Critique partners, critters, alpha readers, beta readers, proofreaders, editors, loyal slaves and subjects—whatever you want to call them, they’re a vital part of any author’s arsenal. No matter how talented and studied we may be, we’re always going to need an objective pair of eyes to look at our work and point out the flaws we’ve inevitably missed. Those of us who are lucky to have one or more dependable crit partners are blessed indeed. Critters should be pampered and courted and thanked profusely at every opportunity.
But, believe it or not, this doesn’t mean we don’t have every right to completely ignore them at times. It’s often hard not to surrender to incumbent doubts and make all the changes your critter suggests, especially when he is more experienced or forceful than you are, or when a critique group gangs up on you. Surely, they know best. Surely, the story will be better their way than yours.
But will it? How do you know when to heed criticism? How do you know what’s worth listening to? You can start by asking yourself the following six questions:
1. How experienced is your critique partner as both a reader and a writer?
In other words, does he know what he’s talking about?
2. Does what your critique partner is saying resonate with your own instincts?
Take a moment to brush off the sting of criticism, sit quietly, and ask yourself if the suggested change feels right for the story. Chances are your critter may have seen something you missed. But, then again, maybe not. If your gut tells you your story is better your way, listen to it.
3. Has more than one person mentioned the same problem?
My personal policy on criticism is that two people (one of whom can be myself) have to agree on it to make it worth changing. If I agree with one critter, then it’s a no-brainer that I’ll change my manuscript to reflect his suggestions. But if I disagree with one critter only to have his opinion backed up by a second opinion, I know I need to take another long hard look at the passage in question.
4. Does the critique partner understand what you’re trying to accomplish in the overall scope and tone of your story?
Sometimes critters unintentionally try to conform your writing to their own style. His style may be just as good as yours, but if it’s not what you’re going for, don’t hesitate to ignore irrelevant suggestions.
5. How long has this person been critting for you?
If your critter is a person who’s read your work over a long period of time, he probably has gained a very good sense of you, your work, and what you’re capable of. The longer someone has critted for you and the more established your relationship, the more likely his advice will be worth listening to.
6. Do you know your critique partner’s strengths and weaknesses?
If you’re able to have more than one person read your manuscripts, sometimes it’s best to ask each of them to focus on a particular facet of your story. Some people will be stronger at catching inconsistencies in character personalities, while others will be better at finessing your dialogue. And, likewise, each will have his weaker area, in which his opinion may not be as valuable as someone else’s.
In short, you’re not likely to discover a critter whose advice is worth listening to in toto. You’ll have to sort through his suggestions, balance your mindset somewhere between discernment and humility, and discover which juicy bits of criticism can lift your story to a new level—and which cannot. In the end, no matter how brilliant your critters may be, your story is still your story, and whatever you change or don’t change must line up with your own vision.
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