Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How to Handle a Manuscript Critique

I’m in the editing phase for one of my novels, one that’s especially close to my heart, and I recently got notes back from my trusted critique partners and beta readers.  One of my betas is a very dear friend of mine, and when she was done with the manuscript, we went to a local microbrewery to have pizza and beer and talk about the book.  We sat down at one of the shiny, dark wood tables and whipped out our laptops. My beta started scrolling through my manuscript and telling me all the places where she paused, thought something was off, found a typo. At one point she asked me, “Joan had sex with Alex*, right? I mean, is that what you meant to imply in this scene?”

It was not what I meant to imply. 

“Thanks,” I said.  “It doesn’t really matter what I meant.”

And it doesn’t. 

Step one of handling a critique is to receive it.

No explaining, not to your reader, not to yourself. No attempts to justify the inclusion of, say, llamas in your contemporary romance. There are only two things you may ever say in response to a critique.  The first is, “Thank you.” The second is something like, “When you say you thought the chase scene didn’t make sense, did you mean the one where they chase llamas across the mall parking lot, or the one in the kitchen where she’s running after him with a frying pan?” Thanks, or a request for clarification. That’s it.  No explanations, no “But the llamas are crucial to the plot!”, no “Maybe you just don’t like llamas!” Shut up and receive.

It’s crucial that you make every effort not to spout off these explanations and justifications even to yourself. Just for a little while, pretend everything your reader says is the absolute truth, because in a way, it is. Her experience of the book is valid, even if it isn’t the same as your experience. That’s why you asked for her help in the first place. When those explanatory voices pipe up, have another beer and say, “Thanks, that’s an interesting point.”

Now you’re ready for step two. Take that critique and ignore it.

Critiques are like jumping into too-hot bathwater. They sting. (For me, anyway. If you’ve figured out how to take the pain out of statements like “I kind of hated your hero…sorry!” please tell me your secret.) The way to get through the pain is to live with it for a little while. Don’t think about it too hard. Let that critique sit on your hard drive for a day, a week, whatever it takes.

Ignoring your critique doesn’t just take away the sting. It helps make those persistent voices shut up. If you think about it too much, the need to EXPLAIN! will take over. You’ll get into a useless conversation with your critique and convince it that the llamas are necessary. You’ll be very satisfied with yourself, because the critique will just sit there saying the same thing over and over again. Easy argument to win. And the book will suffer.

Once the critique has been sufficiently ignored, you’re ready for step three: deal with it.

Now that you’ve calmed down and realized the llamas really are unnecessary, it’s a lot easier to cut them out. There may be points on which you simply don’t agree with your reader, and that’s okay. It’s critical here not to write off a response as “a personal thing.” All responses to books are personal. But it is okay to sift through those personal responses for the ones that ring in harmony with your vision of the book.

Many, many times, I’ve gotten notes back from multiple critique partners, and everybody has a problem with a particular scene. Say this happens with your parking lot llama chase scene. Somebody hates the llamas, somebody else thinks it would work better if it took place in an amusement park, somebody else thinks the dialogue between the hero and the heroine sounds stilted. What this means is that something is wrong. Nobody—including you—is sure what, but it’s your job to figure it out, and figure it out you will.

So there it is, handling a manuscript critique in three simple steps:
  1. Receive it.
  2. Ignore it.
  3. Deal with it.

You may have noticed a secret step in there at the very end. Step three-point-one: Believe you will get it right. Having faith in yourself during a critique may be the hardest step of all, but keep believing. Trust in your voice, in your vision, in your characters. It may take time, multiple re-writes, lots of chocolate or bourbon or macaroni and cheese with bacon. But as long as you don’t give up, there’ll be a better book on the other side.

What’s your favorite trick for handling a critique?

*Names have been changed to protect the unpublished.


  1. This is great advice. Especially step number 2. Crucial. No decisions should be quickly made.

    I wonder if you've ever had the experience of like, never using someone as a beta reader again? I had that happen recently. The feedback I received was very insightful, but literally not one positive thing was said about the MS. I had to ask for positive feedback just so I could put the negative in perspective -- ie, see how to play up my goods to minimize my bads. As I'm typing this out, I guess this is a no-brainer. No one wants or needs the kind of critique partner who has to be asked to say one thing nice. I'm still a little upset about it -- can you tell? It had some part in killing the novel I was working on for 3 years. Too much bad mojo builds up over time.

    I'm really guarded about critique partners now. As in, I probably have just two that I trust.

    This was not very related to your post, but somewhat related, but enough not-related that I feel a little paranoid about it. Sorry for the rabbit trail.

  2. That should have been Step 0: Finding the perfect critique partner/beta! It is SO HARD. I've had my CPs for years now, and it's taken us that long to truly get to know each other's voices so that we can offer advice without impinging on each other's styles. It's hard to overstate how much I value those relationships. Two trusted readers is pretty great, I think. I know some people get feedback from dozens of readers, but I've always gone with only two or three. Too many cooks in the kitchen and all that. And I think if someone isn't offering you the right kind of advice, ignore it. If she didn't like anything about the book, it may mean that the book isn't for her, not that the book isn't good. That's my philosophy, anyway. :)

  3. A.J. This is a great post, and how funny we were both on this topic this week. I agree with everything you've said here. I love what you say about when people offer suggestions that help you understand the problem, but not solve it. I've had that experience SO many times, and followed the wrong path, not trusting myself.

    One of my fave things about critique is the way the feedback, once made concrete, are always so much easier to address than I fear.

    Jaimie, I am sorry you had that experience. I think it is SO important to find CPs who actually like your style, and get your voice, and help you become more you. I think you made a good choice not to work with someone who doesn't--even if they are a great writer who points out good things. That said, sometimes, I have worked with people who I knew didn't like my work, because it made it even stronger, but I needed extra support from my fan-friends in the process.

    Thanks for a great post, A.J.!

  4. Is it very wrong that I now want to read a contemporary romance that includes a llama chase sequence through a mall parking lot?

    Otherwise, yep, I agree on all fronts. Though I have to admit, I've had a different experience lately as well -- the sting is, well, not gone, but lessened because there's this other voice inside my head saying "Thank you, o' wise critique person! You nailed the problems that I didn't even know I had, only also I did, and they bothered me the way itchy clothes bother me when I'm out in public and can't do anything about them. And now I feel so relieved because I can change into softer, more comfortable clothing -- I mean, book drafts."

    I still brace myself for impact before opening a critique email, though. And a crit from someone new is a terrifying experience to contemplate. I'm sorry it went south for you, Jaimie, but remember -- it's just one person's opinion. I have certainly learned never to use certain readers again. Yup yup yup.

  5. @Amber: Thanks for stopping by! I totally understand what you mean about the fear. It's always harder in my head than it is on the page.

    @Talia: Love that itchy clothes analogy. Spot on. The people who point out things I didn't even know were bothering me--I love those people.

    Oh, and if you're really hankering for a llama chase scene, may I suggest opening the image on top of this post in a new tab... ;)