Criticism – What to Keep and What to Toss

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So you’ve written a novel or book and you’re pretty excited about it, as you should be. It’s a tremendous accomplishment that takes a lot of dedication. But…now what? At some point in the creative process, one of the most important steps you can take is sharing your work with others. It’s a vulnerable thing, one that takes a great deal of thick skin, but the good news is the more you share, the thicker your skin will get. That said, if you’re looking for feedback on your work, it’s important to be able to sift through constructive criticism in order to figure out what you should actually use when editing.

But how do you figure out what advice is worth taking? Here are some tips to help you gauge that:

Evaluate the Source

When asking for reader feedback, there are many different people you can give your work to. The first way that I tend to rank the advice is by who’s giving it. Industry professionals, such as quality editors and established literary agents, tend to rank highest on my list when receiving feedback, for example. Why? Because:

  • They’re in the industry and, therefore, usually have a strong literary background.
  • They see hundreds of manuscripts a year. This puts them in a unique position to be able to evaluate work based on their experience and understanding of what does and doesn’t work in a salable manuscript.

After these industry professionals, the group of people whose opinions I value the most are the writers in my critique group. They’re all serious writers who have been working tirelessly on craft and their own manuscripts for years. When they tell me they see a problem, I tend to weigh their advice pretty heavily.

While beta readers and friends can also offer valuable advice, they usually are the least likely to influence me when it comes to changing something in my manuscript. Here’s an article on how to guide your beta readers: Get the Most From Beta Readers. But, there’s a great rule that can be used to help you figure out if you should listen to their objections about something (and it can actually be applied to criticism from anyone).

The Rule of 3’s

It’s been stated in other ways, but the rule of 3’s is basically this:

  • If one person objects/finds issue with something in your manuscript, it might be a problem, but maybe not. It could just be an outlier or a person who didn’t respond to something. Remember, even things that are acclaimed as universally delicious (like chocolate cake), have haters.
  • If two people object to the same thing, it might be worth looking into. Still, it’s not a definitive sign and sometimes just a matter of preference.
  • If three or more people offer constructive criticism on the same issue, it’s time to take notice. A chorus of voices indicates that there’s a good chance they’re seeing something you don’t see.

Does this mean that because several people object to something you have to change it? No. Does it mean you should consider it? Probably. Just because they see a problem, though, doesn’t mean they can offer you the best fix.

As Neil Gaiman says, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” Ultimately, this is your story and you have to be proud of the way it’s told. This involves interpreting the advice that’s given to you and finding the best way to employ it. So how do we do that?

Making Criticism Constructive

Whenever you receive any critique, it’s a wise idea to step back from the advice and take some time to digest. Whether or not you ultimately end up deciding to change something is up to you, but you’ll find yourself able to approach criticism of your work more objectively once you have some distance from it. So put it in a drawer. Or sleep on it.

Then, maybe take out a notebook and scribble down some ideas for how to make those changes while still preserving the integrity of the story you’re telling. Reacting to advice by quickly making changes is neither useful nor likely to ultimately do the best job actually fixing the problem. As the writer, you’re in the driver’s seat and you have the ability to see things that those backseat drivers don’t. Make the most of that and figure out the best way to make the advice given to you actually work for you.

If you find that you’re trying too hard to please people, remember the chocolate cake: fantastic as it may be for many, someone will still dislike it. Your job isn’t to make everyone happy but instead to do the best you can making sure your story is well-told.

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About Author

Annabelle McCormack is a writer and photographer from Baltimore, Maryland. When she's not busy writing, she's chasing around her four kids and enjoying life in the country. To follow her journey, check out @annabellemccormack on Instagram, where she posts regularly about her adventures.

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