Reading How You’re Read: The Art of Evaluating Criticism

Ann Pancake

When you're finally ready to carefully consider the criticism of your work, you must first ask yourself: What parts of this critique contribute to the ultimate goal of fulfilling my vision for this work? What parts indicate that the reader either doesn't understand my intent, or understands my intent but wants me to move in a different direction?

Before you can answer these questions, of course, you have to have a fairly strong sense of your vision for the work. This is why it is important to avoid exposing your writing to criticism until you have a solid grasp of what you're trying to achieve. I don't show anyone what I'm working on until I know I can't make it any better by myself, and I usually don't reach this point until I've finished seven or eight drafts. You might ask someone to read your piece early in the writing process for her support, but if you do this, make clear to the reader what you need from her at this stage—it usually isn't criticism. Even the most novice writer must wait until he at least thinks he understands his vision for the piece before he makes it vulnerable to outside criticism. Later, when you feel you have a handle on your work's intent and are ready to seek criticism, remain open to the possibility that you still may not fully understand the piece and that another reader might actually "get" it before you do.

Once you're conscious of your intent, you're ready to evaluate the specific content of the feedback. If more than one reader identifies the same problem, your decision is relatively easy. Take that consistent reaction to heart. Unfortunately, though, you can often find yourself getting conflicting advice about a specific issue—one reader loved it, another hated it or found it confusing. For example, an editor found the way I slowly revealed information in the first hundred pages of my novel a weakness—she felt that if I didn't more immediately make clear what the novel "was about," readers wouldn't continue reading. Three of my other critics, however, actually loved what one called the "hide-and-reveal" nature of the book because of the suspense it built.

When you hear conflicting advice about a single issue, consider the source of the criticism and listen to your gut. Two readers taking notice of the same element of your story in different ways may mean that you're actually doing something right there—something unusual or unexpected. It may also mean that you're simply not making yourself clear, and you're being misread all the way around. Pay special attention to criticism that echoes comments about earlier pieces you've received from different readers. I've always been called on my vague pronoun references, for example, so if that comes up (again) in feedback, I know it's something I need to address.

As a rule of thumb, take seriously the fact that a problem has been identified. Take a little less seriously the ideas your reader offers as solutions. Occasionally such solutions do work, but more often than not someone else's idea for your own piece just isn't quite right. If you can tweak the suggestion in your own way, however, it may very well do the trick. For these reasons, a vague solution can actually be more helpful than a specific one.

But while open-ended solutions might be useful, be wary of ambiguous identifications of potential problems, like "I just couldn't get into the essay" or "I couldn't really sympathize with the main character." These comments often indicate that the reader isn't reading or thinking very carefully, or is thinking about the wrong things. You can sometimes salvage this kind of critique by kindly asking for specifics. A close cousin to the vague response is the canned response—those old chestnuts you hear over and over again in workshops, which usually mean that the reader didn't read closely or that she doesn't have enough workshop experience to know how to really critique a piece. Whenever I hear "I would like to see more of this character" or "of this scene," for example, two of the most common canned workshop responses, I bristle. If the reader is explaining exactly how a character needs to be developed or is describing precisely how the scene needs to be expanded, "I'd like to see more of…" is helpful. Usually, however, it's just downright lazy feedback.

Occasionally, in more advanced workshops, you'll get something that is the opposite of canned feedback but is no more useful: A reader will make a suggestion that sounds very original and interesting, but, on close inspection, has little to do with your piece, at least as you have written it. (This usually comes from the kind of critic for whom it's more important to look intelligent to others in the workshop than it is to help you improve your writing.)

Be wary of suggestions that make the work "easier" to read. If your critic is addressing something in your story that is obviously unclear, fine, but such suggestions can also be triggered by a passage in your piece where you made an unexpected move, strayed from conventions, or took a risk. While the critic's natural instinct might be to "smooth out" these irregularities, you could end up compromising the originality of your art by following such directives. Another more obvious thing to remember is that if a reader has unequivocally misread one part of your piece, you should probably take less seriously his similar remarks elsewhere.

Keep in mind that a reader who commented on an earlier draft may have a hard time giving an objective, reliable read of a revised version. Unfortunately, that first read usually muddies the second one. As a teacher who must comment on my students' revisions and read commentaries on their peers' revisions, I've noticed this problem time and again. When critics reread, they tend to over-praise changes (especially ones they suggested), grow bored more quickly, and occasionally bemoan the omission of passages or lines they grew attached to in an early draft but that really did need to go.