A while back, I posted about how critiquing can be valuable for writers - not just the process of getting outside eyes on your work, but the act of reading critically, bringing your reactions together, and phrasing them in an effective manner. Today, I wanted to talk about how I approach the critiques I receive: how I filter them, decide how to proceed, what advice to use and what to ignore.
Important to everything that follows is this: take critique with a grain of salt. Not every reader is bothered by the same issues. It may only be an "issue" for a particular individual. I've received rejections-with-comments from editors that offer contradictory reasons and comments. Once, I got a rejection on a story criticizing its florid prose. The same story got praise for the lyrical descriptions ... from the very next place I submitted it.
(Some of you may be thinking: what about the writers who are so arrogant they brush off anything that isn't praise? I'm sure they're out there, but in my experience, they're the minority. Most of us hate everything we've written and are prone to believe every negative word.)
In most critique situations, you have more than one reader. Now, I know perfectly well that the best way to deal with this is to wait until all (or at least some) of the responses have come in before changing anything ... but I have a compulsion to apply and "resolve" the critique as soon as possible, so I'd be a hypocrite to advise others to wait.
I analyze each comment in a critique and decide how I feel about it: whether I agree, disagree or am on the fence. This involves knowing myself as a writer, what I want out of the story, and of course the content of the story. (Readers are human, and I have gotten comments / confusion about a fact that is directly stated - but I've also been sure I said X, and gone back to find that wasn't the case ...)
If I agree with the comment, I will make the change right away. Easy enough.
If I'm not sure whether the point is valid or not, I will put it on hold until I hear if others agree with it.
If I disagree with a point ... yeah, I tend to discard it, though not always. If others echo the same concern, I will go back and take another look. I also look at the objection and the reasoning behind it. Sometimes, there's a way to address it in another fashion. Let's say a critique says (this is awful blunt, but let's go with it): "This character is boring. Cut them." I could remove the character entirely ... or I could amp her up and justify her place in the story. Not every reader will explain or even know the reason behind their comments, so it's up to the writer to do a bit of detective work ... even go to the reader directly, if you can do it without being confrontational.
Also, sometimes it's just about what I want the story to be. For instance, I wrote a short story once with a supporting character who betrayed the main character. The ending affirmed his decision and his true colors ... and people hated it. They wanted him to be redeemed, but that was never my intention. In a way, maybe it was a backhanded compliment: they liked him enough to want him to be a good guy.
Finally, sometimes it's about knowing your audience and their tastes. Sometimes, they'll tell you ("I hate happy endings") and sometimes, if you've dealt with the same people for a while, you'll already know. Personally, I hate first person present tense with a passion unless there's some pressing reason for it. It doesn't convey any more immediacy, to me; I just find it distracting and unbookish. (That is not a word. I know.) As a critique partner, I will note this directly - "I hate first person present tense and I didn't mind it at all here" or "I should preface this with the fact that I hate first person present tense, but I don't think it worked here ..." - but not everyone does. But your reader's tastes may add a few extra pinches of salt to a comment.
It's all a delicate balance between believing in your story and trusting that outside eyes will make it stronger. Go too far in either direction, and the story suffers. Even if you change an oddball story to appeal to a wider audience, it may no longer be the story you want to tell ... and to me, that is the more important part.