How to value feedback from your critique group
By Tenesha L. Curtis
Critique groups can be great. You meet new people, learn about different genres and styles, and get feedback on your own work. However, hearing unpleasant feedback can be painful and jarring. Though some are larger than others, we all have an ego. And when it gets bruised, we can begin to feel severe self-doubt and embarrassment. But there is hope! By remembering the following ideas when participating in any of your critique groups, you can reduce some of the uncomfortable feelings you have about hearing criticism of your work. With a little practice, you can rein in your ego so that you get to reap the benefits of getting varied, constructive feedback on your manuscript.
I Asked for This
There are no literary police who are going to fine you for not being part of a critique group. No one is going to toss you into the back of a van and force you to attend one. You are doing this voluntarily. By being part of a critique group and submitting your work for review, you are openly asking people to give you their honest opinion of your work.
Getting feedback from strangers can be a scary prospect. Especially when you find yourself getting more suggestions for changes than praise for what you’ve already done. Yet, that’s the major value of a critique group. Getting feedback about your work before it reaches the public or an agent means you can enhance it prior to sharing it with people who are going to be making decisions that impact the quality of your literary career (to buy your book or not, to request the full manuscript or not, etc.).
Imagine you work in an office where you have to present to a roomful of potential clients in order to make money for yourself and your company. Before you present in front of the latest batch of prospective clients, a coworker stops you and lets you know you’ve got a bright-red ketchup stain on the middle of your shirt. While having them point this out may cause some small embarrassment in that moment, it’s a lot better than what might have happened if you had let a room of people see it. Then, the humiliation would have been amplified and multiplied by however many people were in the room. But, since your friendly coworker gave you the feedback about your shirt, you can change into another one or even put a name tag, scarf, or pin over the stain to hide it. You got the information you needed to improve your wardrobe before other people saw it.
Expecting your critique group members to just tell you nice things that don’t cause you any discomfort is like wishing your coworker hadn’t told you about the ketchup stain. Yes, it may have helped you avoid a few seconds of embarrassment at having your coworker point it out, but it only would have led to larger problems in the long run. Your critique group members giving you feedback works in the same way. Getting warnings about problems within your manuscript is the whole rationale for joining and regularly attending a critique group. The point is to help you become a stronger writer, not just stroke your ego.
When you consider the idea that you asked your critique group for their opinion, it can help get your ego in check. Your critique group members are doing what you’ve asked for. If getting honest feedback is not what you want, being a member of a critique group might not be something you’re ready for just yet.
In any given critique group, there will generally be a diverse group of readers. People consume different kinds of books in different ways and have varying experiences with those books. This is due to everything from their upbringing to their age to their ethnic background and more. Even when a group focuses on a single genre, like romance, there are various niches and styles that some people prefer over others. No two readers in the world are exactly alike. This means that no two critique group members in the world are exactly alike. Therefore, their feedback will be different and may or may not be a good idea to apply to your work.
For instance, if you write romantic comedies, but your critique group members mostly read historical romance and romantic thrillers, they wouldn’t read your piece the way a die-hard rom-com reader would. This doesn’t mean their feedback is invalid or inaccurate, it just means that they are approaching the piece from a different perspective. Therefore, not everyone’s critical feedback will fit your work.
A romantic thriller enthusiast may say that your romantic comedy’s pacing is too slow. That makes sense for them and their reading preferences, but it doesn’t necessarily fit your work. A historical romance lover in your group may say your pacing is too fast because they are used to reading longer, slower-paced books that pack a lot of detail and historical information into each page. Again, for that person and their preferred niche, the feedback may fit. But it wouldn’t necessarily be a good adjustment for you to make as you’re creating a romantic comedy.
Your ego may relax a bit by understanding that, even though these people are being honest about their experience with your critique group submission, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how your target audience would respond. The feedback isn’t about your entire authorship. It’s about a handful of people’s opinion of your piece. Because your group is diverse, not all of those people are going to be part of your target audience. Not every piece of feedback you receive is going to make sense for your genre and audience.
Suggestions Aren’t Rules
You don’t have to take every suggestion provided to you. The feedback you get from your critique group members is meant to give you some idea of how a reader might perceive your work. But if someone says they think a particular aspect of your piece could benefit from being adjusted, it’s easy to get defensive when you consider what they are saying to be something that you “have to” do. But that’s not the case. Your critique group exists in order to give you a sense of what someone other than yourself might experience while reading your work. It’s then up to you as the author to make executive decisions about what recommendations you’ll take and which you will ignore.
But if your ego thinks that any suggestion is a law that you must follow, or a rule that you cannot break, getting feedback can feel oppressive. And humans tend to defend against oppression when they can. So, instead of thinking you’re getting a beautiful array of opinions as a gift, it can feel like you’re being told what to do and having your project taken over by literary dictators. When you remember that opinions aren’t hard-and-fast rules, your ego can calm down a bit. Your critique group members are offering opinions and recommendations, not rules or laws. They are fellow writers, not book gods.
In theory, a “perfect” piece of literature would be one that is seen as flawless by every single person who reads it. This would mean that every review was five stars. No fours or threes, only fives. Each review left for the book would also gush about the literary genius of the author and the brilliance of the writing. There would be no plot holes, continuity issues, character inconsistencies, formatting problems, logic errors, or typos. But this isn’t realistic.
Consider the last book you read that you loved. If you go to the sales page for it on sites for companies like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, you’ll find less-than-perfect reviews. Even though you gave the book five stars and wrote a glowing review of the piece, there are people who had less-favorable responses to the book. There will be people who have given one-star or two-star reviews. There are people who may have not finished the book at all because they disliked it so much. Since art (literature, painting, music, etc.) is subjective, these varying opinions are commonplace. At no point in the history of literature has every single person that has read an author’s work thought that it had no problems whatsoever. There’s always something that could have been done more or done less, parts that could have been added or cut, themes that could have been clarified or repetition that could have been addressed, and so on.
Often, without even realizing it, our ego gets wounded when we hear unpleasant feedback because we are trying to achieve perfection. If your goal is to create a “perfect” piece, feeling defensive when someone points out a flaw is pretty much guaranteed. Letting go of the idea of a “perfect” manuscript being possible relieves you of that pressure. Not concerning yourself with perfection can decrease anxiety felt when submitting to groups, make writing less stressful, and help you feel more confident about the work you produce. When you consider that human beings as a group can’t even agree if serial commas should be used, expecting our species to all agree that a single piece of writing has zero problems is a setup for disappointment.
No matter what you write or how you write it, there will be people who don’t like your work. If you can accept this as fact, writing and publishing become much easier and less stressful. When someone expresses displeasure or disinterest in your critique group submission, that’s okay. Your writing won’t be everyone’s preferred kind of reading. Take any feedback they have that you think is a good note on your work, ignore the rest, and move on with your day.
I Don’t Need to Explain Myself
When someone gives you feedback that you disagree with, or that hurts to hear, respond with two simple words: thank you. This tip may seem straightforward, but it can be deceptively difficult to do. Thanking someone for doing something that is uncomfortable for you takes a lot of self-awareness, patience, maturity, and grace. Our natural response when we feel threatened is, generally, to defend ourselves. In the scenario of a critique group, this can look like trying to make excuses for why certain information wasn’t included in the submission, defending how we chose to write a particular scene, or even being overly critical of someone’s piece because we think they were unfairly critical of ours. All of these are normal, natural responses. However, they can hurt your reputation within the group, as well as the quality of the feedback you receive in the future. After all, if someone tries to provide their honest opinion and gets attacked or given the cold shoulder because of it, why would they want to share that information with you again?
Being in a critique group is not the same as being on trial in a courtroom. You’re not there to argue about why you made certain editorial decisions. You’re not there to prove that you know more than others in the group. You’re not there to eat up your critique time providing a bunch of explanations for why you didn’t use a certain word, describe a particular action, etc. You are at the critique group to gather the opinions of others about a segment of your work so that you can improve your writing.
Sticking to a basic “thank you” reduces the chance that you’ll launch into responding to unpleasant feedback in a defensive manner. If you only respond with “thank you,” and listen to the rest of what the group has to say, the critiquer feels respected, you avoid escalating the situation, and you get to hear more feedback during your turn (a win-win-win!).
This Will Make Me Stronger
For all the reasons outlined above, receiving unpleasant, honest feedback about your work will make you a stronger writer. Understanding your flaws helps you guard against them in future drafts and future projects. But if you are unaware of your mistakes (as many humans are), you will likely continue to make them. Try seeing critique of your work as a pleasant thing, and it may be easier to hear. When you consider criticism an opportunity for you to present a more polished version of your book to the public or to an agent, it takes on a different tone. Hearing criticism from your group members starts to sound more like getting told hacks for how to improve your work instead of seeming like people are putting you down as a person.
Tenesha L. Curtis, MSSW is an indie author, screenwriter, and managing editor at Volo Press Books. She uses her formal training as a psychotherapist to inform her gripping fiction and easy-to-understand guidebooks for writers. http://TeneshaLCurtis.com.
There’s nothing wrong with basking in the glory of the things you do well as a writer. But hearing nice things about their writing isn’t where most authors need assistance. Allow criticism to save you from publicizing many of your major manuscript issues. Don’t push away or irritate the people who are volunteering to help you by lashing out at them or getting defensive. Take the feedback that fits your literary goals, politely ignore the feedback that doesn’t fit, and improve your writing skills meeting after meeting.