On writing: Is my zipper down or do you just not like my pants?

We’ve all gotten those critiques or reviews of our work where the reader has a lot of things to say of the not-good variety. As writers, we have to learn to grow a thick skin. At least, that’s what they always say. But I think that analogy is a little off as it implies being impervious, which is not exactly what we want to be. Yes, we need to learn to be tough and withstand criticism, but we also need to be able to absorb and learn from others.

During the critique and beta phases of our WIPs, we have to learn to tell the difference between helpful advice and just plain bad advice. This isn’t always easy. I touched upon a way to look at critiques in the fall, but being a new writer I’m still learning and have come upon a new fear. (Yippee! Not.) And that is…

Is my zipper down or do you just not like my pants?

I’ve been getting extremely helpful critiques from critters at critiquecircle.com as well as by fellow writers I know or have met online (Yay Twitter!) and I’ve learned a lot in the process. My writing is stronger because of it. I still have metric tons more to learn. Sometimes I’ve received critiques I haven’t agreed with, or they were trying to stamp out my voice and insert theirs, or I could just tell they didn’t like romances. These were easy to see. I’ve also had helpful feedback where mistakes and lapses were pinpointed, weak spots highlighted, or being told outright that a scene wasn’t working and why. This was gold to me. I would rather hear this kind of stuff and grow as a writer, than be patted on the head with a “that’s nice, dear” and live in blissful ignorance that my writing sucks.

Recently, however, I’ve been the recipient of a new kind of feedback (which I’m sure you veterans are familiar with) which has made the evaluation process tougher. This critiquer pretty much had something snarky to say about each scene, belittling plot choices I’d made, etc. You might say that I should dismiss this person as they obviously don’t know how to give constructive feedback. But what if he/she’s right, or that hidden amongst it are good gems I just can’t see past the snark factor?

Could it be my zipper’s been down this whole time and everyone else has been too polite to tell me?

The problem with the delivery of this person’s feedback is that it makes it very hard to look beyond it and see if any of it is valid. Or to understand that they just don’t like my voice and genre (which I’m fine with).

I love critiquecircle.com, but one of its drawbacks is that it’s mainly done chapter by chapter with inline comments. To continue with my metaphor, everyone’s helped me make sure the stitching is straight, my pockets look good, cuffs are the right length, etc. (Thank you guys!!!) It’s not ideal, though, for stepping back and evaluating the whole and noticing that my goddamn zipper’s been catching air this whole time. The whole forest for the trees thing… I think that’s why the recent critter worries me, because she might be seeing things everyone’s missed. The other problem is that I’m a new writer and haven’t yet learned how to evaluate this.

It could be a confidence thing. Heck, I’m sure it is. But I think it’s also because I ache to improve my writing and I really, really don’t want to be missing an opportunity to learn. But I haven’t developed the skill yet to tell if this person just doesn’t like my genre and style. Since I don’t know this critter, which would help in the evaluation department, I’ve reached out to a writer I trust to read my fourth draft (which I hope to have soon) and let me know if my zipper is down.

How about you? Have you had a rough/snarky critique that ran in complete contrast to all other critiques? Did you also have a hard time putting that one critique in perspective?

EDIT: Coincidence time! Just saw from another blogger I follow that the first Wednesday of every month is Insecure Writer’s Support Group Day blog hop. So, I just entered my name into the ranks and making this my first post. Visit some others today and help boost morale.

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27 Comments

  1. Interesting post! I’ve had similar concerns many times. I don’t have an easy solution. I think just like with every critique and every comment, judge it, decide if it will do more good than bad, then decide if to use or not. If the conclusion is that your whole story sucks, then you must decide if to ditch it or not. If it means your hero/heroine is too passive, you need to do a major rewrite of the story if you want to save it. I’ve been there, had to decide. I try to trust myself. If I like the story, then others will as well.

    Reply
  2. OMG, BEST. BLOG TITLE. EVER.

    I don’t know how good your MS is, but your blogging is top-notch! You sure know how to write an attention-grabbing title! :)

    Feedback is killer. Sometimes it’s all “Love it! Fantastic!” and other times it makes you want to stab yourself in the eyeball with a fountain pen and never open the laptop again.

    Since you’re going with essentially anonymous critiquers, you have the advantage of getting objective feedback. Go with the bell curve here. You’re going to get those who LOOOOVE everything (throw them out) and those like Miss Snark who hate everything. Throw her out, too, and listen to those moderate voices. If they repeat each other, then you know those elements they’re repeating need work.

    Otherwise you’ll get totally paranoid and paralyzed. (Not that I know ANYTHING about this, pfft!) And I know, easier said than done.

    Reply
  3. Before you make any major changes or get too worried, do a little research. The nice thing about CC is you have access to other crits people have done. Try reading other critiques this person has written – especially if you can find a story of the same genre or a story you may have both critiqued. See if you agree with suggestions they’ve made in other peoples work–which since it’s not your own, you can be more objective about. Maybe a critiquer is a having a snarky day, maybe it’s just how they crit in general. Or maybe what you’re writing isn’t their thing. Maybe they do have valid points. But if it really jumps out at you as different from what others have said, I’d make sure you can trust their opinion before taking action. And remember, you can’t please everyone. :)

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  4. A crit. It can either be a nasty four letter word, or it can be a big eye opening, thank you moment. So far, I’ve been lucky to have the latter. But like you, Angela, Ive gotten some from people who obviously didn’t dig on my genre. Matter of fact, they told me right off the bat, “you had me until all that magic stuff!” but even then, they were still able to give me word choices or tell me that a scene just didn’t work, and why. So, perhaps, they were the best crits of all. I had to work extra hard to impress them, to win them over, to get them past the genre and into the scene, and in the end all this boiled down to my creating the tightest, strongest story imaginable.

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  5. Critiques can be difficult to hear, at times. And just because someone says something doesn’t work for them, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. You have to pick and choose what parts of that critique ring true for you as the author. Sometimes, there are the occasional CPs who just don’t understand the sandwich rule about couching each negative comment between two positives. But that also doesn’t mean they are wrong.

    My first CP was a know-it-all law clerk who ripped my ms apart. Having never received criticism before, my skin was extremely thin and I cried my eyes out and vowed never to write again. But as mean as he was, he did me a great favor. Because he was right. Yes, he could have been nicer about it, but that didn’t diminish the truth of his words.

    So, with my skin one layer thicker, I scooted my chair back up to my desk and revised what I thought were valid points made by Mr. Meanie. Then I moved on. Each time I work with another CP, my skin grows a little thicker. And it hurts far less. This is a subjective business, but remember, it is a business. In order for you to improve, you have to think of it in those terms and learn from others who’ve come before you. So chin up. Each critique serves as a vaccine of sorts. It stings at first, but it’ll make you better.

    And welcome to Alex Cavanaugh’s IWSG! I love it and never miss the chance to bitch!

    Reply
    • Thanks!! It’s not that I’m having a hard time hearing negative stuff, but that for some reason I can’t tell if they’re right or not. I’ve got a thick skin and definitely want to receive whatever medicine I need no matter how hard it is. In this instance, unlike in the past, I can’t tell if they’re right. If so I definitely want to fix it. Does that make sense?

      Reply
  6. This blog post reminded me of the first time I ran into what I considered a really snarky feedback and it was actually from my online instructor. He would underline a sentence or phrase and beside it write “really?” Just like that, then write something about the logical hole I just created and how what I wrote couldn’t possibly happen or be what I’d intended.

    lol

    When I read his comments I was fuming, felt my cheeks and neck on fire. Then more comments of “really? How so?” I don’t have a chance to answer, just read the comment and think in my head, “you complete moron!”

    By the end of class I realized it was his style and he used that tone with all the students. Then I went back and reread a lot of his comments and they made complete sense. :)

    Now I have that thick skin they talk about.

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  7. I agree with the person that said maybe you should look at other crits this person has done. I got a really snarky crit once and looked at the critter’s other critiques. All of them were snarky. So I decided to look at something she’s written to get an idea of what she liked. She’d never subbed any of her own writing! That made me toss her crit. Some people just love to cut others down.

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  8. What a great blog! Yep, it does make you wonder–and sometimes reading books where the author gives credit to everyone who “read” for them, you have to wonder if those readers were asleep! Writing really can be a lonely game, when you have to start questioning the critiques as well as yourself.

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  9. Hey, Angela! Welcome to the IWSG. We post the first Wednesday of every month. Glad you could join us.
    I have three critique partners who each see something different, but in a good way. They each see what the others miss. I do have one that is snarky, but in a fun way, and reading his critique comments is always good for a laugh. He probably does more for me than anyone else.

    Reply
    • Thanks Alex! I don’t mind snarky when it’s combined with constructive feedback (where they help me see what’s wrong and why)– I have one that’s that way and I enjoy it. But this isn’t constructive…

      Reply
  10. Great post, Angela. Even better title!
    I’ve really enjoyed my time at Critique Circle. I’ve been lucky to not have gotten any real snark, tho some comments seem to come out of left field. That’s when I’ve had to decide whether to accept a comment or not.
    Stephanie has the right idea, I think. The comments that repeat across crits seem to have the most legitimacy. If a number of people are noticing a problem, you probably can take it seriously.
    Jean has a great idea, and I think I’ll take it myself. I’m going to remember next time to check out other critiques if I’m questioning a critter.
    I’ve also had similar frustration with what I get from my critiques. I’ve explicitly asked for broad, general comments that touch on structure, characterization, etc. I inevitably got the smaller scale comments. Valuable though they were, I was left without a good sense of the big picture. Critique Circle does have private queues where you can have a set group read your novel. I don’t know if you’ve used these, but you might get a regular group reading your story.
    @JA, I’ve had nearly the exact comment on one of my submissions! Can’t please everyone!

    Reply
    • Thanks Monica! Yeah, it’s the first real snark I’ve gotten there and have been there since June. I took Jean’s advice and looked at this person’s past critiques and it’s helped me put things in perspective — romance just ain’t her bag. Was talking to a writer friend earlier this evening and she said all writers go through that fear that no one is telling you ‘it sucks’ and you worry it does and so it’s easy to latch onto this kind of feedback as evidence of your worst fears, contrary to all other feedback. I need to have faith that folks like you and others there will let me know if my zipper’s down :)

      Reply
      • We’re all familiar with that Oh-my-god-I-suck phase, aren’t we? Maybe that’s a reason we latch on to the harsh stuff, and maybe it’s just unreasonably harsh. No, harsh isn’t the word — as you called it, it’s the snark. It’s understood, at Critique Circle, that critique will be given constructively. When critique is given with attitude, with negative comments devoid of even a finger pointing in the direction of improvement, then it’s not critique. It’s not helpful. So the question becomes why are they there?

        I happen to also be one who doesn’t read romances, and I still enjoyed the one chapter of your story I critiqued (b/c of characters, voice, writing, etc.). But even without those points to draw me in, if I had committed to critiquing a story, I would do my best to do so on its merits, not on my personal tastes. I don’t really accept the excuse that the critter was snarky b/c she was reading outside her preferred genre. She chose the story; now give it your best effort. I think the author who has put herself out there for critique deserves better than that. And how can you expect a meaningful crit from others if you don’t give one yourself?
        Ok, I’m done. ;-) [/rant]

      • Thanks Monica, and what you’ve said is so true. Sadly, not everyone approaches it that way. (And thanks for what you said about my writing :D)

  11. This has definitely happened to me. The individual nit picked EVERYTHING, but because of that, she was reading the story from the surface and missing the deeper messages and subtext. At one point I “fired” her because I was looking for the bigger picture and she wasn’t giving me that. The polish would come later on. She got the message and started critting from slightly further away, and gave me the perspective and feedback I was looking for.

    I agree though about the head patting. I’ve queried books, which weren’t ready to query, because of that feedback. But I think you have to be at a certain place to be able to handle the level of feedback that will take you to the next level of writing.

    Reply
    • Glad you stuck to your guns with that person. I think that’s why this feedback worries me is because I DO want to move to that next level and I wonder if her feedback is spot on and no one else had the guts to tell me… or if it just wasn’t her thang…

      Reply
  12. Snarky, no. Constructive feedback that clearly would have led to my writing their novel, yes. I suppose it comes down to needing critique partners who are a) sensitive to genre and its conventions and b) able to switch off the writer part of them and deploy a more editorial eye, to function as readers. As a writer, reading someone else’s work can sometimes feel an awful lot like backseat driving (“You should have changed gear there – I can’t believe you’re still in the slow lane” etc.).

    Reply
    • LOL, that’s so true! And it’s very hard to find those kinds of CPs… I’ve had some where if I did everything they said (the rewrites and deletions) the POV character would’ve had no voice at all.

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  13. I sympathize. Although I don’t tend to get too many critiques that pick apart my plots (I’m pretty solid in that area, usually), I do sometimes get one where the person just completely missed important detail. And those people make doubt myself, make me wonder if my writing is unclear or confusing.

    The fact is, critiques are a double-edged sword. You can never be sure if the person writing the critique is just doing it for a return or just doesn’t particularly care to read your story well. Sometimes, it’s obvious. Sometimes, it’s not. It’s a minefield, really.

    Usually though, whenever I submit something to Critique Circle, I get a variety of reviews that show a spectrum of opinions. Most often, there appears to be some kind of general consensus about my story, so I usually go with that. Sometimes, they’re all over the place though, so you have to be careful about what you take to heart.

    Reply
    • I’ve had that too, where someone says I should do such and such and I’m like, I just did that three paragraphs ago…

      But I think you’re right, I need to put these comments on a spectrum and see where they lie in relation to all the other feedback I get.

      Reply
  14. Hmmm, i def. think others have been there. Maybe set that person’s critique to the side, give yourself some time. Even more than a week. Then go back and see if you can find anything valuable despite the tone of the critique.
    I had one person who loved to slam everything I submitted, all because I’d offended her with my critique. (She was the first person I ever critiqued, in fact) And this was a public forum so I did my best but after that, every single chapter I wrote I could count on a nasty critique. However, she actually had some valid points when I managed to look past the meanness. lol
    Good luck!

    Reply
  15. First, thank you for the link to critiquecircle.com, and for this great discussion (comments included!) on the tricky task of sorting out the information from critique notes.

    The comment above about the snarky reviewer who never submitted any of their own work: I’ve met this character in workshops (often they have an MFA), in on-line settings, … well, everywhere. The key as to usefulness is how much truth is in the critique, but it’s very hard to sort that out when it’s wrapped in snark. I’ve had reviewers who managed to insert poisoned darts even into positive comments!

    Separating tone from content can be posed as a translation problem in three steps: 1) re-state what they said in the blandest, most objective prose you can; 2) put it aside for a day or two; and then 3) check the (translated) observations against your work, to see if they’re useful.

    If you can’t translate a snarky review into objective observations, then it wasn’t a proper critique at all, but a snarkfest.

    Reply
    • great advice, thank you! hadn’t thought of doing it that way and sounds like a great way to figure them out. I DO want to know if this person has valid comments…

      Reply
  1. Do some readers hate your book? Good! You’re doing something right! « Angela Quarles

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