March 14, 2016

Commandment #8: Not All Critiques Are Created Equal

It's tempting to listen to your best friend, your supportive family member, or even that writer you met in a critique group who's telling you that your work is pretty much perfect, except for a couple tweaks. It's even more tempting when it's someone who calls themselves an "editor" paying you endless compliments (and charging you money to boot!). Maybe they're even right. But if you're struggling to meet your publishing goals, those unhelpful "critiques" could be to blame.

We all like to be told that we did an amazing job, and more importantly that we're done. No more work needs to be put into this project because it's great exactly as it is! Incredible feeling, right? But you can't trust just anybody who gives you this kind of feedback. 

Photo credit: Nic's events via Foter.com / CC BY-SA
There's a reason your fellow writer or friend doesn't catch that massive plot hole, point out character development problems, or notice that your subplot stops existing halfway through the book. And there's a reason a good editor catches all of these problems and more.

Just like programming, drawing, gymnastics, etc., editing is a skill. Like most skills, editing well is something that must be learned and then honed. Having an English Literature degree doesn't automatically make you a good editor. Neither does being a bookworm, or even a successful author. These things don't preclude you from being a good editor, of course, but they're insufficient.  Not everyone can catch the problems, point them out, and provide useful suggestions on how to fix them. It takes knowledge and practice, and possibly a natural inclination toward that kind of work (what people like to call "talent"). 

As a writer, you should seek out not those who pay you endless compliments, but those who actually have the experience and knowledge to evaluate your writing and help you improve. They should be able to abstract themselves from their relationship with you and focus entirely on your work. Similarly, you should evaluate the quality of the feedback and disregard how much you like the person.

There is a clear hierarchy to the value provided by a critique. Someone who doesn't read in your genre is pretty low on the list, because they have no frame of reference for what your target readers will expect and enjoy. A beta reader or a fellow writer without much critiquing experience would be somewhere toward the middle, as in many cases, they lack the experience and wherewithal to provide honest criticism and clear suggestions for improvement. An experienced critique partner, especially one who is familiar with your genre and has previously provided useful feedback, is close to the top. But nothing beats a qualified, experienced, and skilled editor.

Remembering this hierarchy can help you sift through contradictory critiques and suggestions, choose the direction in which to take your revisions, and decide how much work still needs to be done. Another way to think about it is: A good beta reader will point out what they like in your book. A good critique partner will point out what isn't working. A good editor will also help you fix it. 

Have you received contradictory critiques on your work? How did you decide which suggestions to prioritize?


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