Dealing with Critiques and Reviews – the 40-20-40 Rule

One of my earliest blog posts was about dealing with critiques and I shared what I called the 30-40-30 rule that I learned from my uncle. Well I just had a short vacation with said uncle and found out I had the percentage wrong! He said it’s 40-20-40! So here’s my old post, revised a tad with that calculation.

As a writer, at some point you will reach the stage where you will need to have others critique your work. There are many reasons to do so that others have covered before, but as a former computer programmer, one way I like to look at it is: you cannot test your own code. You think you’ve written the program to do exactly what you want, you test it and hand it off to the Beta tester. And they find mistakes. The reason is because they didn’t build it and so don’t know your thinking behind it and do what comes natural to them. Consequently, they take paths you never dreamed of and hadn’t tested for. Yikes!

How does this relate to writing? You think you’ve sufficiently explained motives behind character actions, or have shown the emotional reaction sufficiently because YOU know the character so well and know EXACTLY why they’re doing it and fail to see that it didn’t quite come across the way you pictured it. Oops! A good critiquer or beta reader will find these ‘thin spots’ for you.

Okay, so you’re ready to get critiques? Are you sure? I’d like to tout again this great advice from Writer Musings: How To Get The Most Out Of A Critique, Part Three: if you don’t know the heart of your story, you are not ready for feedback. This is so true because you are going to get a wide array of feedback. And by wide array, I mean some folks will hate a particular line and others will like that same one. Soon, you’ll be wanting to pull out your hair. Or, worse, you’ll take every single suggestion as gospel and water down your story, your voice, to such a state that it will be milquetoast.

The problem is, if you’re doing things right, I think, you’ll have some people not like it. Crazy I know. But I think I’m right. Here’s why. If you have a unique voice or your characters’ voices are interesting and unique, that means some people are not going to like it. It’s just not their thang. And that’s okay. Make it bland, though? No one will find it objectionable, but are any of them excited? Probably not.

So what’s a writer to do? I like to invoke my uncle’s 40-20-40 rule. He got this advice when he became dean of a department — 40% of the people are going to like you no matter what, 40% will not like you no matter what, it’s the 20% in the middle you need to worry about. This rule is so handy and applicable that I’ve quoted it many times for different scenarios. It’s why politicians are really in trouble if they drop below 40% in the approval ratings, because they’re losing folks that would normally support them no matter what.

When writing, use this rule, too, during your critique period and also when it’s published. Make sure you show your draft to people outside of your 40%-guaranteed likes (i.e. your family and friends). One excellent place to get a wide sampling and great advice is my favorite critique forum: Critique Circle. It runs by a credit system — the more you crit others, the more credits you earn and so the more you can post for review. The other part I like is that it is broken up by genre and there are only a certain number of slots for each, so you’re guaranteed to get crits, unlike other sites where you join a huge long list and folks have to wade through. The more crits given in a particular genre for that week’s cycle, the more slots available for that genre for the next week. Check it out.

But then be prepared for diverse opinions! It can be very overwhelming and it’s tempting to take every single piece of advice. Make sure you evaluate each one, even if it’s contrary or hard to swallow. They may have an excellent point. Take a few days and let it sink in. If it will make your piece stronger, use it. If it resonates with you as the writer and fits with your vision, use it. But if it doesn’t, don’t. You’ll get ‘critters’ who don’t like your genre, so of course they’re probably not going to like your piece. Evaluate to see if the critter ‘gets’ what you’re trying to say/tell. You’ll soon get the hang of it. I had one critter in the beginning that was telling me to delete things that were what made my character different. She didn’t like the character and so was watering her down to what she liked. I didn’t take her advice because I knew this was how my character thought, and others were liking this exact aspect of her.

So, I’m going to risk that 40% will not like my character and my story and hoping the 20% in the middle do.

EDIT: A sharp commenter noted that this is a breakdown of the Pareto Principle, known as the 80/20 rule. The lesson is the same: concentrate on capturing that elusive 20% in the middle, and the 40 on either end are the ‘trivial 80%’ noted in Pareto’s Principle!

What has been your critique experience? Do you find this rule applicable as well? Do you think the percentage distribution is right? Or do you feel 30-40-30 is more accurate?

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20 Replies to “Dealing with Critiques and Reviews – the 40-20-40 Rule”

      1. i was referring to Pareto rule that we all can apply into whatever aspect but when I rad this blog post, it’s like a stepping stone to understanding the Pareto Principle.

  1. Recently I posted chapters that I thought were ready for critique only to discover that I was not getting the thrust of my characters personalities and goals throught to my reader. I ended up pulling them and re-writing. Now everyone understands what my characters want. Concerning critique groups, I ended up forming one that was only historical. Tweeted.

    1. CPs are so invaluable! They’ve helped me so much with mine, and I know I’ve read indie books where I know they’d skipped this vital step and it’s a shame, really.

  2. CPs . . . ah, CPs. Yes, there are some books that could have used a really good Critique buddy to help guide the story. But when it comes to CPs, I’m not sure what statistic applies there. I have writer friends who love their critique partners. Others who only got hurt. They had to turn to free-lance editors, who gave professional and knowledgeable assessments. I have my editor and a beta reader that I love and trust, and I feel very lucky to have both. I do try to recommend critique buddies, especially to new writers, but I always try to say that if it’s not a right fit, then leave. Be civil, of course, but just leave.

  3. Love this rule, Angela. It sounds so like “You can’t please all the people all the time,” but it has math in it, so I get it so much more clearly, LOL! I hadn’t heard that before. Whether the percentages are 40-20-40 or 30-40-30, whatevs. The concept is the same–what are you going to do to secure the votes in the middle? It’s like Lincoln, the movie, LOL!

  4. “If you have a unique voice or your characters’ voices are interesting and unique, that means some people are not going to like it. It’s just not their thang. And that’s okay.”

    I think more writers need to hear (and believe) this.

  5. Love the post, Angela! I’d never seen this applied to writing before, but it makes perfect sense. The trick is to learn to disregard those lower 40 comments.;)

  6. Excellent post! The first writings that I ever posted for public viewing were fanfiction. Even though my focus is now on original works, I still write fanfics. I recently had a reviewer give a pretty harsh review to a chapter. As always, I thanked her for taking the time to leave an honest review. She then provided a detailed list of why she didn’t like the chapter. It turns out that in her mind, those characters wouldn’t react the way that they did whereas to me, it was perfectly normal. We are still having a running dialogue about my story and the video game that it is based on!

  7. Another great post. I haven’t heard this particular rule, but had something more ephemeral in mind like it – the numbers make it easier. 🙂 Thanks too for the recommendation of CC – I’m going to give it a try. For critique: I’m fortunate now to have 2 CPs I trust, and who’s work has made me a better writer. But finding them hasn’t been easy. I work hard on my critiques – trying to highlight positive points while also providing constructive criticism – and it took a long while before I found anything other than “rubber stamp” CPs (ie: few things highlighted, “oh, it was wonderful!” or insert other not-overly-helpful-comment), or those who were into “revenge critiques” (critiques meant to hurt and harm, just mean rather than constructive).

    I know critique makes me a better writer – both receiving AND giving. Just keeping in mind that precious 40-20-40 takes a bit of practice, and sometimes a breath (or night) or two to put everything back into perspective. 🙂 Have a great week.

  8. Reblogged this on Merry Farmer and commented:
    Some excellent advice on dealing with critiques and reviews from a fabulous author who I have trusted to critique my own work, Angela Quarles. Keep your eyes on her, folks! She’s coming to a bestseller list near you!

  9. I think Merry’s right.
    When I was writing my first erotic novel half my readers said GREAT! put in more sex and cut out that introspection rubbish!
    The other half said OH the INTROSPECTION it is so wonderful! Cut out that awful sexy stuff! LOL Seriously they did!
    So I decided it was about right as it was, no one was bored at least.
    That book went on to be a best-seller and remains in print – so I figured if you bother ALL your readers you are a success as an author… hehe.

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