to just a few people who gave me the advice that felt best for further critiques on the novel. A story will naturally resonate with some people over others and when I can see a critiquer really understood my story, that leads me to turn to them again with revisions, if they’re interested. Once I’ve gotten a wide view of opinions, I find no more than 3-5 beta readers is usually best for honing late stages of revision. Too many opinions later on tends to muddy both my focus and that of the book. I know some people use that same group of people and only that same group for all their novels, but I’ve found each book finds its own group of core people who love it in particular and that’s not always the same people.
5) Critique other people and give the sort of critiques you want to receive
I feel like giving critiques has been as important to me as receiving them. For one thing, this is the best and biggest thank you that you can give other writers when they critique your work–returning the favor. Second, you have more distance from other people’s work. By articulating what works and doesn’t work for you in someone else’s work helps you later recognize what works and doesn’t work in your own. I’ve learned a great deal about revision through critiquing other people’s work. It also helps you learn to be diplomatic when explaining what you feel doesn’t work in a way that’s helpful and constructive, so you can better understand how to take criticism when you receive it.
I feel as a published author now, critiques are just as important to me as when I was first starting. Perhaps writing isn’t a peer reviewed, bar exam sort of profession, but I do feel critiques ground and clarify my work and allow me to reach my full potential as an author.