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Worst-Case Critiques: “The critique I got didn’t explain enough!”

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

Once again, we’ll nail down what this problem is before we start to work though some options: you’re a writer who’s looking for feedback, and the critique you got covered everything – but left out the depth and detail you wanted to fully elaborate on that feedback.

The words in bold are key, because depending on your situation, the feedback from that critique could range from ’Rom-Com IKEA Instructions (a.k.a. a blank page with a frowny face)’ to ’Actual IKEA Instructions (i.e. vague but you can work with it)’. Many critiques use a shorthand or give a generalized rationale, but slip in enough for you to make up your own answer on what to do with it. In those situations, you’re less likely to need more detail on what the feedback meant, and more on brainstorming ways of working it in.

With that in mind, and as our last pre-step, let’s run through a couple of scenarios we’re not explicitly resolving in this post. It’s not that:

* the critique had depth, but your crit partner missed the mark on your writing or you flat-out disagree with what they said,

* the critique gave the right amount of detail, but in an unhelpfully harsh or soft way,

* you didn’t get any detail, to the point that this part of your writing wasn’t really critiqued, or

* you’re stuck because you didn’t get enough guidance on how you should fix something.

For that last bullet, here’s my disclosure on how I’m biased about critiques: they stop at the point that you understand how your crit partner’s opinion is relevant. Any suggestions or corrections you get on top of that, even for little things like fixing a typo, fall under brainstorming, copyediting, or reader reviews. ’Other stuff’. Unless you’ve knowingly prepped your crit partner to give you that, they’ll be making blind (at worst) or educated (at best) guesses on what might help. Take those with a grain of salt, always remember who’s got the final say on your work, and take this advice with as much salt as you need now that you’re caught up on my propaganda.

So like the title says, your problem here has to do with missing elaboration. You’ve received a critique that gave you an opinion and would’ve been okay if it had more examples, and you want to fill in the blanks on where your crit partner was coming from.

Let’s go!

1. Ask.

Again, check that you’ve covered all your bases, because as simple as this one might seem, it’s still not always the easiest and most obvious option: ask your crit partner to elaborate. This is a good choice for when they seem to be holding back on explaining everything, because it looked straightforward, there was too much to discuss, or because it’s contentious and they didn’t want to start a fight.

The best time to ask is just before they move onto their next point, since that’s generally when they’ve said all they’ll say for that last one. For those shy folk out there or for anyone who’s been sent the whole critique at once (e.g. it was emailed), the second-best time is ’at the most convenient opportunity’ – so no worries if you want to hold your questions until the end. That goes double for contentious topics, where ’convenient opportunity’ could be better translated as ’later and possibly in private’ purely in case there is a fight and you run out of time to talk about the rest.

Because you’re not asking them to critique something that they might’ve missed the first time, and therefore wanting them to do more work on top of what they’ve already done, there’s so much less pressure on you here: you’re just asking them to clarify their feedback because you appreciate the work they put in, and you want to understand it so it doesn’t all go to waste. It’s also your reminder to make sure that you’re asking them to learn how their critique is relevant to your writing, and not to trap them in that fight they were trying so hard to avoid.

So if your heart is pure and your intentions are very ’No, for real, I have no idea what you meant,’ all this takes is something along the lines of, “Just before we get into [the next thing], I had a question about [the thing that didn’t get explained enough]. Can you elaborate on that?”

If they can, great! If they can’t or they don’t want to, remember that asking isn’t ordering. Picking this option means accepting that they can still say ’no’ – and in which case, you just can say: “Oh, no problem. I’ll look into it later. What were you saying about [the next thing]?”

2. Elaborate by proxy.

Sometimes your crit partner’s willing to explain what they meant in their critique, but they’re treading water on how to rephrase it or throwing out replies like, “I don’t know, I can’t put it into words.” Where you have a figurative language barrier but enough of your crit partner’s patience to try to translate, elaborating for them becomes a good choice to open the floodgates on a deluge of deeper details. How much time you spend on it depends on how ’worth it’ you think the feedback is; more importantly, on how good you are at party games.

You can come at this in two ways: like you’re playing Charades or playing Spin the Bottle. The best time for either one depends on your crit partner’s interest in participating: they either have a specific point in mind and they’re actively jazzed up to help you to get it (à la Charades), or they’re happy to latch onto any explanation you spin the bottle at – but not that one, ew, no offence, but ew.

The Charades strategy is the same as the game, in that you’re guessing the concept, sub-concept, then sub-sub-concept until you finally hit at what they’re trying to tell you. The goal is to keep throwing out those guesses until you’re interrupted by a strong ’yes’, but getting to their ’yes’ means tracking all their weak, non-’yes’ answers: the wrist-twist of ’maybe’, that scrunch-face of ’kinda’, those jazz-hands of ’Everybody fake amnesia so I can start again’. Those build up to form a chain around your crit partner’s logic, and that’s what’s going to zero in on the answer to this riddle.

As one example, if okay dialogue, fair interaction, and good plot aren’t problems on their own, then circling them into one Overarching Multi-Problem whenever they’re slapped with a ’Well, sort of...’ might upgrade your crit partner’s water-treading from, “It’s not bad but I don’t like it as much as the rest,” to something more Phelps-like: “The conversation was okay and it sounded natural, but it’s not what I thought I was going to read. It’s good dialogue but it’s out of place.” From there, you’ve got a lot more mileage with discussing if the story’s kept its focus.

With the Spin the Bottle strategy, you’ll take on even more of the work but get to let your insecurities be your guide. Your goal here is to convince yourself that if you can’t guess their problem after you’ve tried every possibility worth imagining, that’s on them – ’cause you’ve checked your writing’s breath and even flossed its literary braces, so obviously your crit partner’s got a thing against whatever that part of the critique was.

An enthusiastic ’Yes, that makes sense’ to your guesses means congrats! You got the elaboration you were after. But if you spin and spin and keep landing between those weak non-’yeses’ making awkward eye contact but no effort to CSI: That-One-Kid’s-Basement their way to deciding who the bottle is technically closer to, eventually you’ll exhaust yourself into saying, “Can’t please everyone.”

On that last point, if you or your crit partner quit before you reach that moment of mental acceptance, you have permission to do the whole How-Am-I-Still-Obsessed-With-This-As-An-Adult thing and huddle up with beta readers from your target audience. Through their reviews, you’ll either have the problem corroborated to pinpoint where to make your next edits or get your next critique, or some “You’re an independent writer who don’t need no feedback” support. Either way, you’ll be able to put it to rest.

3. Unleash their beast.

Hoo boy.

So you’ve tried Option 1 and didn’t get past your crit partner’s wall of, “Oh, I shouldn’t, I don’t want to step on any toes.” You, being part of the OWC’s fantastic critique circles, agree to wait until the group leaves to talk about it one-on-one, found the same problem, and had to escalate to Option 2. But Option 2 fizzled out, ’cause they’ve started with, “Oh, you know, I had a thought, but I don’t really know how to phrase it.” Flag that. Back up. You’re at different impasse.

What you’re dealing with now is more of a tact barrier than a language one, which means that although they might seem like they’re looking for a Spin the Bottle sniper, most of your attempts to phrase it for them will never quite capture what they ’truly’ mean. If this is all still eating at you, or if you’ve confirmed there’s a problem for which you insist on having richer feedback, this can be a good choice provided that two key things are always true:

* you can Smile and Nod™, and

* you’ve got an exit strategy.

The best time for this is when those apply to everyone, including (and pre-assuming) your crit partner. The worst time is when one of those stops being true for anybody. This is your warning: Option 3 is the ’Playing with Social Fire’ plan. Depending on how rough the topic is and how fast you can switch it if someone starts to look a little cornered, this could go from that one scene in Saw where they’re working together to literally any other scene from Saw – just like that. Even if you start on the same page, as the consensus builds, if someone’s not completely on board with it, the risk spikes for clever comments worming in at ’their’ expense to go oops, it’s midnight now and I hate you.

Here’s how this works in three simple tinderboxes: let your crit partner rant, disregard everything they said, then ask them, “Okay, and where is that different from [that part of your writing you’re trying to get more detail on]?” Try not to sound like you disregarded everything they said, but that you need them to use your writing as an example so you ‘truly’ can get what they meant.

Your goal is to let whatever’s in their system out so they can relax now that it’s all on the table, and in a way where you’re not (as they expect, or they wouldn’t be so ’I warned youuu~’) launching into a counterpoint or into total agreement, which can be as much of a forest fire as arguing is, what with getting too caught up in that consensus I mentioned to consider anything from outside of it. Instead, you’re only willing to let them talk if they can keep it relevant to your writing, and that’s a trade a lot of these particular crit partners are happy to make. The second it deviates from that, rinse and repeat: let talk, tune out, need example.

Once this stops bearing fruit or when you’ve wrung out enough from ’em, there’s your exit: oops I’ve gotta go, we’re out of time, it’s the next person’s turn, we’re doing a subject change, oh I get it now, agree to disagree, cool story bro, we should grab a coffee and then talk about it (but you won’t, ’cause Ottawa’s main export is our polite-yet-empty intentions (a.k.a. both real and figurative potholes (i.e. no for real, can somebody fix these potholes (no not like that)))).

Big note: you’ve also got an emergency brake.

We trust our members to be mature, know their limit, respect yours, and we absolutely recognize that what some people write about isn’t always what the rest are comfortable discussing – and vice-versa. We’re not aiming to whitewash anybody’s projects or put a blanket ban over an idea, but the OWC maintains zero wiggle room on being an asshole. In this case, that’s measured by whether the conversation brakes once it’s crossed a line, regardless of how long it’s been going on or how recently someone else joined in.

If it’s your line crossed, you have three fast choices of recourse:

* Take a break until they finish (e.g. hit the bathroom, chill on your phone, chat with someone else)

* Put the actual brakes on (e.g. “Hey, this is getting intense, so let’s just [bring the volume down/be less graphic/go back to talking about XYZ].”)

* Proceed without them (e.g. “Hey guys, we’re going to go back to talking about XYZ, so let’s switch seats if you want to finish that conversation first so we’re not talking over each other.”)

If none of those compromises work (or if something way crossed the line), you’re free to leave or sit somewhere else, and that’s when we’d invite you to let the organizers know on Meetup or through our contact page. We’ll check in to see what’s up, because we don’t want anyone having to bail on any event to avoid somebody in particular.

This note is in Option 3 to helpfully remind you to be aware of who’s in earshot if you’re whipping this one out. This is Ottawa, so in most cases, the Beast you’ll unleash is a ten-minute apology for lowkey hating a trope you’ve used, but be ready to hop up and have that out at a different table or after everyone’s gone if someone makes that request.

4. Get what you pay for.

The OWC does not charge for its critique circles.

Not with money (but we’re open to donations ‘cause it does cost cash to run this group). Instead, the price to get a critique from each of the writers who participate is for you to critique all of them in return, and be at the actual event. That’s it.

Some online critiquing groups use more of a points system, where the more you critique, the more points you get, which you spend on submitting your own stuff. Friends and family ask for stuff like ‘spending time together’ or ‘helping on different projects’. I can’t stress enough: critiquing takes work, and nobody works for free – but that’s great, since anything free will absolutely have some price they’re not mentioning and leaves you to gamble on exactly what you get, no refunds.

So paying isn’t your problem. You’ve already paid or drawn up an IOU. Your problem’s that you’ve paid ‘X much’ and it got you a critique you believe lacks detail. My problem is giving you a good choice for what to do when so people have so many ways of arguing what counts as a ‘fair deal’.

Here’s what we’ll do: I made a scenario that takes a bite-sized look at your dilemma. Based on the stakes involved, you’ll either probably or definitely decide you paid too much/not enough for what you got, and not only will that take you to your own Option 4, but it’s also an idea I stole from a Cosmo quiz. Regardless of which one you get, they’re all best used after you’ve at least tried Option 1, 2, or 3.

The Scenario:

You got the last free sample of cheese but there’s some mould on it. That sucks ‘cause you really wanted cheese, so you’re going to ask for some replacement cheese. The store’s not closing, you’re not in a rush, and two people are in line. More importantly, they offered cheese, you want the cheese, so give you the sample of cheese.

If you’re thinking right now, “Buy the cheese if you want it so bad,” your Option 4 is: sweeten the deal. Buy your crit partner a drink. Offer to critique an extra chapter of theirs. Do a chore for them (drive them somewhere, I don’t know their life) or slip them a little Canadian Tire money. Essentially, you’ve learned that paying ‘X much’ gets you what got. At above-‘X much’ dollars or any not-strictly-cash gains, it’s reasonable to expect a richer and more focused critique now that they have more incentive to do a deeper dive on your work. The caveat is that you don’t know how much you’d have to give to get so much better, and the law of diminishing returns will now apply (i.e. paying only takes you so far, and now you’ve set a price on what this is worth – which is totally fine, supply meets demand, but budget for it going forward).

If you thought, “Is this the only cheese? Is it magic cheese? What’s the deal with this exact cheese?”, then your Option 4 is: put it on record. Take what you wanted from a critique and transcribe it somewhere more solid than in your head. You want to be face-to-face with it so you – and other people – can judge if it’s too much for what you’re offering (e.g. the critique they want, the time they have to get back to you, Canada or Canadian Tire money). Remember the law of diminishing returns; someone agreeing to do more doesn’t always mean they’re able to deliver. You might have to break up your requests if you realize you’re at the max. you can get for this trade, or do what those ’Buy the Cheese’ people did and jazz up what’s already on offer. But you can’t make those judgements until you’ve had a chance to critique your request for critiques. Be honest, be nuanced, and write it out.

If instead you thought, “You could probably cut the mould off and still eat it, depending on the cheese,” gross. Also your Option 4 is: look out for lemons. There’s a difference between someone who’s bad at critiquing and getting a critique that is bad. Someone bad can improve, be understood, or be accommodated for a busy schedule or any nerves. Bad critiques are what’s left when you’ve done all that. They’re not common, but they do exist, and sometimes critiques are intentionally vague because your crit partner didn’t have anything to say – so what you’re looking at is nonsense jotted down to cover up a blank page. Occasionally you could be stuck with a rain-check after rain-check to meet and explain things better that’s secretly a ‘no’ hoping you’ll stop asking. 9 times out of 10, that’s a crit partner with too much on their plate, but either way, you’re tapped out on the feedback they can give. You can check if anyone can pick up where they left off, but still brace to cut your losses with this particular crit partner rather than claw at a two-centimetre cube of sweaty Sobey’s cheddar.

Last, if you’re thinking, “Right on, free cheese, let’s get it,” your Option 4 is: ask us. And by ‘us’, I mean the host or whoever’s in charge, not doubling-down on Option 1. Because maybe we – the people running the event – have the Big Picture explanation. Maybe the written details are light because writers make their own notes at the face-to-face event. Maybe you’re in a beginner group and everyone’s trying their best. Maybe you’re in a practice group and the focus is on learning how to run one of these, not the actual critique. Maybe there’s a pattern with someone, or maybe everyone’s expecting different things. We – again, the hosts – want you to ask even if it’s the first time it’s been mentioned. Especially if it’s the first time, because if there’s a simple fix or something we should start to track, you’ve just saved everyone else the headache that might’ve made them miss out on the full experience. Don’t yell at us please, ‘cause our event hosts are volunteers, but pass the message up. We might be out of cheese or just forgot to restock the tray.

I’m gonna go get lunch now.


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