If you’re looking for information on how to respond to being critiqued, either online or in person, read this.
Many people ask what they should do with the critiques they’ve received.
This may sound like a silly question, but it’s not. The average novel is about 80,000 words long, which is approximately 300 pages.* If you have 3 crit partners and you give them your novel in 3000 word chunks, you’re going to end up with approximately 80 critiques. If these are developmental, it’s not too bad to collate the information, but if they’re line editing critiques you’re going to be buried under word choice suggestions.
This is how I handle critique suggestions.
The crits I receive are mostly developmental, with a few reader responses and some word choice stuff as it pertains to clarifying plot and character development. I strictly tell people to avoid doing line editing or copy editing critiques, though I’ve handled those too in two of the short stories I’ve published.
I don’t have my whole novel written before I start sending chunks out for critique. In fact, I usually don’t have more than a 6000 word ‘pad’ (and sometimes not even that). When my critique partners give me critiques, the first thing I do is thank them. On Scribophile, that means leaving a brief “thank you” on their profiles’ walls and clicking some adjective markers at the bottom, such as “like.” Please thank your crit partners. To fail to do so is rude.
Next, I carefully read and consider each critique. Sometimes I’m elated. Sometimes I’m offended, irritated, or angry. I sit with those emotions and I try my hardest not to respond to them. I trust my crit partners to have my absolute best interests at heart. They’re telling me the truth. If they lied to me to spare my feelings, Amazon reviewers would pan my books, they wouldn’t sell, and my career would be over quite quickly. I’ve been with my crit partners for years, so I know I can trust them.
If you’re just starting out, it can be hard to trust your partners, but really think: is this person trying to help me? Or is he just being an ass? If your crit partner says anything like “you should probably take a grammar class” (which I said at the very beginning of my critiquing career and still cringe about to this day), then that person is an asshole and you can throw out their commentary. If they talk about you instead of your writing, throw out their commentary. No good crit partner will say things like “you should stop writing until you learn better mechanics.” (I saw that happen to someone else.)
That said, if your crit partner says something like, “I’m finding it hard to root for your main character. I’m not sure I like her and I don’t want to read about her any more” (paraphrased criticism I received), your partner is not being a bad crit partner or an asshole. They are telling you the truth as they see it. They are trying to help you. Have your cry–mine lasted about 4 months–and then get back on the horse and work on your story. Critiques like that will eventually make you a better writer, if you don’t quit first. (Please don’t quit. Everyone can develop their skill and become better.)
In regards to processing developmental edits, I’d strongly suggest stopping writing at your various plot points (roughly 8 per book; see my article on story structure) or at the end of each quarter. Look at what your critique partners have said. Unless you have written the whole WIP already, there is no point in continuing to write if your work is fundamentally flawed. It’s like continuing to drive the car after the tire goes flat. Go back and fix the problem, rewrite the section if necessary, and keep going. If you don’t know how to fix the problem, research the solution. I think I still have an (out of date) section on craft book reviews here on this website that could be helpful there. (NOTE: This is my opinion. Many people will tell you to just keep writing and fix it later. Try my advice and try their advice and see what works best for you.)
If your critique partners have found minor flaws, don’t correct them. Keep going, and apply those corrections after your entire WIP is complete. This will keep you from endlessly tinkering with Act 1 and never finishing your WIP.
If your critique partners have identified an issue that might affect the next act or section of your book, brainstorm ways to fix it and apply those corrections when you write that section.
If your critique partners are upset or confused about something, think about what it is. Sometimes you want them to be upset or confused. Sometimes you want them to, as readers, ask those questions. For example, in my WIP, my main character’s boss has given her an order she doesn’t understand or agree with. None of my critique partners understood or agreed with the order, either. They thought I’d put in the order to deus ex machina the beginning of the story. However, the order is supposed to be something that raises red flags for my main character, and the reason the order was given is due to a long-term subplot in the series. No one is going to understand the order until Book 4, and I’m currently working on Book 2. So I nod and let that one go.
So what do you do to manage line edit critiques? What do you do with the thirty billion word choice suggestions?
This is what I did when I applied my editor’s suggestions when I edited my 30 page published short story Sacrifice. First I made a copy of my file and I labeled it with the title and “edits.” Always make a copy if you’re working in Google Docs or Word. (In Scrivener, first take a snapshot.)
Next I went through each critique and hand-copied it into the new story file. If more than one critiquer had the same critique, I would make a mark like “x2” or “x3” to indicate how many people had the problem. The more people who have the problem, the more important it is to fix.
If more than 20% of your critique partners have a problem with something, you should really fix it. Even if you love it. You’re not going to buy your books, so what does it matter that you love it? They (your readers, your potential market) have to love it, and the more critique partners have a problem, the more readers will too. Do you really want to alienate, say, 40% of your possible readership? That’s a lot of money to throw away. It could be the difference between writing as a career, which is mostly only possible for the rich and folks who make the NYT Bestseller list with 80% of the books they write, and writing as a hobby.**
If you want to continue on this line of argument, read point 3 of this article.
After I copied over all the comments, no matter how silly they were (and I thought plenty of them were silly and a few were just plain wrong), I gave deep and careful thought to each comment that wasn’t obviously something they were right about and I needed to fix. I overcame any negative knee-jerk reaction to their comments because I wanted to be published more than I wanted to be right.
In almost every single instance, my critique partners and/or editor were right, or at least not wrong. This is because they weren’t emotionally invested in my work, so they could evaluate it objectively. I feel deeply about my work. I’m too close to it to objectively consider it without help, so I can’t just self-edit.
In any given manuscript you will probably disagree with your editor. Every time you disagree, think: is this something that is truly, deeply, massively, project-ending important to me to have my way? If it’s not, do it their way. You don’t want a reputation as a prima donna or someone impossible to work with. There may be 1-2 things per manuscript that you must have your way despite what the editor says. Write out a 1-2 paragraph justification for each and send that to your editor. There’s usually a little wiggle room, but not much, so you want to save your disagreements for things that truly matter.
Making corrections takes time. It’s also boring as hell, emotionally difficult, and generally about the least fun thing you can do in writing. And then you send it in and they send it back with more corrections–copy editing stuff. They’ll correct your grammar, punctuation, and spelling, but you must apply/sign off on those corrections because it’s your work. You do those and send it back. Then they return it for proofreading. You have to proofread it to make sure it’s correct because the work represents you. Your name is on it, and it’s you who will be covered in mud if there are errors. Your editor won’t suffer (that much) if your work goes to print with errors, but readers might decide not to bother with something full of typos and punctuation issues, at which point you lose money, and it looks unprofessional, which means you lose respect. I am completely forgiving of mechanics errors in drafts and am happy to read a draft rife with such. I will put a book down if there’s more than one error in the first chapter. With even one error, I view the book with deep distrust.
By the time you’re at the proofreading stage you are so sick of the project you’d rather slit your wrists than look at it again, but it must be done. It took me 100 hours to write a 10,000 word story, apply the edits, and proof it, and most of that time was the edits and proofing. I haven’t read it since.
People who have published: if your experience varies, please let me know in the comments. This is purely my experience.
If you have the leisure to do so, I strongly recommend you do your edits on one book while you’re doing something creative with another project or you might just decide that publishing isn’t for you and quit altogether. You’ll know more about where you stand in that regard once you have a work accepted and go through the process. Alternately, have a friend you absolutely trust in terms of proofreading and who is familiar with your story help you with the proofing.
*Industry standard is 250 words to the page, even though if you opened a book and counted each word on any given physical page, it would be a different number. This is because hardback books and paperback books fit different numbers of words on their respective pages.
**Of course there are exceptions. Andy Weir made bank off his first book, The Martian. But if you read interviews by him, you’ll see he depended heavily on critiques and he changed his book to suit them. And Stephen King made the NYT Bestseller list with Carrie, his first novel, and every novel thereafter. However, he spent 10 years writing and publishing short stories first and that’s where he learned the skills he needed to do such a good job on his first novel.