Wednesday, September 18, 2013

How to Receive a Tough Critique

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

On Thursday, I talked about how to edit your novel, and we left off with when we send our manuscript off to our critique partners.

Opinions vary on whether it's better to have just one or if you should have, like, ten writing partners. Do you really want ten different writers telling you how to write your story? On the flip side, do you really just want one other opinion on your book? I would argue quality over quantity. Better to have one great critique partner than four so-so partners. I also wouldn't have more critique partners than you have time to critique for, if that makes sense. Don't ask ten people to critique your novel if you don't have time to critique their novels in return. I have two, and right now that works great for me. Eventually I might add a third.

Anyway. You've sent your manuscript off to your critique partners and, if you're like me, this makes you nervous. Even though you tell yourself you shouldn't be nervous, it's just a critique. But what if they find glaring plot holes? They're supposed to. That's why you have them. And that's why they have you. But what if they don't like it? They'll talk to you about it respectfully, same as you would them. Stop freaking out.

Which brings me to another important note about critique partners: Whoever they are and however many you have, these need to be people that you trust. People who love you and your stories. People who want the best for you. People who will talk to you honestly, but kindly, and who will respect you even if you don't make the changes they suggest. If you can't trust their heart and their critique, then it's a waste of your time and theirs.

Sometimes a critique comes back and it's better than you thought it'd be. Yay!

Most of the time, though, a critique comes back to me looking the way I expected (I knew something was wrong, just couldn't figure out what) or worse than I expected. (Yikes! That's the way that scene came across? That's not what I meant at all!)

If the critique comes in and you're feeling angry, hurt, depressed, ashamed, irritated, etc. then it's a good idea to take a step back from the manuscript. Read or take a walk or something. I've cried after getting critiques, including recently. I often have to fight off feelings of shame, like there's something wrong with me for having not realized my plot problems on my own, like I should have known better.

Also, if my critique partners are right about their feedback (which they basically always are) then I might cry from the sheer amount of work involved in fixing the book. Jill Williamson once told me she does the same thing, which made me feel much better. The thing is, at this point in the writing process, you're (usually) very tired. Especially if you're on deadline and haven't had the luxury of a break. So even if you love the book, even if it's a book of your heart, the idea of doing more rewrites and edits can be very disheartening.

For a particularly bad critique, I'll allow myself a night to feel bad about it. But the next day, I have to get to work.

I take the same bird by bird approach to applying a critique as I do edits. It can feel overwhelming at first, and I have to remind myself that I can't do it all right now, that I just have to put one foot in front of the other. The order is slightly different, though:

  1. I brainstorm: Critiques usually come back with some line edits but also with some overall thoughts that need to be applied somehow. "This character arc seemed off to me" or "This seemed too convenient to me." The first thing I do is brainstorm how to fix these bigger issues.
  2. I talk to my critique partners: After I think I've figured out how I want to implement their suggestions, I talk to my critique partners and see what they think about what I came up with. Do they think this will fix the issue? Often we brainstorm a bit more at this point too.
  3. I do the work: This one is pretty self-explanatory. I make the big changes first, and then I look through the line edits they did and apply those changes too. 
  4. I read through the book one more time before sending it off to my editor.
  5. I celebrate with ice cream.
But what if your critique partner has advice that you disagree with? The first thing to do (once you've taken a step back to make sure you're not just feeling defensive) is go to your partner and discuss it. "This advice just doesn't feel right for my story, and here's why." If they still argue their case, then I would take it to another critique partner for their opinion. If two or three others agree on a point, then you usually should take the advice seriously. If it's just one person and you disagree with them, then it's your choice. Ultimately, you're the author, and they should respect that.


  1. I haven't gotten hard critique yet. But this I know will difinately help when I do get it. (Espically the ice cream :)

    (Sorry for any typos, I'm not really paying attention because I'm watching a movie) :p

  2. Thanks for the post!
    Yes, I've been in a critique group before and each time I brought something in, it seemed like everyone liked everybody else's manuscripts. Except mine.

    Maybe that's true, maybe it's me just feeling bad for myself, I don't know.
    But critique groups and critique partners can be very, very helpful.

    1. I've totally felt that way before, Samuel. It's tough :(

  3. Great post as usual, Stephanie! I just got some feedback that was tough. I spent a few days just reading my favorite books and trying to forget about it, but it pointed out so many things wrong with my writing. It particularly pointed out all the places I needed more description, which was like every page. Thanks!
    ~Sarah Faulkner

  4. I haven't had much experience with critique partners yet, but I'll store this up for future reference, so thanks! :)

    Side note for Mrs. Williamson--I'm in Genesis for school and I just read 26:20-21...I noticed two wells named "Esek" or "dispute" and Sitna or "opposition." Hmmm. LOL ;)

    1. I'm not Jill, but I think she used Hebrew words for her names and places.
      Yeah like with Esek, it probably means dispute in Hebrew. Same thing with Sitna.

    2. Yes, I know she did, Samuel, and yes, I know they mean that. xD I was just noting how I found it and it made me smile this morning. :)

    3. Wish I could find some cool "Blood of Kings" related words in the Bible.

      Then again, I think I can remember a question from a Bible Trivia I did with my youth group that asked something about a person named Achan or Akan.


    4. Yesss, Achan is in there somewhere. Joshua I think.

  5. Great advice! I am filing this away for future reference. Now must go do English homework, which is writing, so should be fun! :)

  6. I haven't really had critique partners, but I have gotten some pretty harsh critique before, and it's not easy to deal with. Thank you for this advice!

    1. If you're looking for a critique partner i would be happy to critique some of your work. :D Let me know if you want to. :D

  7. Yes, after you've lived, slept, and eaten with a story for a year of your life, it truly can be disheartening to go back and do extensive rewrites. But sometimes that is what it takes. Hearing praise is great, but if we receive praise rather than the blunt truth, then we might be submitting a manuscript that is weaker than it could be.

    I like having just a couple critique partners who really know their stuff. Too many readers create more work for you to wade through, since there are as many ways to rewrite a scene as there are people who read it!

    Thanks, Stephanie!

  8. I think the part I fear most about writing is what you've just talked about. I fear being told my story isn't good enough. That's one of the reasons why I am hesitant to set my writing free. But I'll file this advice away in my memory bank of all things about writing. Thank you so much, Mrs Stephanie.

  9. Thank you for writing this! I tend to take criticism too much to heart and feel like you--like I should have known better than to do or not do that, blah blah blah.

  10. What if you send a book to a critic and you tell them: I want you to CRI-TIQUE-IT. They nod, they seem to get it, but when it all comes down to finishing it, it's more of a "I loved it! Can you send me the next book when you're done with it?" Then you ask specific questions: What did you think about this character? Did this plot twist surprise you? And you get: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was all good. You should sooo get it published." And it seems as if alll your partners are like this? Is there a way you can explain what kind of things you want to get back from them (like REAL critiques) without spoiling your story?