Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror

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OW, THAT HURTS! Dealing with the Less-Than-Pleasant Critique

By workshop member and support staffer Jon Paradise

A good critique is a terribly useful thing, and we do love to get them. Even if they make us reconsider some of our most beloved storytelling decisions (sometimes especially then), a good critique can be the difference between a story that almost works and one that wins a Nebula.

But we've all gotten the crits that leave us shaking our heads, too. From the one-paragraph point-getter summary of the story we've slaved over with the obligatory "you need to use a comma here" inserted as a nod to actual content, to the deluxe 4,000 word teardown chock-full of directives ("do it this way!"), demeaning language ("you keep making this mistake!"), and generalized, sometimes inexplicable advice ("In the real world, women never seek conflict, they always want to resolve things").

Or, even worse, the critique that's well-meaning, but has little to do with the story we wrote, from the critiquer who has a vision that isn't the one that we have for the story. A ton of effort spent trying to craft a great crit...that might not actually help us at all.

However they may come, some crits can be baffling, disheartening, infuriating, or all three and more. But maybe we can still get something out of many of them. How? Here are a few things I've learned over the years, first as a member of the 'shop and, later, as a member of the OWW support staff.

  1. The first step is perspective. Take a walk, wash the dishes, read a book. Push away from the computer, at any rate, and take a little time to think, or not to think at all. It's the same as when we get an inflammatory email or tweet or whatever -- sometimes the best response is no response, and space always helps with that.
  2. When you come back, keep in mind that in most cases the critic has the best of intentions. They may just not be very good at critiquing yet -- we've all been there, too. Learning to crit is a process, just like learning to write. We're all people, prone to mistakes and misunderstandings. A little effort spent remembering that can save a lot of heartache down the road.

    That said, it’s worth considering that sometimes a “bad” critique is just one we’re not ready to hear yet. I can personally attest to this -- when I was starting out, I often received critiques that were exactly the right information to help me grow, but which I wasn’t ready to hear because I was convinced of my own genius. So...

  3. It might be worth taking another look at the critique, before you do anything else, holding in mind the question “what if this (whatever it is) were true? What would the implications be?” Looking in this light at a critique that makes us uncomfortable can often be revealing.
  4. Moving on, if you find the phrasing of the individual points to be less-than stellar, you might want to try to dismiss the phrasing and look at the content. Sure, the person may have stated something poorly. But what were they saying stripped of the way they said it? Can we find something useful there? Something where we can nod our head and say "yup, I see where that would help make this story more what it needs to be, even if I don’t like the way it was suggested"?

    In other words, try to determine what is being said *behind* what is being said. Whatever the reviewer said, the words usually meant something to the person saying them. Can we take anything from that meaning?

    Of course, there often isn't much to find behind the words of a well-intentioned but minimalist crit, or a crit that's made just for the points. But get what you can here.

  5. If the critique is well-intentioned but vague or muddled, it might be worth the effort to attempt to determine what isn't being said, that the critiquer really meant. This can be useful for good crits as well as poor ones -- if the complaint is that the reader was confused here, it may mean that the problem is right there, but it also might mean that the problem was back a ways, where a touch of information or context or character development might help make the bits later make sense. Dismissing a vague point of criticism simply because of its vaguery may rob the writer of something useful.
  6. Having wrung all you can from the crit, if the reviewer has left a followup address, and if you feel comfortable following up, now might be the time for questions. (Of course, if he or she hasn’t left an address, it’s usually a pretty good indication of not being interested in further discussion.)

    If you write to a reviewer, it's usually a good idea to keep any questions you ask focused around your intent versus what was perceived -- "I meant this bit to do X. Can you recall what gave you the perception that I was trying to do Y?"

    Three rules of thumb that are really just the same rule stated different ways:

    • If you choose to reply, never get defensive. That means...
    • A critique reply, if sent, should about deepening the writer's understanding of the critique as given, and understanding where the piece didn't connect with the particular reader in hopes that the additional information will make for a better piece. Because...
    • Although the writer knows what his or her intention is in creating the piece, the reader took the piece how they took it -- they're not wrong, even if they don't understand. (At root, assuming goodwill on both sides, almost all failures in communication are failures of the speaker, not of the listener.)

    In short, replies to critiques should *never* be a critique of the critique, or of the reviewer.

  7. Last, another opportunity is packed into this experience: to learn about critiquing. Keep in mind how it feels to receive the type of critique you’ve just received -- and then make sure you don’t do it to others!
All that said, there’s another kind of crit. We don’t see them often (thank goodness) but if we get them they can be the hardest ones to receive. Once in a great while, someone will receive a response to a story that’s gone into a personal attack, that veers into polemic that has nothing to do with the piece, or is just phrased in a way that makes the recipient of the critique personally uncomfortable. If you think a critique was malicious, if it makes you feel personally uncomfortable -- it's usually best to skip all the above and disengage immediately. Report the review to OWW at support at, and let me step in to take a look.

Fortunately, this type of “critique” is very rare. Most people who find a home in the OWW (or in any workshop, for that matter) tend to report that they get an awful lot from the majority of critiques they receive, and learn even more by critiquing others. We’re all on the same journey -- learning to better our craft and to write stories that other people will be eager to read. The critiques we receive, and the way we examine and use those critiques, are an important part of that journey. Enjoy it!