Please don’t tell me it’s wonderful

A bit more about workshops and critiqueing here.

There is a lot of talk about reviewers, and what an ideal review should be like. Some people say ‘don’t say anything if you can’t say anything nice’, some people advocate the ‘sandwich method’, in which you put a ‘negative’ comment between two positives.

Personally, I think that is all very well for people who just start out on the crit group circuit, writers who are still feeling their way ahead, who want to be encouraged as much as critted.

There comes a time, though, that the more serious writer will feel like saying ‘just give it to me straight and cut the waffle’.

Ultimately, I think the most damaging critique you can receive in a crit group is one which says the submission is wonderful.

It lulls the writer into a false bubble of comfort, that the story is perfect, that you could never improve it, that every reader is going to like it.

Well, that only sets you up for disappointment.

A thorough crit from a very critical reviewer gives you a valuable window into how another reader experiences the story. The reviewer may something you don’t agree with, but how did the reviewer come to that conclusion? Is the basis for the reviewer’s reaction some point in your story where you neglected to mention something, or did mention something to give the reviewer this idea?

I’ll use a couple of the less-illustrious comments I’ve received as examples. More about them below:

A reviewer said: These are not sentences. This is a problem throughout the submission.
My first reaction: what an idiot. Has he never heard of sentence fragments as stylistic feature in action scenes?
My reaction later: Maybe I’ve used too many fragments.

A reviewer said (free interpretation): the setup in this story suggests that these people were direct descendants of Adam and Eve, but that doesn’t make sense in relation of what happens in this story
My first reaction: [insert on cue swear words]. What sort of cloud is this person living on? I’m an atheist, and there are no religious references in this story. This person is crazy.
Reaction much later, after much mulling: OK, I think I assumed too much of my own mindset, and I need to add some detail to steer readers towards my vision of this world. If the reviewer thought all this, I’ve obviously failed to communicate some worldbuilding.

The point is that no matter how crazy you think a comment is, it’s always made in reaction to something you’ve written, and if a reviewer gives a crazy interpretation, you’ve failed somewhere in your writing, at least for that person. You might also look through your other reviewers’ reports and find the same comment hidden between the lines.

When someone makes a comment on your writing, there are some points to consider:

1. Do you think they have a point? Don’t let anger cloud the response to your reply here.
2. If you think they have a point, does it matter?
3. Do you think you should/can do something about it?

Now you have read all the reviews and you’re considering all the comments, but you still haven’t changed a thing in your story. Here are some more points:

1. Never change anything on the say-so of one reviewer unless it’s a typo or he/she holds a paycheque.
2. A reviewer’s comment is a reaction, a suggestion, but never an order.
3. A reviewer’s comment should make you think (the best ones make you think for days).
4. Nothing is ever set in concrete.
5. If your chosen approach doesn’t work, why not try one of the more outlandish reviewers’ suggestions?
6. Ultimately, a story is yours, and anything you change should be your work.
7. Any stubbornness is your, too.

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12 comments on “Please don’t tell me it’s wonderful

  1. Good points. One rule of thumb I go by is to follow a suggestion if multiple people give it, but if it’s just one person, then I’ll only follow it if I agree.

    • I think that is always a good way to go about it. I tend to think of reviewers’ comments in terms of whether or not they make me think about the story, and whether I agree or disagree with them is much less important.

  2. Fabulous article. Simply fabulous. This is probably the best, clearest statement of critique theory that I’ve ever read. I agree 100% with everything you’ve said, only you’ve said it better than I likely would have

    I’m bookmarking this and sending it to all my clients. Too many of them don’t understand the simple principle that they don’t get to stand over the reader’s shoulder and explain what they meant by everything.

    If my readers don’t get it, it means I haven’t written it well enough. The reader’s comment may or may not be an accurate analysis of the underlying problem in the writing, but it is at least direct evidence that I have a problem to go solve. As the writer, that’s my job.

    You’ve done a great job explaining that here. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: Yes, yes! Give it to me! Don’t hold back! Hurt me! « Not Enough Words

  4. Completely great article, Patty. Like others, I always wait to hear the same comment from more than one critter. But if a few people have the same problem, I’d better look at it!

    Now, I agree with Jason’s comment. BUT – we can’t be responsible for every reader. And sometimes, even with critiquers, I realize that this reader just doesn’t GET IT. It has nothing to do with the writing. I’m sure that will happen to any book that’s out there in public spaces.

    The trick is figuring out which comments are valid, and which need to be let go…

  5. Wow, great post! I’m often thinking around the same lines too, I just hadn’t expressed it this well, I’m afraid.

    One more way to respond to crits (often happens to me):
    Crit: Your plot structure is off, a plot should go like this: [insert scheme here]
    Initial reaction: And if I forced my story in your garbage scheme, that would make it more interesting for you?
    After a day or two: All right, all right. Let’s review all the elements of this story and see where I let myself go easy. The plot itself is cool, but I spoiled it with weak writing; and the reader is pissed off because he didn’t feel that untangling it was worth the effort.

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