Learning to Love the Red Pen: How to Get the Most Out Of Writing Critique

I used to fear critique. My stomach would get all tied up in knots at the thought that someone would hate my writing and think I totally suck. But after the first few times I let someone else give me feedback, it finally sunk in for me how much faster my writing could improve with the help of other people’s input.

I still might totally suck, but I’ve gotten over my fear of critique and even come to enjoy it. I learn so much every time I get critique from someone. The following bits of advice are based on my experience with getting critique over the past couple of years. I’m sure that the advice is not comprehensive, and I imagine it won’t work for everyone, but if you are facing critique with fear and dread it might help you realize it’s not that bad. Here then, in no particular order, are my tips for how to get the most out of receiving critique.

  1. Ask yourself do you REALLY want critique, or do you just want praise? Does the thought of criticism, or of making changes to the piece, fill you with dread? If what you really want is a pat on the back, show it to a family member. BUT, if you want honest feedback about how you can make your work better, then find someone you trust to tell you what they really think. Preferably someone whose opinion you respect.
  2. Remember that your critique partner can’t read your mind. Communication is essential. Tell your partner what you are looking for. Be specific–give them a list. For example: “I would like you to look for plot holes and inconsistencies, and tell me if you think the characters motivations are plausible. I am NOT looking for spelling or grammar correction right now.” ALSO, let your partner know what kind of input you’re open to. “I would love suggestions on how to fix plot problems” OR, “Please don’t offer suggestions for how I could change things, just tell me when you see a problem and tell me what isn’t working for you as specifically as possible.” Me, I love suggestions. I disregard a lot of them, but it’s always fascinating to hear what someone else might do with the story. But apparently some authors hate that. Be up front from the very beginning about which camp you fall in to. You’ll save yourself lots of grief later.
  3. Remember that you will probably do several edits, and you can’t fix everything at once. So think carefully before you give your wish list to your critiquer. If you’re still trying to hammer out your plot and motivations, there’s no point fussing over commas on scenes that may or may not make the final editing cut. Once you are sure you’re not going to change your plot, then you can start working through the details. You might need to do one editing pass for dialogue, one for settings and descriptions, and one for the action and transitions. Then of course there’s the final pass for grammar, punctuation, and word choice. All of these are very different sorts of activities that require different mindsets. So it’s a good idea to choose which one of these you want your critiquer to focus on. Over time, as you get to know more writers and readers, you will discover that some people excel at the nitpicky details, some people excel at finding the plot holes, etc. Use this knowledge wisely.
  4. Remember that critique isn’t a personal attack. YOU know that your work has not yet attained perfection. That’s why you’re asking for critique. So there’s not a lot of point in taking it personally when your story’s flaws are pointed out to you. Your critique partner is trying to help. And if you disagree with their critique? Well, that just leads us to the next tip:
  5. Remember that you don’t have to agree with anything anyone says. It’s your piece, and you are free to disregard any and all observations and suggestions that come your way. I always tell people “thanks for the input! I’ll think about what you said.” And then I DO think about what they said, and decide if I agree or disagree. That said, if you are rejecting ALL critique, then perhaps you–or your piece–aren’t really ready for critique after all. See number one.
  6. After you’ve heard or read the critique being offered, it’s a good idea to walk away from it for a little while. How long is up to you–sometimes a few hours to let it all sink in is plenty, other times days or even a week or two is necessary. Put the notes somewhere safe, and give yourself some time to let it all simmer in your brain. You’ll have a much clearer head and a much less emotional response to criticism when you’ve given yourself some time away.

I know some of my writing friends–who have a lot more experience than I do–will be reading this. Do you guys have any further tips to add? Please post them in the comments (my greedy way of soliciting free information!).

Next time, tips on GIVING good critique.


3 thoughts on “Learning to Love the Red Pen: How to Get the Most Out Of Writing Critique

  1. I also fear critiques of my writing. I know it’s because my writing is the most personal thing I can do. The last person who critiqued any writiing of mine was my ex husband early on in our marriage, before I ever considered parting ways. He thought my best efforts were a waste of time and was quite cruel in everything he said about them. Of course, that was his brand of humor and he most likely did not realize until I was in tears that he had utterly devastated me. By the time he understood what he had done, he was more interested in maintaining his own coolness and told me to stop acting like a baby.

    I know that most other people would be more tactful in their criticisims, but I cannot bring myself to publicly post anything I write, other than my blog, which is heavily edited so I don’t make too big of a fool of myself in public.

    There. I’ve just revealed how much of a complete chicken I am.

    1. Kathleen, your story made me so sad! There really is no excuse for giving unkind critique.

      And it’s okay to be afraid! Though I do hope that some day you find a way to regain confidence in your abilities.

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