Cracking the Critique: Getting the Maximum from Your Conference Critiques

by Romy Natalia Goldberg

Texas: Brazos-Valley RA

No matter how constructive criticism is, it’s still criticism, and sometimes it can be hard to subject work you crafted so lovingly to someone else’s critical eye, even if you paid for the privilege. Here are some hints to help you make the most of your conference critiques. 

Assume all critiques are correct for 24 hours

We’re all human and even seasoned professionals still dream of hearing “no changes necessary!” so it’s only natural that our defenses be on high alert during a critique. Whether you’re receiving critiques via email or in person, it’s best to assume all the criticism provided is correct for a period of time. This will allow you to fully open your mind to suggestions. After a day you will find that some suggestions are spot on and others are not your cup of tea (and some might take a little longer to digest). It’s ok, you don’t need to accept every critique given, but you might as well consider them all. 

Ask follow up questions

If you’re receiving a critique in person be sure to use your time wisely. Instead of spending time rebutting or justifying why specific suggestions won’t work or aren’t valid, ask your critiquer follow up questions. Instead of “that character is based on my mother” try “what is it about this character that isn’t working for you?” Swap out “I don’t see this as a humorous picture book” to “are there any mentor texts you’d suggest I use when revising?” Figuring out the reasoning behind your critiquer’s suggestions will make it much easier to tackle edits later. 

Divide and conquer

Once you’ve taken time to think through the suggested changes, divide them into a few categories: 

  1. Easy fixes - things like typos or edits you already suspected needed to happen. Personally, I would go ahead and get these done ASAP so you can focus your energy on more substantive changes. 
  2. Harder fixes - structural edits and other large changes that will take more time and energy go here. Making a bulleted list will help this feel less overwhelming. If you have any ideas, jot them down as well. For novels some people find it easier to work in chronological order while others prefer to order from easiest to hardest edits. 
  3. Non-negotiables- chalk these up to differences in style/vision between yourself and the critiquer. Unless you are already famous, this should be a very short list. Write out the reason each fix is “non-negotiable” and then re-read the original critique. Consider why each particular suggestion was provided and think of other ways you could accomplish the same goal. 

Take your time

As tempting as it can be to go the “rip the bandaid off” route and get revisions over and done with, you’ll get better results if you give yourself time to mull over changes, especially big ones. Structural edits such as eliminating significant characters, settings, or changing tones or POVs are a big deal. Ironically, agents and editors will be less impressed if you rush them as it gives the impression that you didn’t take their suggestions or your work seriously. Give yourself time to mull over and try out the best way to incorporate their suggestions in ways that ring true to your writing style and voice.