Writers often join critique groups. Others invite friends or colleagues to offer feedback on work-in-progress. Peer feedback can be important, sometimes even essential, providing helpful reality checks and critical insights. But allowing others to critique our work carries risks. Too harsh a critique may stop a writer cold and lead to an unfinished story or novel, possibly writers’ block. Too flattering a review can blind a writer to a manuscript’s weaknesses, which an agent or editor will see all too clearly.
We writers need to choose our critics wisely. Family members and close friends often find it difficult to be objective. Some may fear to hurt our feelings. More importantly, they may not have the background to understand audiences, genres or the realities of the marketplace.
On the flip side, sarcastic, mean-spirited or know-it-all critics, no matter how expert or brilliant, may do more damage than good, especially to fledgling writers. The best critics are straight-forwardly honest (sometimes, painfully so). Their intent is not to stomp on our egos but to nudge us to make editorial changes that will enhance our work. Good critics highlight what’s positive in a manuscript, encouraging us to build on what we do well. But even good critics may read a chapter or two and not understand what a writer intends.
Some years ago, I read an interview with a filmmaker, who talked about the importance for screening a film with a live audience before the final edit. What he often hears after a screening are multiple and conflicting criticisms. But instead of trying to respond to each of these in his final edit, he looks beyond the criticisms to what he calls “the eleventh thing.” By this, he means that if a film receives ten different negative responses, he looks for the eleventh thing that each of these critics may actually be saying, in other words, the single underlying problem.
Author Neil Gaiman expresses this well: “…when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”