The 5 Commandments — How To Digest and Utilize Constructive Criticism
Even the thickest-skinned writer will admit that criticism isn’t always easy to take in good spirits. For the newbies, it can be a soul-tearing, heartbreaking process that leaves you questioning why you ever picked up a pen.
Even the thickest-skinned writer will admit that criticism isn’t always easy to take in good spirits. For the newbies, it can be a soul-tearing, heartbreaking process that leaves you questioning why you ever picked up a pen. For the more seasoned, it can be a humbling, frustrating reminder that—despite how long you’ve been at this—you’ve still got a lot to learn. As neither a newbie nor a seasoned writer, I find myself in the happy middle valley of these two mountains and have learned, over a few years, how to ask for, digest, and use criticisms of my work to improve the piece and, more largely, my writing. These are my “5 Commandments” of the critique process.
COMMANDMENT I: THOU SHALL ONLY USETH AN ODD NUMBER OF CRITTERS
I fervently advocate using an odd number of beta readers/critters to review your work whenever possible to ensure that you always have a majority (no ties).
COMMANDMENT II: THOU SHALL LISTEN TO THE MAJORITY, FOR BETTER OR WORSE
Speaking of that aforementioned majority—while they’re not always right, most of the time when a lot of people say the same thing after reading your work, they’re usually onto something that’s worth heeding. If, for example, 5 out of 7 trusted critters like story’s pacing, but two tell you it’s too fast/slow, chances are your pacing is okay and the two naysayers simply have a different reading preference. Conversely, if the majority of critters find a plot point implausible but one person loves it, you can’t latch on to that one favorable critique for validation (no matter how much you love them for loving your work).
COMMANDMENT III: THOU SHALL NOT IMMEDIATELY EDIT AFTER A REVIEW
Here on CC, you have usually one full week for other members to critique your work. If you’ve submitted something for review before, you know that it can be tempting to begin adapting your manuscript with changes the minute you get one or two really good crits back. But it’s much more efficient to resist this temptation and wait until the full review period is over and look at all critiques collectively. Digest the comments over a day or so, and then decide what changes you’ve decided to apply to your work. It might even be good to keep an original draft for future reference.This method is not is only more time-effective, but less tedious than consulting back and forth between an ever-changing draft.
COMMANDMENT IV: THOU SHALL USE CRITTERS (MOSTLY) WITHIN THY TARGET AUDIENCE
Is your juicy Mediterranean-set Romance novella ideally written for female readers in their mid-thirties who love Nicholas Sparks? Mm, yeah, maybe the twelve-year-old boy up to his ears in Sci-Fi sagas isn’t the best person to crit your work. While there is undeniable merit in having the occasional “outlier” critique at your work, you’ll get the most authentic reactions when you are critted by people who enjoy/prefer your style and genre of writing. That said, anyone who's willing to read your work is an extra set of eyes, so it can't hurt to let them read too!
COMMANDMENT V: THOU SHALL NOT CATER TO EVERY MORTAL’S WHIM
Criticism is an intrinsic part of the writing process, but always remember that your work is yours. There will always be someone who absolutely, inexplicably hates what you write and the way you write it. You will want to summon gods of doom to destroy this person’s souls and future lineage, but don’t. It’s okay. Understand and accept that most literature isn’t meant to be universally-loved. That said, while it’s important to know how to accept constructive criticism, you have to draw line. Don’t try to cater to every whim and appease every single person who crits your work. Doing this will not only ruin your story, but it will drive you insane and leave you perpetually unsatisfied.
*Disclaimer: These “commandments” are what have worked best for me. I fully acknowledge that some may not work for everyone, and that there are about fifteen billion more rules out there, but in the hopes of being concise, these are my most important. I hope they’re helpful!
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