January 9, 2012

Unhelpful Feedback: I Could’ve Done Without That

As many of my friends and readers know, I recently finished the first draft of my first novel (and there was much rejoicing…hooray!).

And after a first draft comes editing. Lots and lots of editing.

As an editor, you’d think I’d love this part—and to some extent, I do enjoy the rigor of making my stuff better. But it can still be painful. And it’s just plain difficult to edit your own writing sometimes. It’s hard to completely delete a character you’ve created who just isn’t necessary after all. Or to reword a scene you’ve spent hours crafting because, well, several minor details have to change in order for another part of the book to make sense, and…yeah, you get the picture.

That’s where critiques from others come in handy. I recently received some great critiques on my first chapters. They were extremely helpful, pointing out a lot of things that I point out to other people and just didn’t see in my own writing (insert sheepish grin here) or telling me when a character or scene didn’t ring quite true.

I must say, this is quite a different experience than critiques I’ve received in the past.

You see, while receiving feedback from others is necessary, there is some feedback that’s just plain unhelpful. A few examples I’ve personally encountered:

“I just loved it all! Don’t change a thing.”
Um, yeah, while my ego would just LOVE to hear this one, it’s Never. Gonna. Happen. At least, for real. That’s just the (gut-wrenching) reality of writing a novel; there will always be something to improve upon. And when someone who is reading my work (especially in early stages) tells me this, I tend to think (1) he/she is lying or (2) he/she really didn’t read my story, at least with a very critical eye.

Note: I’m not saying to never be positive. It’s great to receive positive feedback along with the more critical comments. Always point out the good things you see in addition to the things that don’t work, so the writer isn’t overly discouraged and is in fact encouraged that he/she is doing some things right.

“This just doesn’t work, but I’m not sure why.”
It’s great for me to know that something isn’t jiving, but I also want to know why. Is it that the character isn’t believable? The situation is unrealistic? The dialogue is dry? Try as much as possible to be specific about why an aspect of the story doesn’t “work.”

“Word this differently.”
Again—why? While I appreciate it when someone tells me something should be reworded, I want to know why it needs to change. Did the sentence strike you as awkward? Out of character? Just plain wrong grammatically? When I critique, I try to give suggestions for a different wording to explain what I mean. That doesn’t mean I expect the author to adapt my wording, but I hope it gives him/her a reference point for rewording.

Your Turn: Have you had your work critiqued by others? How was your experience? Can you think of any other feedback that isn’t helpful (maybe that you’ve actually received)?

Photo by Grant Cochrane: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=2365


  1. Along the lines of your last one....any ambiguous critique. Not just about wording differently, but about characters or scenes.

    Such as:
    I don't like this character.
    This scene doesn't work.

    Like you said - for this to be helpful, the person needs to know WHY and HOW to go about making it better.

    Another thing that can be tricky is when we, as critiquers, jump into the murky waters of voice. We are always going to prefer our voice because it's familiar and natural. But that doesn't mean it's better. It's just different. I try to leave voice alone when it comes to critiquing.

  2. Oh I agree with Katie about the whole voice bit.

    And I've had responses all over the map. I happen to love red marks and lots of feedback and I'm not always turned off by the 'this isn't working'. Usually I knew it and I just have to work through what changes would make it better.

    ~ Wendy

  3. I recently read a post by Rosslyn Elliott where she talked about the difference between a beta reader and critique partner, and it made me wonder if some of the feedback you've gotten was more along the lines of how beta readers might respond (the general: 'this doesn't work,' or 'I loved it all'). I haven't given my novel to anyone yet, but I'll bet my early readers (aka: friends) will be very general, focusing on the story itself, whereas I'd hope a critique partner has more concrete and specific breakdown of writing suggestions. It's nerve-wracking, either way. Good advice though, as to how to do a critique. I will keep it all in mind for when the time comes.

  4. Great points, Lindsay! When I do critiques, I try hard to balance the positives with the negatives. No one wants 100% of one extreme or the other. Well, unless they just want their ego stroked, lol.

  5. Katie, I definitely agree. As an editor, it's so tempting to change voice, but I think it's of utmost importance to keep the writer's own voice. It's what makes writing so unique.

    Wendy, that's a very good point. There are a lot of times I get feedback and think, "Darn! They caught me!"

    Barb, that's interesting. I hadn't thought about the differences between how beta readers and how critique partners might respond. I'll have to go read that post. :)

    Sarah, a stroked ego can be a nice feeling...but doesn't lead to very productive edits!

  6. Such a good post!
    I've learned to let my crit partners know what I need back from them. Sometimes I want a Big Picture Edit: Is the scene working? Does it flow? Is there tension? Are there hiccups -- things that interrupt the scene? Any suggestions for a conclusion?
    And sometimes I am ready to jump into Fine Line Edits: Bring out the red pens and have at it -- anything goes!
    Sometimes all I want to do is brainstorm because I am stuck and need my crit partners help with moving forward. And I think sometimes we forget that crit partners can help with that too.
    And I've uttered those "This doesn't work" words. And then I hash it out with the writer until we figure out why it (the sentence or the scene) doesn't work. Sometimes you just have to talk it out.

  7. I once had an agent tell me to take out all the thought processes of the main character because (and I quote:) "Eleven-year-olds don't think."

  8. Beth, thank you! And I agree. It is so important to let your partner know what you need so everyone is on the same page with the same expectations. That's a great point about them helping you brainstorm. I've definitely experienced that as well.

    Shellie, thanks for visiting! Hmm, interesting advice. I'm not sure all my thoughts were sound when I was 11, but pretty sure I did do some thinking! I'm curious what you ended up doing. :)