Criticism versus Critique

by Tiffany Yates Martin

No creative soul likes receiving negative feedback on their work—no matter what we might tell you, beloved crit partners, beta readers, editors, agents.

Yes, we may admit we need it, and that it helps immeasurably to get objective input on what may not be as effective on the page as it is in your head, but as one author I work with memorably put it, having someone offer positive, constructive critique of your story is like an Orange Theory workout: You dread it going into it, hate every second while it’s going on, but afterward you feel great having done it.

But receiving negative, destructive input—criticism—can do more damage to your writing, and your creative efforts in general, than almost any other pitfall of writing life. I’ve heard too many horror stories—one just this week that inspired this post—about feedback that shut down authors’ creative impulses, filled them with self-doubt about their story and their writing in general, and in one awful case decimated the author’s confidence so badly that she told me she was giving up writing. (Don’t worry—ultimately she didn’t.)

“Positive” feedback in this sense doesn’t mean all praise, or empty flattery. It means framing feedback as the carrot, not the stick. “This scene isn’t working” feels a lot different from, “This scene might be a bit stronger/have more impact if…” Just like in a marriage or any relationship, as soon as someone feels under attack, they shut down.

So how do you solicit useful critique, and perhaps more important, how do you assess the input you receive to determine what’s helpful for you and your story and what isn’t?

Crit Partners and Beta Readers

As with so many areas of life, asking for exactly what you want gives you a much greater chance of getting it.

With beta readers and crit partners, you can save yourself—and them—a lot of wasted effort by offering specific guidance for what kind of input you’re looking for:

  • Does it hold together overall?
  • Was there any place your interest flagged?
  • Did anything feel unrealistic to you?
  • Were there any characters who didn’t feel real or believable or relatable to you—and if so, why, exactly?
  • Did you understand what they were working toward and why that mattered to them, and were you rooting for them; i.e., did you care about their goals?
  • Was the end satisfying?

I advocate giving your readers not only your manuscript, but an actual accompanying questionnaire. They will appreciate the clarity and structure of knowing what you want from them, and you will guide their feedback to the specific areas where you need it.

That also lets you set the tone of it with your questions so that you elicit information about their reactions to the story, but don’t leave a ready opening for their unsolicited elaboration on what you did wrong and how to fix it. You are looking for objective input into how well the story you wanted to tell is coming across on the page—so what you want to know is how it impacts readers, and your betas and crit partners are your “test cases.”

To paraphrase the famous Nail Gaiman quote, when someone tells you what’s not working for them in your manuscript, that’s good information. When they tell you what you did wrong or how to fix it, that’s generally not.

Industry Professionals

That brings us to agents and editors—the trained and experienced professionals who will, occasionally, offer more prescriptive input: not just how the story comes across to us on the page, but why certain areas may not be as effective as they could be, and sometimes suggestions for ways you might address the issue.

It pains me to say this, but some of the horror stories I’ve heard—no small number of them, in fact—involve these industry professionals. They may be harsh in their tone or assessment; might try to tell an author what she should or must do with her story; might co-opt her vision with the person’s own preferences, biases, or market needs. None of that is helpful to you as a writer.

A good editor/agent should offer feedback that, as with beta readers and crit partners, reflects her reactions—“Readers may not understand why she would leave her husband here after such a minor disagreement,” for example—as what they are: personal impressions and opinions, not absolute fact, as in, “It makes no sense why she leaves here.”

That may seem like a hairbreadth distinction or simply a nicety of phrasing, but it’s more than that—the former fulfills the proper function of any objective feedback, which is to hold up a mirror to the author so she can more clearly see what she actually has on the page, rather than what she’s filling in because she knows the story so well.

Our job is to tell you how what is on the page may come across to readers, based on our hopefully broad experience not only with many other manuscripts, but in your genre and in the current market. Good agents and editors weigh and need intimate knowledge of all those areas.

Trained professionals also ideally have a broad and very deep knowledge of writing craft so they can share with an author why something may not be working—the kind of actionable, practical input that lets her figure out how to address the issue. For instance, in the above example an editor might observe that the character’s motivations feel unclear and the stakes feel a bit low, because readers aren’t yet specifically seeing why saving her marriage is important to her.

Industry pros may even offer occasional suggestions for how an author might address areas that might benefit from strengthening (all respect to Mr. Gaiman)—but it should be a suggestion only: “Perhaps you could let us see a scene where her goal of becoming an artist is a bit more concrete, and how her husband doesn’t support it—for instance, maybe she’s throwing a new piece of pottery and he casually walks in and criticizes it, or she gives him one of her pieces for their anniversary and he tucks it into a drawer, or something similar that illustrates their dynamic more clearly?”

Suggestions like that should be used simply as a “for instance,” to illustrate the point and perhaps spark ideas. The author might love one of the specific suggestions and run with it, or she might use the ideas as a springboard to come up with her own version that accomplishes the same end—showing this fuzzy dynamic more concretely—but in a way that feels more organic to her vision.

But even with these pros, the tone should always be positive, constructive, and respectful of your work, your vision, and you as a writer.

Indie publishing has marvelously democratized the industry…but it also means a lot of people are hanging out their shingle who perhaps don’t have the qualifications or temperament to do so, from small presses to agents to developmental editors to book coaches.

I can’t stress this enough: Vet the professional you are paying or contracting with to assess your work. Not just by checking their experience, track record, references, etc.—although that’s also crucial—but get a sample of their work. See how they approach your writing.

Just as editors can tell from a few pages what areas of a story may benefit from strengthening or clarifying, authors can tell from a few pages of sample edit whether an editor is offering practical, actionable, positive critique. (You can find a free 13-page guide on finding and vetting professionals on my website here.)

The Most Important Takeaway

This is worth boldfacing: All feedback is opinion—whether that of a professional or not.

Ideally professionals’ opinions are informed by their breadth of experience and expertise, but just as with any other reader, they are still subjective impressions, and can be based on more than simply whether they think the story is good. Readers may be influenced by their personal preferences, market trends, the author’s platform, a publisher’s or agent’s current list of authors/titles, even their mood.

Which means no critique or criticism is a referendum on the objective worth of you, your story, or your writing.

And if someone tells you in any fashion that your story—or you as a writer—has little or no worth, walk away from them and never look back—never give it a second thought. That kind of feedback is utterly unproductive, and frankly it’s flat wrong.

In almost thirty years of working as an editor with everyone from major bestsellers to first-time authors, I can truthfully say I have yet to see a manuscript without worth, that doesn’t have something we can work with and build on.

Nor have I never seen an author who should hang it up and stop writing—because you are human, and as such you have a story to tell—multitudes of them—and you, and they, are fascinating.

And because this is the process: Writing is rewriting. It’s how we improve. Good critique helps you dig out that gold; it doesn’t blow up the mine.

What are your thoughts on critique vs criticism? What is your favorite (or least favorite) type of feedback? Do you have any questions for Tiffany? Please share them down in the comments!

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About Tiffany

Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers, and is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller IntuitiveEditing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. She’s led workshops and seminars for conferences and writers’ groups across the country and is a frequent contributor to writers’ sites and publications. Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she’s the author of six novels, including the upcoming The Way We Weren’t (Berkley). Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com or www.phoebefoxauthor.com.

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