Critique Mystique Part 2: How to Receive a Creative Writing Critique

Oooooh, that smarts.

The first time you receive real critical feedback on writing, or anything, can be painful. It can be painful after you’ve received hundreds of them. Thousands. Any time you are told that what you are trying to do isn’t working sucks.

It does get easier, though. Receiving feedback is a skill you must hone just like giving it. Here are my tips on how to receive creative writing critiques with your dignity intact!

Check Your Ego at the Door

Yeah, yeah. I know. Easier said than done. How do you separate yourself from this brilliantly shining piece of art–it’s ART, dammit! You’ll never understand me–that someone has just defecated upon?

Well first of all, just stop. It’s probably not that great. It’s a draft, and drafts are supposed to be crap. Even if it’s a late draft, if you are at the stage where you are soliciting creative writing critiques, you are still in draft mode. You are asking for other writers’ ideas on how to improve your writing craft. Right?

If you’re not, then you need to go back and read my initial article on what a creative writing critique actually is and how to give one. Go ahead. Click it. I’ll wait.

It was a little long, I guess…

Okay. Are you back?

So we should be in agreement now, that you never ask for a creative writing critique when what you are really looking for is someone to tell you how wonderful you are. If that’s what you want, send it to your mother. She probably won’t read it but she’ll probably still tell you she thinks you’re neato. At least, I’ve been told that’s what other people’s mother’s do. Mine tells me she doesn’t understand anything I do and wonders how she went so wrong…

Anyway.

In order to check that Ego, you have to realize one thing. It’s a big thing. Are you ready?

You Are Not Your Writing!

Do you hear that? You are not your writing, your art, your job, your hobby, your anything. You are you, and these are things you do. Sometimes you do them well, sometimes you don’t. No matter how good you are you can always get better. And no matter how good you get, you should never define yourself by the things you make and do.

Identify with the process not the product.

You are a writer, you are not your writing. So when someone says that your story isn’t working for them, you don’t have to take that personally. In fact, if you take it personally you will never get better. You will live in fear of failure and judgement, wallowing in self pity and unrealized dreams. You will stagnate, because you will never be able to show your work to anyone (except maybe your mom). And we have to show our work. Because that’s how we learn and grow and flourish and become the glittering unicorns of greatness that we were always meant to be.

Yeah, you.

When you accept that you are not your writing, it will become much easier to view it objectively. This numbs the sting of a rough critique, especially if it, too, is written objectively. Which, to be perfectly honest, it might not be.

Objective vs Subjective Feedback

Ideally, your critique partner will be skilled and experienced in delivering constructive criticism. But, of course, this will not always be the case. Delivering creative writing critiques is as much an art as the creative writing itself. Sometimes you will receive feedback from people who are still early in the learning process. And that’s okay, because we are all still learning how to receive feedback, too. We all need practice.

Practice makes PROGRESS!

How can you tell if the critique you have been given is good or bad? Good criticism is objective and focused on the actual writing rather than you as the writer. Poor critiques are subjective, confuse the writing with the writer, and are sometimes, but not necessarily, delivered in a condescending or hostile tone.

The trick is, being able to tell the difference.

Objective critiques:

  1. Focus on the facts. That means, they critique what is there on the page. Word choices, sentences structure, character’s actions, etc. They do not make assumptions about your beliefs and critique that. Ex. “Wow, Charlie is a really despicable character! Can you provide more evidence to show why he is the way he is?” vs “This is totally misogynistic and gross. What is wrong with you?”
  2. Are familiar with the genre you are writing in and aware of the expectations of that genre. Romance stories have happy endings. Mysteries have a reveal. Some things shouldn’t be messed with.
  3. Offer clear examples and actionable suggestions. These should be presented as possible ways around a problem, rather than prescriptions. “You can bring the POV in closer by eliminating some of these filter words. Consider the difference between ‘Charlie realized it was too late.’ and ‘Charlie checked his phone and groaned. He’d never make it in time.'”
  4. Never attempt to re-write your work, change your voice or style to suit the personal preferences of the critiquer.
  5. Are aware of potential biases, and disclose them within the critique. Ex. “I don’t really enjoy romances, so take this with a grain of salt…”

Subjective critiques:

  1. Are based on personal opinions, assumptions, interpretations and beliefs. To some extent, all critiques are a bit subjective. It is impossible to completely divorce yourself from your opinions and experiences. However, a good critique won’t point out a first person present narrative as a flaw just because the reader doesn’t like them.
  2. Confuse the writing with the writer. We all have to write conflict, villains, and disasters. Good stories are rife with bad things happening to our beloved characters. It is possible to write a homophobic character without being homophobic yourself. Good critiques will be able to tell the difference. HOWEVER, it is perfectly valid for someone to point out when it isn’t clear if a particular bit of nastiness belongs to a character or is an overflow of your own personal opinion. If someone points out something like this in your work, thank them profusely. It may save you a lot of negative reviews and bad press. Or identify something you need to unpack with your therapist next week. Either way, say thank you.
  3. Forget that they might not be the targeted reader. If you ever receive a creative writing critique that tries to steer your piece into a different genre, a different POV, or a different style of writing without very good reason. “Oh god, I hate vampire stories. Can’t you make Fang a werepig instead?” Flag it as a personal preference problem and move on.
  4. Assume that how they would have written your story is better. This is the worst kind of critique to get. It’s in extremely poor taste and is best ignored if for no other reason than that you will not learn if someone else does the work for you! Never mind the fact that the people who attempt to re-write other people’s work are usually the least qualified to do so.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

So, you’ve received your creative writing critique. You’ve read it. You aren’t crying anymore. Much.

What do you do now?

First of all, thank your critique partner for their time and insights. Even if you just spent the last half an hour screaming at your computer about how said critique partner is an ignorant worm who wouldn’t know quality writing if it crawled up their arsehole and died. Yes. Even then.

Why?

Because whether you liked what they had to say or not, this person took time to try to help you become a better writer. And even if they don’t know how to write a proper critique and can’t tell an opinion from a fact to save their life, you can still learn from their comments.

Yes, even poorly written crits are valuable. They still highlight potential problem areas in your piece. They still help you to identify what works and what doesn’t work. Even if all you identify is exactly who your intended audience is not.

And then…

Please Sir, Can I Have Some More?

Yup. You survived. Now, you need to do it all over again. Why? Because getting more eyes on your work is what is going to help you decide what is advice you need to heed and what you can safely ignore. If that one weird girl from the back of the class totally digs your favourite sock puppet metaphor (Yeah, I loved it) and ten other people just don’t get it… maybe you need to kill that darling.

Or, you know, accept that what you’re trying to do isn’t for everyone and be okay with that. That’s okay, too.

Whatever you do, do it on purpose.


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Is there something you’ve always wondered about the writing, editing, or critiquing process? Do you need me to clarify any of these points? Hit me with your best shot in the comments.

Want to practice your own critique writing skills? Check out my Story Laboratory! I dare ya…

11 thoughts on “Critique Mystique Part 2: How to Receive a Creative Writing Critique

  1. Okay, I *think* I’ve stopped choking in laughter. This was a really funny article. I think our mom’s are related. But anyway, excellent and very useful advice.

    1. Ha! Thanks. My mom will be here shortly to defend herself, I’m sure. She’s one of my most loyal blog followers, even if she doesn’t “get” me 😂

  2. You know if you aren’t being paid for your work as a writer you should be. This was awesome. So clear and concise but also funny and relatable. I know I joke around a lot SC but seriously this along with you actually doing critiques is some incredible work you have a gift for telling people how to improve. And I mean that in the nicest way possible. Truly awesome.

    1. You have become the ominous “someone” when commenting on my blog, for some reason 😂

      Well, I do get paid for writing. But not yet for writing about writing. And only marginally fir my fiction. (I write an editorial paper for a trucking company and the occasional article transportation and mining magazines. It’s thrilling.)

      I’m going to get some more content up, and get a more consistent posting schedule up, and maybe monetize the site in the future.

      I have considered editing services, but a writer friend who does this cautioned against it. It eats up a lot of time and energy for your own writing, and it can be easy for your brain to “normalize” seeing all the poor writing choices and make you blind to them in your own work.

      I may consider offering critiques for a small fee, particularly on flash fiction and short stories, in the future. But I’d like to have a better sample up on the site so that people will know what to expect from me. I offer it for free to the crew over at 12 Short Stories, right now, so if you want to test me out join this month’s challenge and send me a message!

    1. Thanks! I’m hoping to have a recurring feature that discusses some of these things in more detail.

  3. As a teacher of an English literature course with a large writing component, I can agree with all of this. I try to practice good feedback with my students so as not to discourage them but to help them improve. I dispair that they often don’t read my comments or take them under advisement.

    BTW, your mom sounds like a keeper. At least she reads your stuff. 😉

Hit me with your best shot...

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