The Art of the Critique


by Terri J. Huck and Meredith Maslich

The art of receiving—and giving—feedback is a topic we feel passionate about because it is so integral to the process of becoming a published author. It’s not a step you can skip, but it causes a lot of turmoil for a lot of writers.

That’s why we appreciated the chance to discuss the topic with Erinrae Daniels during “A Kind Voice on Books” podcast. Unfortunately, due to technical problems with the recording, we won’t be able to share the podcast, but we did want to give you some highlights of our discussion. We also did a mini-critique of a short story by Meredith; see below for her thoughts on that process.

It’s important to get feedback on your writing because readers see things you didn’t or miss other things altogether. A good critique gives you a chance to find out whether what’s in your head made it to the page because it’s so easy to lose that objectivity when you’ve spent weeks, months or years working on a project.

The best critiques help you address big-picture concerns you might be struggling with, such as character and motivation, the central conflict, pacing, and structure. The right kind of critique will leave you excited about the possibilities and eager to tackle revisions.

When it comes to finding people who can give you good feedback, look for writers or readers who get what you’re trying to do and will root for you but who have no vested interest in soothing your feelings. So NOT your mom, spouse, or best friend.

That’s why we usually point writers to workshops (where you can also form writer’s groups). And all our great communications technology makes it easier than ever to connect with writers across the country—or the world.

To make the most of feedback:

  • Put your emotions on hold. It’s about the work, not you as a person. Take a step back and try to be as dispassionate as possible when your work is being critiqued.
  • Listen for consensus. Don’t get hung up on one person’s outlier criticism (unless it strikes a chord with you). Instead, hone in on the stuff that seems problematic for most readers.
  • Be open-minded! You don’t have to do everything people suggest, but considering options and rejecting them help you sharpen your focus.
  • Pay attention to praise. It’s easy to get hung up on the negatives, but you should give yourself credit for what you did well. Understanding your strengths and weaknesses as a writer is part of the process, too.
  • Express gratitude to the people who took the time to read and thoughtfully respond to your work. When you honor the process, it helps you keep things in perspective.

Meredith’s thoughts on being critiqued:

I volunteered to be the subject of a critique because I’ve been through so many writers groups and classes and critiques in various formats that I knew I could control/compartmentalize my emotions enough to be a good example of how to receive feedback. So I pulled out a short story I wrote eons ago, in another life—before I started teaching (and studying) the art of storytelling and before I viewed writing as a central aspect of my life, which means I wasn’t very experienced. And, man, did it show when I went back over this story!

I’d written the story for an online writing class, and I had workshopped and revised it several times during the class and occasionally in the years immediately after, so I figured it was solid enough to give Terri something to work with (structure, polished prose, developed characters), but at the same time I knew it didn’t totally “work” (although I didn’t know why it didn’t work), so Terri would have something to give critical feedback about.

What I didn’t expect was the feeling of relief as Terri started to zero in on the deficiencies in the story. I’d forgotten how nice it can feel to have someone with a fresh perspective get down into the weeds of your story next to you—your story that you’ve been living with alone for weeks or months or, in my case, years—and join you in the journey toward a finished, quality product.

Terri laid me flat with her first question: “What is your story about?” As soon as I opened my mouth to answer, two light bulbs immediately went off in my head: 1) I had no idea what it was about, in a central, one-sentence kind of way and 2) that was exactly why the story still didn’t work. That’s when the relief flooded in and I remembered that sometimes critiques can be delightfully helpful.

But the next emotion wasn’t as positive. I was hit with a wave of embarrassment. What was my story about? How could I not answer that question? How could I not have asked myself that question at some point during the six-plus years since I’d written the story?

The answer is that I use a disciplined approach to reviewing other people’s work, but I forgot to apply it to my own. I had a strong urge to stop the show, hang up the phone, quickly fix this obvious issue with my story, then start again and say, “Just kidding! Here’s my real story, and I totally know what it’s about.”

But of course I couldn’t do that, so I reminded myself that there wasn’t anything to be embarrassed about. Terri wasn’t judging me, and she wasn’t trying to embarrass me or prove how smart she was. She was asking me an incredibly helpful and professional question in an effort to help me improve my story as I had asked her to do. That’s a key point to keep in mind: When you are receiving feedback, remember that you asked for it (and if you didn’t, then you don’t have to listen to it). I reminded myself that completing this process with Terri was going to yield me a stronger story, one that could actually see the light of day after all this time. So I took a deep breath and stayed focused on the end goal: a high-quality, publishable story.

Overall, my excitement at solving problems that have long plagued me with this story helped keep any more feelings of embarrassment or defensiveness at bay. Staying focused on the end goal is the best strategy I can recommend for surviving critical feedback.

The other key element of the process is having a level of trust with the person giving feedback. I’ve worked with Terri for a few years, and I know that we’re usually on the same page creatively and that she gives good, objective feedback. If I were getting feedback from someone with whom I hadn’t yet established that level of trust, it would have been harder for me to control my emotions and be as open to the feedback as I was. Which is why we recommend joining an ongoing writers group because it allows you to create connections and build trust with the people who will be giving you feedback, which will make it a more productive and pleasant process.

(And by the way, I’m revising the story to be included in our 2016 anthology, which will be published in November!)

Meredith Maslich is president and CEO of Possibilities Publishing Company. She is also on the faculty at Story District (formerly SpeakeasyDC), where she has been teaching the art of storytelling for more than eight years.

Terri J. Huck is an editor and managing partner at Possibilities Publishing Company. She blogs about researching and writing historical fiction at TheSmellOfGunsmoke.com. You can also find her on Twitter: @TJHuck.

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