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The Author’s Unofficial Guide To Critique Translation

Having your writing critiqued—or offering a well-meaning critique—during a workshop or writers group meeting can be an emotional minefield. Some writers are too sensitive to accept anything less than an enthusiastic bravo! Others are too quick to dismiss critique from peers who “just don’t get it.” But being able to accept critique and make effective use of good feedback is what most writers should strive for.

And if you think accepting critique is difficult, giving useful critique can sometimes be even harder, especially when you have to walk on eggshells to avoid unhappy outbursts. As a result, readers who are offering their thoughts on a piece sometimes have trouble expressing what they’re trying to say. If you’ve ever wished you could have a translator that decodes what people say versus what they really mean, this is for you!

How To Interpret Critique From Your Writing Group


What They Said: I just don’t understand what’s motivating this character.

What They Really Mean: I’m not feeling a deep personal connection with this character.

What You Should Do: Readers who talk about a disconnect between themselves and a given character aren’t feeling a deep sense of empathy. Take steps to make your character seem more real and human. Be sure that your character’s vulnerabilities are clear to readers (vulnerability makes it easier for readers to “feel” for a character). Learn more about how to write characters people care about.


What They Said: This doesn’t seem believable.

What They Really Mean: The text hasn’t fully prepared me for this moment, and so I can’t suspend my disbelief and accept it.

What You Should Do: Consider foreshadowing. When readers feel that a plot point “comes out of nowhere,” they often haven’t been properly prepared for it. Also, take some time to review the tone of your story—does it change dramatically at a point that is jarring your readers? Finally, consider a substantial rewrite: Even if your story is inspired by something that really happened, that doesn’t mean it’s believable. Sometimes, fiction seems truer than fact.


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What They Said: This story just doesn’t speak to me.

What They Really Mean: I just don’t feel like this story grabs me and pulls me in.

What You Should Do: Look at the little details. If your readers are telling you that they can’t picture themselves inside the story, you might not be giving them enough details related to the physical senses. Small details like the color of a cup or the sound of passing cars allow readers to feel as if they are immersed in a scene. See what happens when you delve a little more deeply into detail.


What They Said: I’d like to see more of [this element].

What They Mean: The element in question may be underdeveloped.

What You Should Do: When readers are asking for more, they don’t just want to see additional page time [aka “real estate” in writing-group-speak] dedicated to an element. They want a deeper exploration of that element. Are there facets of the element that can be explored for a more insightful, intense experience?


Final Thoughts On Making Revisions Based On Critique

One of the best parts of being a writer is your ability to save your original work, then experiment with future drafts. Painters who apply an experimental layer to their canvas run the risk of messing it up (just like sculptors who decide to get creative with a hammer). But you, writer, can try new ideas as much as you want—as long as you save the original in its own file.

When working with a critique group or critique partner, embrace your freedom to explore new ideas. If you try a suggested change but don’t like the results, you can always return to your original draft. By boldly experimenting with revisions, there’s nothing to lose; you’ll gain experience, perspective, and improved technique—even if you decide you like your original draft better.


Writer Questions

QUESTION: What common phrases do you hear at writers group critique and workshop sessions?







5 Responses to The Author’s Unofficial Guide To Critique Translation

  1. Gordon,

    I always ask for a RAW critique. “You cannot hurt my feelings and I would rather you guys gut wrench me than the public. So, do me the favor of telling me honestly how you feel about my piece.”

    Sometimes this works. Sometimes not. I’ve found family and friends too kind, though my Sis, an avid reader is coming up to snuff.

    Writing Groups are too Politically Correct for my taste, as you comment above … Nice Critiques and these don’t advance my skill. Worthless. I don’t look to these folks and basically ignore them.

    A little pat on the back is encouraging, but foaming words of adulation are boring and worthless.

  2. My problem is that my critiquers are too kind. They just say nice things even when I ask for suggestions to improve. Sometimes I’ll say something like I think the ending needs work, but no one gives suggestions. It strokes my ego, but I’d like to improve as a writer.
    I’ve been in about five different writing groups with the same results.
    Similarly, Here is an actual response to a contest I entered.
    “Haha, very funny! We enjoyed reading your story and thank you for entering our sci-fi writing contest.” That was from the editor, but not the contest judge. I did make the second tier of Honorable Mentions with about 150 other people; it felt like the participation yellow ribbon in a summer swim team meet.
    Any suggestions? Please.

  3. Good info. I don’t always agree with what a critique partner says the problem is, but when I look again at the material, I often find that something is actually amiss.

    The “it doesn’t grab me” comment must be applied with wisdom. Not all stories speak to all people or at any given time. People do have preferences, biases and are at particular places in life. Still, it is good to take a second look at the manuscript. But if you like it the way it is, the critiquer has given you a better idea about how to market.

  4. These ideas come to mind anytime I’m doing public speaking, whether it’s me selling on a stage or selling to a small group of individuals. Like Vicki explained, if your main motives are mainly self serving, your message will not get to your audience.

    When I’m in front of others I tell a story about whatever topic or thing I’m selling and I make it a personal journey by adding in my past, my successes and failures. I speak in a way that increases confidence and self appreciation in every listener. That’s the true way to engage an audience, by having a desire to increase the quality of other peoples lives.

  5. Great article! The bottom line is a writer’s motives. If a writer is motivated by wealth or their own ambitions in who they should think they should be, they will not be so willing to accept constructive corrections because of their pride welling up from their motives.

    If a writer has a passion for his or her readers because what they are writing can change a reader or help a reader with their stories, then a writer will always want to learn, be humble, and accept criticism because they want their stories to help, comfort, and teach.

    A writer must have a deep passion for their words to give readers a story that moves them.

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