Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Handling “Constructive” Criticism…or what to do with those less than raving contest critiques…

You rip open the envelope and pull out your baby, hoping against hope that the critique author reviewing your submission is madly in love with your voice, has offered to shop your book to her editor and agent, and she wants you to be her next best friend. Instead, you get a nice handwritten note (or not) and manuscript pages that look as if they’ve been attacked by her four-year-old monster child wielding a “name your color” pen that’s leaking from both ends.

But wait! Perhaps all that scribble-scratch is her waxing poetic in sheer amazement at your wonderful talent, your ability to make your characters nearly jump off the page, descriptive prose that brought her to tears, and such snappy repartee that she hasn’t been able to get “your hero’s name” off her mind so she can move on to her own writing.

Quickly scanning the pages, your hopes are dashed when you pick up bits and pieces of “isn’t this too early in the story?” and “this disrupts the flow” and, the worst of all suggestions, “Chapter 1 is all backstory—I’d get rid of it and revise Chapter 2 to start with the hero’s POV.”

Waaahhhh! What do you do now? You might be tempted to write a scathing blog about your experience (after all, it is “villains” month, right?) Flushing it down the toilet isn’t an option, because you don’t have the funds to pay a plumber for the toiletectomy (you heard it here first.) And you’re too concerned about greenhouse gases to start a bonfire.

What you do not want to do is rush to your computer and begin mowing through the manuscript, slashing out chapters and dumping the secondary plot line in hopes of making your story the brilliant masterpiece it is meant to be.

Why not, you ask? Because you aren’t going to be able to look past the boulders of "criticism" to see the nuggets of truth imbedded in her critique, that’s why. And some of her suggestions may not work for the book in its entirety. Typically, she’ll have read twenty-five or so pages and that, my dear, does not make a book. The bottom line is she’s just another reader, albeit a published one, with one opinion on how to make your story saleable.

My suggestion? Shove it somewhere out of sight, pour yourself a glass of merlot (it’s good for your heart) and plop into your favorite sofa in front of the flat-screen to watch your favorite chick-flick. Maybe go for that run you've been putting off for the past week. Or pour bath crystals into your tub and soak your worries away.

Take a couple of days to get over the disappointment, then give yourself credit for having the guts to put your story in the hands of yet one more person. Pull the manuscript from wherever you've stashed it and reread the submission through the lens of her comments and suggestions. Make your own notes of ideas that come to mind from reading hers. If the comments she made are similar to other critiques, determine a way to fix what's wrong. Then get back to your computer and polish your words until they shine--it's Maggie time!

One more suggestion--write your thank you note. Because not all authors are eager to share their expertise or run the risk of alienating potential readers. They know what worked for them, and that's what they have to offer. Nothing more. Nothing less.


Nicki Salcedo said...

Ana, truer words have never been spoken. Thank you so much for posting this. This is my new favorite quote:

"Because you aren’t going to be able to look past the boulders of 'criticism' to see the nuggets of truth imbedded in her critique"

It is easy to be a writer. It is not easy to be a reviser.

I never ask my what's-his-name if an outfit makes me look fat. I'll ask if he likes the outfit I'm wearing. Or does he think another one looks better.

Same with my writing. I'd never ask someone if they like my writing, that's not the point. A critique isn't about if your writing is good. It is about if your writing can be made better.

Personally, I'd like a better story and a prettier dress.

Ana, this post is so timely for our blog's "Operation: Maggie Readiness." Thank you. Thank you.

Debbie Kaufman said...

That's why, as a teacher, I used green pens or any other color than red!

My mantra: Revision is my friend.

Marilyn Baron said...

Great post and especially timely for the Maggies. I'm about to make revisions to my manuscript. Debbie, a green pen sounds nice. Green is my favorite color!

Marilyn Baron

Sandy Elzie said...


Loved your post. I just finished judging a contest and I felt almost guilty at all the "red" I sent back with my critiques. I only wish they were all able to read your post and, like Debbie said, realize that Revision (a critique) is their friend.

I particularily like the comment about grabbing the glass of Merlot...I just decided to combine it with the bath salts and bubbling my cares away. (g)

Great job. Sandy

Cyrano said...

Green is my favorite color too. Critiquers should use shades of green, much more soothing and earthy than violent slashes of blood red.
It's depressing to get a bad critique. We've poured our heart and soul into our manuscript and when someone tears it apart, our first instinct is to defend it. But as you said, we should take a breather (great suggestion by the way) Because more often than not, the published author offering her time and experience has some very valuable advice that might just make our manuscript better, tighter, more readable.
And who doesn't want a better, tighter, more readable manuscript?
Loved the humorous post Ana.
It's rainy out today ladies. Perfect for snuggling up to the computer with a cup of coffee(or tea or merlot, hey it's 5oclock somewhere)and writing the day away.
Have a great morning all!

Sally Kilpatrick said...

Thanks for the perspective, Ana. I was just weighing my options for entering the now delayed Spring into Romance contest. Maybe I'll screw my courage to the sticking place and enter it after all!

Tamara, you're on the money about the first reaction is to be defensive. I've watched others do it; I even watched myself do it, helpless to stop myself. Oh, well.

Debbie Kaufman said...

Great minds think a like. I'm sitting in a coffee house drinking green tea, wrapped in my blankie, and writing. After all, must have something to revise :))

CiCi Barnes said...

True, true, true. Thanks for saying what we need to hear in a light-hearted manner. It makes it easier to get back to the drawing, er, writing board.

Words of wisdom to go in my growing file practical information. Thanks, Ana

J Perry Stone said...

I had a friend who ruined her first book because she utilized EVERY suggestion from every critique given to her. She ended up with some bastardized concoctions that made her seriously doubt her abilities.

Had she read your post, Ana, she might still be working on that WIP.

And thanks for reminding me about the thank you note. I almost forgot.


Stephanie J said...

Debbie, I'm so glad you used green! When I was in the 6th grade I asked my English teacher to look at a piece of non-school writing and offer her opinion. It was a short story and came back covered in red ink with barely a positive comment to be seen. I'm now in my 20s and I still have a hard time letting others critique my work... ridiculous I know but green might have helped! :)

Still, this is great advise for anyone receiving a critique, not just from a contest. It's very easy to take every little item mentioned on a personal level but sometimes we need a critique reality check.

Anna Steffl said...

What a terrific sense of humor you have! Ya know, misery loves company, so there is comfort in knowing others pour a glass of wine after reading a critique.

The funny thing is, before long, we are ALL going to be the people doing the critiques.

Tammy Schubert said...

This is a very timely post.

I'm guilty of using the red pen. In my defense, I use it so that I can see the changes without having to hunt for them. Based on all this feedback, I'll be switching to a green pen. Thanks for the tip everyone.

Susan May said...

As a recipient. just the other day, of a not always kind contest critique I needed to be reminded that even though things don't always go my way, I can learn something. I'm working on my thank you notes--they will be some of my best and most gracious of notes.My mother taught me to always be nice. I do appreciate the time required to do a critique.

Ana Aragón said...

Thanks guys, for your comments...I've been at school all day trying to ready my little charges for their CRCT tests...not my favorite thing to do.

Every time I get a critique back I remind myself that this is only one person's opinion...important, of course, because they are a reader. But there are writers much better than I who get slammed by reviewers every day.

My dream is to be one of them...and soon!

Thanks for stopping by...!


Dianna Love said...

Ana - Wonderful perspective and advice on getting any critique, but especially one from a contest where the person can't discuss the points. I've had editors want changes that made sense and some that didn't so I discussed it with them to explain the point in a scene. Then the editor would say, "Oh, I see, well in that case don't do what I told you, do this."

Great advice about sending thank you notes. I was in a LOT of contests before I sold and wrote a note to every judge. To this day, I still have people come up to tell me they judged my pages as an unpublished writer and remembered me, still have the note I wrote. That makes both of us feel good.

BTW - I won't be back until next week again. I'm back up with business stuff. see you then. :)

Ana Aragón said...


That's been my experience as well. I know that when I first began entering contests, I'd go in and make changes, and the very next contest I entered suggested I change what I had changed in the first place!

After working with three different editors, I found that they might make suggestions, but it was still my story and I needed to "fix" it--and not necessarily how they suggested. That's why you have to back off, calm down, and wait until you're "ready" to hear the message.

Thanks for stopping by and have fun with work!


Tami Brothers said...

Hey Guys... Awesome post, Ana. Like all have said above, just what I needed today as I gaze (have to quit using that word!!!) at my pile of red stained papers. I was working on my last ms using the tips and techniques I got from Margie Lawson's Deep Editing workshop.

Even knowing I had a plan, those red slashes just hit you wrong every time you look at them.

My fav color is green, too!!! Half my house is painted green. I think I could handle looking at that color splashed all over my papers....grin...

Thanks for this very timely post!!!


EC Spurlock said...

Excellent post, Ana!

I've had my share of red-stained pages in my day. One of my critiquers used a sparkly purple gel pen, which made her comments go down much easier! Sort of like getting critiqued by a fairy godmother. (she made some good points, too!)

Because my stories tend to mix genres, it's not unusual for some readers to not see where I'm going with them. I've learned to recognize those who "get it" from those who don't. My general rule of thumb is, if one person comments on a particular point, take it with a grain of salt; but if two or more people comment on the same thing, then it's time to take a serious look at revision. This is not to say that I haven't had excellent advice from a single judge that spotted something nobody else did, though. I guess it's a matter of knowing your own style and voice well enough to recognize when someone understands where you're coming from and wants to help you refine, and when someone is just trying to make your story fit into the formula that they are familiar and comfortable with, whether or not it's right for you.

Ana Aragón said...


Trust me, it never gets easy. I had one manuscript from an editor that I swore the track changes comments had a higher word count than my manuscript!


Thanks for your supportive comments. Looking back, I now value the experience I gained from entering those contests early in my writing career. One, it toughened me up for the editor/author "exchange of ideas" in the midst of an edit. By the time I got to that point, I already knew my voice and wasn't so quick on the trigger to put my foot down, or capitulate, either.

It's a give and take process. You put the best you have to offer on the table. If it doesn't work for the reader, or is confusing, you want to know. If she has some ideas on how it might work for her, you want to hear her out. But in the end, it's your story, with your name on the cover. Better to negotiate changes that fit your voice, than to give in and have readers wondering, "Where did that come from?"

Mary Marvella said...

Excellent advice, Anna and all the rest of you. I learned to wait to decide which suggestions I can use and which ones I can't.

Carol Burnside said...

It's very hard for a writer to get past the feeling their baby has just been kicked when they get a comprehensive critique.Good post and excellent advice!