Gaining Some Perspective on Criticism

15 Nov

by Susan Dennard


We talk a lot about the importance of giving critiques, the soothing of one’s ego in criticism, the why and the what of finding crit-readers. I have to points to add — two idioms tailored to the Writing Critique World.

1) Too much criticism can spoil the broth.

So, let’s say you’ve been writing a while — months, years, centuries – and you follow the age-old advice: “Get feedback and lots of it.”

You share your manuscript with 4 people, then 6, then 8, then 25. You want to make sure you have the best possible novel before you try to find an agent/editor.

Good for you. That’s the best attitude to have. Like milk, criticism does a manuscript good. Like weight-lifting, criticism helps us find our weak points and fix them.

But, like analogies, criticism should be taken in moderation.

A friend of mine recently critted a paper, and she had this to say: “It’s clear that this writer has done a lot of work on it, and that she knows enough about the craft, but she has had too many people crit her book. It’s hard to find her voice because I can see the effect of so many others changing her MS along the way.”

Too much criticism can be the death of your novel, just as too many cooks can spoil the broth. It is ultimately YOUR story, and if you try to take in too many perspectives on YOUR story, you’ll lose sight of what you were creating. You’ll end up with a Frankenstein-novel built from the feedback and tweaking of others.

While I fully support finding beta readers or crit partners, be careful about how many you work with. I also support crit groups like the OWW or Critique Circle, but again, be careful about how many people’s feedback you take to heart. Honestly, you can’t please everyone, so be sure to evaluate criticism critically and choose whose advice you do want to follow.

And that leads to idiom #2.

2) All criticism should be taken with a grain – nay, a handful of salt.

A story to illustrate: In August, I entered the first 30 pages of my novel (The Spirit-Hunters) into an RWA contest, hoping to gain valuable feedback from professionals.  At the end of October on the very same weekend I signed with NCLit, I got the contest results – and you know what?

I got DEAD LAST. Out of ~20 contestants in the YA category, I was LAST FREAKING PLACE. Now, I’ll admit the pages were different from what the pages I submitted to agents – but only in terms of a few story events. Not in terms of voice or character.

And those were the aspects I got smashed on. They hated my main character – too introspective. Not logical. Deserves what she gets. They hated the voice – felt forced. Not accessible to modern readers.

Ouch, right? Even though I’d had so much agent success during the two weeks prior to getting these results, coming in last place really stung. And even though I knew I had written a good novel, the judge’s criticism made me want to curl into the fetal position and groan like a zombie.

Had I received this feedback two weeks earlier – before I started querying – I would have been CRUSHED. Devastated. I would have done nothing but eat ice cream and cry. I probably would have given up on The Spirit-Hunters, in hopes that I could write a better novel with less FAIL in it.

But thank the merciful heavens I received the contest results after taking the plunge into the querying world. Thank heavens I was able to apply some much needed perspective to those contest results. Otherwise, I would not be on submission to publishers right now. I would be belting “All By Myself” à la Bridget Jones and considering going back to freelance statistics (bleh!).

Perspective Gained:

  • Because of the timing, I was able to see that maybe the judges weren’t qualified to judge my novel. They were first and foremost romance novelists, which is a very different genre from YA. Additionally, none of them were published writers or represented by agents (which I thought they would be when I first entered the contest).  This doesn’t make their judgement wrong, but it’s something to consider.
  • What they didn’t like in my novel (the main character or the voice) was their own personal opinion. The main character and the voice were also what attracted several agents to make offers of rep. And think about it: how many books do you love but your friends hate? Different strokes for different folks.

Moral of the Story:

  • You need to be really careful when choosing with whom you share your novels. You want feedback that makes sense to you. It should fit:
    • your writing style (ex: my style is quirky YA)
    • your writing goals (ex: my goal is a career in commercial publication)
    • your writing skill (ex: someone who is at the same stage or further along in the path).

It took me a while to find crit readers I trust – I started with too many and found readers from every place imaginable.  I was constantly adjusting my novels according to the newest feedback rolling in.  It was exhausting, and I lost touch with the stories I’d originally set out to tell.

Now I have two crit-readers plus my agents. I’ll let other people read my novels, but when it comes to feedback, I’m only willing to rely on the people whose advice I know matches what I need. And, perhaps most important of all, the people who trust and can use my feedback in their own novels.

How about you — critique horror stories?  Feedback you shouldn’t have trusted or regret following?  Or, do you have any criticism-perspective of your own to share?


Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her manuscript is currently on submission to publishers. You can learn more about her writing process, crazy life-thoughts, and crippling cookie-addiction on her blog or twitter.


32 Responses to “Gaining Some Perspective on Criticism”

  1. Julie Eshbaugh November 15, 2010 at 1:04 AM #

    Susan! This is such wonderful advice!!! Recently I’ve received advice from several sources that – like your contest feedback compared to your agent feedback – stand in direct contradiction to one another. I think your advice to think about “how many books do you love but your friends hate?” is DEAD ON! Several of my readers don’t regularly read the genre my book fits into. Others devour every SF/F romance that hits the shelves. It’s easy to see why opinions will differ.
    I am so happy for all the writers currently querying who will read this post and receive the value of your wisdom. GREAT QUOTE: “Honestly, you can’t please everyone, so be sure to evaluate criticism critically and choose whose advice you do want to follow.” I think every writer querying or out on submission to publishers should have that line tacked to the wall above their workspace. Bravo on a terrific post! 🙂

    • Susan November 15, 2010 at 3:12 AM #

      I’m so glad you could use this, Julie. Criticism always sucks, no matter how “pro” you are at handling it. But, to use criticism well, you’ve really got to learn to separate your head from your heart… So much easier said than done!

  2. Ellen November 15, 2010 at 1:14 AM #

    I don’t have a critique horror story, more like a critique opinion.

    My first critique partner made a couple comments about stuff it didn’t seem like my characters would do. I never told him that my biggest pet peeve was people who aren’t qualified acting like they know my characters better than I do.

    I know there are moments that scream as ‘out of character,’ but when it’s little things that are choices unique to the character, I don’t see it as anyone’s place to tell me what the problem is.

    Just my personal opinion.

    Really excellent blog post though. I had to figure this out the hard way by starting at a critique group through my college that gave me a lot of good advice, but also wasn’t terribly cut out to critique whole novels. Still, it was an interesting learning experience.

    • sdennard November 15, 2010 at 3:20 AM #

      Hmmm… I’m not sure I have a pet peeve for criticism (except maybe my own reaction of inadequacy!). In fact, character inconsistencies is totally one of my biggest weak points! I’ve worked really hard on improving/removing out-of-character actions in my writing — and so I take reader comments on that very seriously!!

      On the flip side, though, I can see where that would be annoying if it’s not something you consider a problem.

      Take it with a grain of salt, right? 🙂

  3. Lindsay November 15, 2010 at 1:31 AM #

    Susan, loved the article today.

    Feedback really can be a double edged sword. Mostly I prefer it when someone can show me something about my books that I hadn’t noticed before. In one I had a really challenging set of characters and when I asked for people’s feedback they were too afraid of hurting my feelings. Finally my best friend (a very blunt woman) told me that she hated the sister in the book. This might not have been a problem except that my next novel was going to be a sequel with the sister! I’d wanted her to be at odds with the main character but not to come off as evil. I went back in, smoothed out the edges and was better able to show the humanity without trading some of the ‘spunk’ that often gets her in trouble with her family. That one ‘rude’ comment from my friend strengthened my book. Now she is permanently on my list of good critiques because she knows how I value her honesty. That said, I did not take her advice on a few others things. You have to be able to weed out what will help your book and what will hurt it.

    • sdennard November 15, 2010 at 3:22 AM #

      I’m glad you found honest feedback! And, even better, I’m glad you could sort out which comments to take and which to leave.

      Double-edged sword exactly — great analogy!!

  4. katharine November 15, 2010 at 9:00 AM #

    Great post Susan– very true. I am still so new to the critique process. I just sent my MS to three readers, and I’m looking forward to the results. They are people who, based on their blogs, I know have the chops to give some writer-ly feedback.
    I have had a small section critique in the past where the person rewrote the “voice” for me, into someone I didn’t recognize. It was frustrating!

    • sdennard November 15, 2010 at 9:10 AM #

      Oi — that must be frustrating. No one can write *your* voice for you. That pretty much defeats the entire concept of voice! 🙂 I hope you could at least glean some helpful feedback, though.

      Good luck with your MS-crits. I hope the criticism is constructive and not painful… (Though it always stings a little, ya know?)

  5. Rowenna November 15, 2010 at 9:17 AM #

    Great post–especially about weighing criticism carefully and remembering that you can’t please everyone–no novel’s audience is “everybody.” I’ve definitely gotten some off-the-mark criticisms–but I try to remember that even when the “diagnosis” or “prescription” is wrong, maybe I can still ferret out something that needs improvement.

    While I was posting a WIP on critiquecircle for feedback, I wrote a blog post on some of the “usual suspects” that I found myself needing extra grains of salt for: Of course, I also wrote it to remind myself of the ways in which one can stray when critiquing others–no one’s a perfect critiquer!

    • sdennard November 15, 2010 at 9:23 AM #

      Thanks for the link, Rowena! Your post is a pretty good rep of the various critters — I know I fall into a few of those categories. 🙂

      And you’re right: no one is a perfect critter.

  6. Holly November 15, 2010 at 10:02 AM #

    Great advice, Susan! It’s definitely important that you choose what feedback you take carefully.

    • sdennard November 15, 2010 at 11:57 AM #

      🙂 And I hope you like mine, Crit-Buddy-Extraordinaire!

  7. Maj November 15, 2010 at 11:51 AM #

    I know what you mean about receiving so much critique you lose touch of the story. I had that experience with my first novel. I tried to incorporate any and every feed back that I got (and now after 4 rewrites) I have completely lost the voice of the MC and honestly have no idea how to get it back. I put it aside for now It was a hard lesson but I learned to filter critique, decide which I agree with or what improves my story that I hadn’t considered.

    • sdennard November 15, 2010 at 11:58 AM #

      I hate to hear that you lost your MC’s voice. 😦 But I’m glad to hear you figured it out!! And I think you’re taking the best approach — set it aside for now.

      Good luck with it, Maj!

      • Brenda November 15, 2010 at 1:44 PM #

        absolutley fabulous post! I feel every writer should read this!

        • sdennard November 15, 2010 at 2:54 PM #

          Thanks, Brenda!! I’m glad you found it helpful. 🙂

  8. D'Ann Linscott-Dunham November 15, 2010 at 2:16 PM #

    I think there should be a balance. I have a lot of CPs and for a lot of different reasons. I’ve been writing long enough that I generally can separate the good, bad and ugly from the useful.

    • sdennard November 15, 2010 at 2:55 PM #

      That’s something I’m still getting a handle on D’Ann, but I’m getting much better at identifying what I need — so now I know when and when *not* to solicit criticism.

  9. martha ramirez November 15, 2010 at 2:21 PM #

    This was an excellent reminder! Thanks so much for posting!!

    • sdennard November 15, 2010 at 2:56 PM #

      You’re very welcome, Martha! I’m glad you found it helpful. 🙂

  10. Vanessa Di Gregorio November 15, 2010 at 3:10 PM #

    This was such a great post, Sooz!!! 😀

    • Susan November 16, 2010 at 4:37 AM #

      Thanks, Vanessa!! 😀

  11. C. Lee McKenzie November 15, 2010 at 4:43 PM #

    Yep. I agree with what you’ve said here. It’s vital to a writer to find the right readers and it’s equally as vital for that writer to know how to take the comments and make them work for his or her style. This last part is tricky.

    • Susan November 16, 2010 at 4:38 AM #

      That last part *is* tricky, C. Making a crit work for you can be hard (even if you have a great crit partner) because it takes some internal/emotional adjustments to be able to it. Internal tweaking is always tricky. 😉

  12. tymcon November 15, 2010 at 5:21 PM #

    Yeah critiscm is kind of like water. You can’t live without it, your manuscript will start to be shunned because of its odour without it and its voice will swell and crack.
    But you can drown in too much water, and 2 gallons in under two hours will kill it.

    And some people get a bit spiteful when you gave them critiscm (shrugs) I’m probably one of them.

    • Susan November 16, 2010 at 4:39 AM #

      Hahaha — great metaphor!

      “shunned because of its odour” –> that would be my first novel. 😀

  13. Judy November 15, 2010 at 8:26 PM #

    I enjoyed your post on criticism!
    I remember getting my first critique and it was like being punched in the gut.
    But you also point out that you can’t please everyone, which I think is very important. A great reminder for us to make our own decisions and to decide what suggestions to keep and what suggestions to toss.

    • Susan November 16, 2010 at 4:40 AM #

      Punched in the gut is right, Judy. Even if you’re used to criticism, it stings when you find out someone didn’t “like” something about your work.

      I’m still working on toughening up my skin. 🙂

  14. LM Preston November 16, 2010 at 4:59 PM #

    Oh, I so love this post!!!! You hit the nail on the head. I’ve seen this happen to too many writers and its sad. Especially on boards. Heck, it’s happened to me too! When I do critique’s I always caution the author to take what I say with a grain of salt and weigh it against others before making sweeping changes. Thanks for the insight.

    • Susan November 18, 2010 at 6:38 AM #

      Good advice, LM. And so true! Definitely weigh criticism before making changes! Some of us learn this the hard way, but better late than never.


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