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The Heart of the Problem: Trying to Understand Critique Feedback ~ by Christine Amsden

If you are serious about becoming a writer, then at some point you will need to show others your work and ask them what they think. When your pet project comes back, scarred beyond recognition in red ink, you have three choices: You can quit writing. You can decide to be a poor, misunderstood artist and never learn or grow. Finally, you can use the feedback to become an even better writer.

In a perfect world, the feedback you get is clear and constructive. (See You Gotta Give it to Take it: 4 Simple Ways to Become a Great Critique Buddy) But this isn’t a perfect world, and whether you receive good criticism or not, you need to attempt to understand what the reader felt was the problem before you start making changes. If your car engine stalled, you would not start randomly replacing parts before you understood what was wrong. The same thing is true with writing.

The best way to interpret feedback is to identify the delivery mechanism.

1. Diagnosis.

If your reader gave you diagnostic information such as a wise reader critique, then your task is much easier. You know the problem and can move on to what (if anything) to do about it. Diagnostic feedback doesn’t tell you what changes you should make, rather, it tells you what the reader thought or felt as she read. Examples of diagnostic feedback include:

This type of feedback tells you, clearly, what the problem is. It does not necessarily tell you how to solve it, or if you need to solve it, but it is the critical first step. With feedback like this, you should have a fairly good idea of what isn’t working.

2. Prescription.

If someone gave you suggestions for change without telling you the problem, you are going to have to work backwards. Ask yourself why they would think the change was necessary. Try to look at it through a reader’s eyes and realize that they may not have been reading the story you thought you wrote. (See #3 below.)

Prescription can raise an author’s hackles. It is, essentially, telling an author how how to write the book. (Note: Editors will do some of this. Editors are not critique buddies, and the good ones will provide both diagnosis and prescription.) Some examples of prescriptions are:

If you ever feel put out by a critique (or any sort of feedback), start by putting it aside and coming back later. Then, when you’re ready, try to determine what issue might be solved by the suggested change. Perhaps the reader thought that killing the giant squid was cruel. Maybe chapter 3 was boring. A follow-up questions for the reader might be appropriate at this point, but be careful how you phrase it. You’re not defending your book, you’re asking a question.

3. They didn’t seem to “get it” at all.

They very well may not have. I am often amazed to find out what story people actually read when I send something out for feedback. They aren’t wrong. Keep in mind that the story in your head is a separate entity from the story on the paper. Likewise, the story on the paper takes on a life of its own when read by someone else. They bring into it their own biases and personal experiences. They may think Frank is a jerk because they dated this guy in college named Frank who really hurt them. You cannot always control for that, but you need to be prepared for it.

If someone doesn’t get it, there are two broad possibilities. The first is that your words aren’t coming across the way you mean them to. This is more likely to be the case if several people don’t get it. The other possibility, broadly speaking, is that the reader is incapable of getting it, for reasons beyond your control. If you can’t get a second person to agree on a comment, you’re probably wise to ignore it entirely.

Read on for more! Part Three--Revision Based on Peer Feedback: When to Hold ‘Em and When to Fold ‘Em

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