The timer buzzed but Susan completed her final note before setting down her pen.
The critique group leader looked up and surveyed the five people surrounding her dining room table. “Who’d like to go first?”
Susan held up her pen. “I’ll go.”
Susan glanced down at her notes on Harold-the-newcomer’s first submission to the group.
“First of all, ” She looked up at Harold. “I like the tension you’ve established in this scene. I can really feel the conflict between these two characters. So, good job.”
Harold nodded and grinned. “Thank you.”
“Near the bottom of the first page, in the sixth paragraph.” Susan tapped her finger on the paper. “See where it says, ‘He felt the sun beating down on his back’? Do you think you could rewrite that to eliminate the word ‘felt’? If you can, I think it might help your readers experience a deeper point of view.”
Harold’s brows pinched together. He said nothing as he dropped his gaze to his own copy of the story.
After an awkward pause, Susan turned the page and found her next note. “Here in the middle of the second page, you do a good job describing how the trash is all cleaned up today, but then you point out that it was spilled across the yard yesterday. The reader already knows this, though, because you wrote about the spilled trash just two scenes prior to this one, right? I think you can get away with just the description of how clean it is today and leave out the rest. The reader will pick up on the significance of the change.”
She looked around. Others were nodding.
Harold’s lips pinched and he didn’t look up.
Susan stifled a sigh as she skimmed through the rest of her notes. “Regarding the last line on the second page. With the way you structured this sentence, I’m not sure what you are referring to when you say, ‘Those things didn’t matter anymore.’ Perhaps, if you-”
Harold jumped to his feet. “I don’t know what there is not to get. My other group got it just fine.” He snatched back the copies of his story from those around the table. “They thought it was great. You must not have read it carefully.” He jerked Susan’s copy from her hands and jammed the papers into his backpack. “Maybe if you didn’t use this stupid timer,” He knocked over the wind-up timer. “You could appreciate great writing when you saw it.”
Harold stormed out of the house, slamming the front door behind him.
Don’t be a Harold. Just don’t.
You should never dismiss constructive critique out-of-hand. It’s even worse to take it as a personal offense. If someone has taken time out of their day to read your work and provide feedback, the least you can do is listen calmly and with an open mind.
But what should you do when the person critiquing you is wrong?
Well, first of all, stop and consider that they might be right. Seriously. We don’t know what we don’t know. Sometimes what that person is saying doesn’t make sense to you, not because they are wrong, but because they haven’t explained it in a way that you can understand. Ask follow-up, clarifying questions. Make sure you thoroughly understand what they are trying to say. Then, if you have thought it over rationally, and still don’t think they are correct in their assessment or suggestion … shut up. Just smile and thank them for their time and effort in critiquing your work. Then walk away and put their notes in a file somewhere.
Don’t delete or throw the critique out right away.
Why? In my experience, even those critiques you initially assess as incorrect can sometimes prove to have a grain of truth six months down the line when you learn something new; or you can suddenly encounter a second person saying the same thing as the first person, but they are explaining it in a way that changes your perspective on it. Having two or more people provide you with the same or similar critical note means it is time to sit up and pay attention. Maybe they are both wrong. Maybe not. Either way, it will be much easier to reassess things if you can look at both critiques side by side.
So when should you throw out critiques?
If the critique is something objectively wrong such as telling you that you can’t capitalize the word “son” even when using it as a proper noun, unless you are referring to Jesus . . . double check your preferred style manual, then throw it out. Grammar is grammar (for the most part).
If the critique is subjective, – such as how much you describe something – you should first consider everything you have learned about the writing craft and the conventions of your genre. Then consider whether you are hearing it from two or more sources or if it is a solitary opinion. Then, if you, as the author, still want it to stay the way it is … that’s why you are the author.
The thing a lot of new writers forget is that when everything is said and done, writing is an art form. Art is subjective. Trust me. I have received directly opposing critiques from equally reputable sources. They can’t both be right.
When it comes down to it, it’s your name on that title page, not theirs. Until and unless you sign a contract granting someone else control of your art, it is up to you to decide what best represents your intentions as the artist. Own that.
Don’t be a Harold.
Do have the confidence to (respectfully) ignore a critique that changes your art into theirs.
P.S. I’ve come a long way in my thinking on this issue. Take a peek back at my first reaction to the revelation that I am an artist.