Worst-Case Critiques: “Nobody critiqued what I wanted critiqued.”

Updated: Oct 27, 2019


We’ll nail down the problem before we start working through some options: you’re a writer who’s looking for feedback, and your writing just got a fair critique – except it overlooked something you wanted and still want to talk about.


Those words in bold are key, because depending on your situation, how you led up to them can change the stakes from ‘Worst-Case Scenario’ to ‘Annoying but Fine’. Many critiques do overlook something, but offer so much on so many other points that missing this one isn’t too bad. You’re less likely to exhaust yourself on these options before feeling fine to move on to the next critique or crit partner.


On the other hand, your behind-the-scenes of those bolded words could raise your stakes from ‘Worst-Case Scenario’ to ‘Potentially a Symptom of a More Complicated Cause’. Now you might look through every option and not find any that fully addresses what you’re up against, because you have several problems piling on overtop of this one.


So! As our last pre-step, we’ll run down a couple of scenarios we’re not explicitly resolving in this post. It’s not that:


* you haven’t been critiqued yet, but you’re nervous about how it’ll go,

* you did get everything critiqued, but it wasn’t as ‘good’ or in-depth as you wanted,

* you got everything critiqued, but too soft or too harshly to help, or

* everything got critiqued, but your crit partner completely missed the mark of your writing or you just flat-out disagree with them.


Like the title says, your problem here has to do with missing content. You’ve actually received a critique you would’ve been okay with if not for some topic that got skipped, and you want to rectify the omission, not necessarily the crit partner.


Alright – let’s go!


1. Ask.


This is a simple one, but not the easiest or even most obvious: ask your crit partner to give you that missing feedback. It’s a good choice for when you know something was overlooked by accident, or if nobody mentioned their No-News-Is-News policy.


The best time for this is after you’ve heard their whole critique. In a lot of cases, what they’ve given you makes that point you’re looking for moot. In others, you might be happy enough with what you’ve got to ‘not want to push it’. You could’ve also hated what you heard and not want any more. If you check all these things and decide you’re still game to bring it up, this is still your best time for one reason: critiquing is hard. Nothing says, “Dance, monkey, dance” as ungratefully as doing your best, then getting told to immediately ‘do better’ before that other person’s heard you out or thanked you for the work you just did.


So you’ve heard their critique. You’ve thanked your crit partner. Now you want a casual way to open that discussion. Aim along the lines of a natural, “I had also a question about [that thing that got skipped]. What did you think?”


Remember: asking is not ordering. If you go this route, you accept the risk that they might say ‘no’ to offering more of their analysis (e.g., “That’s not what I focus on in my critiques” or “I didn’t have any thoughts about XYZ”). In that case, here’s your way to just as casually move on from it:


“Oh, okay. Thank you. Those were all the questions I had.”


2. Check that you’re speaking their language.


One index finger stuck straight up can mean the number one, “Just a minute,” “I’m going to count to three,” “I have a comment about that,” somebody raising their arm but ‘the lazy way’, somebody else grabbing the cheque, or literally the direction ‘up’. That’s a finger – not even a word. The context your crit partner needs, catches, or missed will drastically change how they package their critique. It also makes learning what feedback they thought you wanted a good choice for when they’re sure they’ve done everything, and you aren’t.


The best time for this is after you know how the feedback you wanted would’ve looked. Whether that’s through an example from some other critique (not necessarily your own), a walkthrough of what you meant, or separating what was critiqued from what still needs to be, aim to compare it with facts from the critique you got to hone in on the miscommunication: “You talked about [example from the critique] at one point, and that’s where I was expecting [how the feedback would've looked].”


(Quick note: the word 'and' is key in that suggestion, in contrast to 'but'. You're not dismissing what they gave you, just saying that you also thought there'd be XYZ.)


The confusion may be from you using (or – let’s cover our bases – misusing) what you thought was an industry term, but they’ve never heard of it, thought of a different term, only knew this one by some other name, or – those bases again – followed the actual industry meaning. Wherever the ball dropped, remember: one finger can mean a dozen different things. Miscommunications are a part of life, and they can take a long conversation to tease out. The stakes involved will guide you on how long to spend trying. 


On the bright side, this version of the problem’s the most blameless! And that's great because it's also the one that never really stops popping up.


3. Bring the water to the horse.


If your crit partner’s willing to fill in those agreed-upon blanks of the critique, but is now stuck on how to give you that, there’s a tooth-pulling, carpet-rolling, hyper-specific tactic still available to you: yes/no questions. This is a good choice for when you just need some kind of an answer, but because of their experience, the time left in your turn, or any other tension around the table, your crit partner isn’t in a place to take on the work to net you a meaningful one. Essentially, they’re Deep Thought from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and you're both the mice and Earth making sense of ‘42’.


The best time for this is when you’re coming to your breaking point of patience. Not hit, just so we’re clear, because that’s too late and risks any good feedback falling on your now-deaf-from-annoyance ears, but definitely approaching it. Things should be enough that if all they give you was a one-word reply, you’d be okay. 


But here’s your warning: you’ll be playing with social fire. Restricting your crit partner’s ability to reply down to only two words might genuinely unstick them, but we’re adults. We know what’s up, and when we’re getting kicked out of the driver’s seat. In some cases, you might be able to temper the situation if your crit partner’s only hit with one yes/no question, gets a successful follow-up of ‘Why?’ to put them back behind the steering wheel, and can recognize your intention to genuinely help them help you. In others, you'll face a ‘Mostly Harmless’ twist real fast.


Keep your yes/no questions to a sentence, but make that single sentence as layered as you need to be happy with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. The one-sentence constraint lets you pack on context while forcing you to strip whatever won’t directly relate to your point. All that makes every precious bit easier for your crit partner to assess the analysis you’re laying down for them, and then give you their yes/no with confidence. 


Remember: the first question you ask is the one you’ve technically paid for, but every question afterwards is you panhandling for people’s patience over getting talked down to. 


4. Give them what they’re asking for.


There’s a number of caveats tied to this, including things like:

* whether multiple critiques have given you the same notes,

* whether those notes are technical (e.g., spelling, grammar, continuity) or creative (e.g., word choice, character arc, level of detail),


* whether your conscious decisions conflict with their feedback,


* how far you’ve developed this draft of your writing, and


* whether your crit partners skipped that topic you wanted on feedback on for a reason.


It‘s not a complete list, but any other caveat would just keep feeding a fed horse on the question they’re all asking: how far are you willing to go to meet your crit partner where they’ve said the middle is? It's a good choice – and a good question to answer – for writers who’ve been banging their head on a wall over critiques that will not budge towards what they wanted.


The best time for this is really after you’ve tried the other options, if only because they’re ordered in terms of ‘Least Amount of Work’ to ‘Most’. This one’s the most. With option 1, you pointed them to a road they missed. Option 2, you had to talk about whether it’s the right road. Option 3, sure, they’ll take your word for it, but you had to rent them the car. With this, you're on the verge of building a new road for them altogether.


That isn’t necessarily unreasonable. You could have the West Hunt Club of working drafts, and your crit partner could just be asking you to push some of the dead raccoons in to fill some of the potholes. Whether they asked ‘cause they can’t appreciate the intentionality of such art, because your draft is too rough for them, or (in all seriousness) because they’re not comfortable critiquing this part, can you accept their conditions to go further on their critique?


Because I can’t know what stakes are set or even what critique(s) you got, that mini-list of caveats is my starting point for you. Are these easy, technical corrections you just can pop in? Is this your second, third, or fourth critique giving you these notes, to the point that it seems like your crit partners are putting a collective foot down? Did you have reasons for not adopting those earlier notes that haven’t quite spoken for themselves? Can you just – like... not ask this crit partner for feedback on that specific element?


Remember: the best defence is a strong offence when it comes to making changes based on critiques. The effort you take to get your most conscious draft (i.e., one where you're prepared hear someone pointing something out as either ‘fair advice’ or ‘a suggestion that you’re fine to consciously turn down’) helps keep you focused on the goal of what you were trying to say, and at worst, inspires you to bend a little and say it in a way you now think sounds better.


5. Check if it’s really a critique that you want for this.

Critiques are great. They’re like interviews, and you’re like the journalist asking questions for your crit partner to explain, and for you to investigate until you have the facts you need to edit the story you’re really going to tell. They also empower you to pick out the helpful advice, as defined by whatever your goal is for writing. In that way, critiques are like dice: roll ‘em if you got ‘em if you want to, but the numbers only matter as far as your point for rolling them at all. Is 7 good? Was a 1 bad? Were you checking if these were loaded?


All of that sets up critiques as a great tool for writers making sure they’ve met their goal, and a good choice for when you think you’d know what would help get you closer to your goal (including on “I’ll know it when I see it” terms). The best time for one is at that phase where you’re so deep into editing, you might be able to guess whether something works or not, but can’t step back enough to explain why.


And that’s it! That’s all a critique can do: explain, explain, explain – their thoughts for this, their thoughts for that, to the point where any part that just says, “I liked it!” or “I didn’t like it” is flattery (? at that second one) until you link up with its friend ‘Because’. Then it’s rationale again. 


It’s not to rag on flattery. Half the time, it’s the spoonful of sugar you need to get this literary medicine down. But for the other half, you’ll notice your crit partner isn’t in your targeted readership. Beyond tickling you pink, what does it mean if they like your work? Compare it to hearing this from someone you’ve chosen to be your ideal reader (PROTIP: choose yourself, you can read your mind), which could mean that wherever your draft is, it’s good. These are reader reviews, which some crit partners do throw in, but they all still need to be vetted to ensure that their tastes are ones you actually want to cater to.


The deeper devil in these details is that critiques are subjective. Something as simple as spelling a word 'the dictionary way’ might be dead obvious to your crit partner, but advising you to fix a typo is based on their personal preference not reading misspelled words. If you blindly take it as law, you could strip out an awesome, intentionally-misspelled-plot-point supporting your narrative. Instead, if you get their rationale to help get you closer to your writing’s goal (of, say, using typos to foreshadow an arc), the fair advice you’ll suck out could mean that you aren’t hinting hard enough – or confirm that you’ve hinted perfectly. 


When you want those objective fixes, that’s when you’d turn to copyediting. Here, the insistence for everyone to work with the same rules gets dumped and adjusted to fit your writing specifically. Any deviations from that internal style is corrected on your behalf with a trusted, Judge Dredd-like efficiency, and with proofreading there for a last pass on your very final draft. Ultimately, critiques are one tool in a toolbox. If attempt after attempt goes fruitlessly by in getting a critique on some part of your writing, it might be time to finally reach back in.