Lessons Learned from a Writing Critique

Today’s guest post is by Sylvie Soul.

I received my first dose of cold water reality when I paid to have my manuscript critiqued.

I started submitting my manuscript to various different contests shortly after it was completed. While it was not my first draft, I admit that what I submitted needed extra polish. Regardless, I felt confident enough in what I’d written to submit to a few contests whose deadlines were in May.

In a previous article I had mentioned the financial cost of participating in these competitions; for many I was essentially throwing money into a void with no expectation that I would receive anything of value in return.

However, I made an impulsive decision to enter one particular contest because it was offering the guarantee of a professional critique (for a nominal fee on top of the entry cost, natch). This seemed like the first real investment toward my writing since purchasing Scrivener.

Well, my manuscript did not make it through to the final round (big surprise), but I did receive a critique. Here are a few things that stuck out to me:

Formatting Game Needs to Be on Point

While the judge that gave the critique admitted to enjoying my concept, they lamented that my formatting was atrocious to the point where they were tempted to “skim the whole thing and dismiss it as unprofessional and unreadable.” (As a side note, this is absolutely NOT something you want to read after spending a $25 premium on feedback!)

Thankfully, the manuscript was read, and I was given an invaluable lesson on the importance of proper formatting. Admittedly, I had treated it as an afterthought, but it is an absolutely necessary component to having your work be taken seriously, whether it’s being looked at by judges, literary agents, or captivated readers.

By not properly double-spacing and submitting in .rtf format instead of as a Word doc, I communicate to the people I want to impress that I have no disregard for the rules, so why should they be bothered to extend the courtesy of giving my manuscript a second glance? AFP – Always Format Properly: that is my mantra going forward.

Trust Your Gut

Before I received my feedback, I grappled with the current state of my manuscript. I grew frustrated with the niggling sense that certain elements weren’t working: the setting made no sense, the motivation of the characters seemed flat and uninspired, the resolutions of specific character arcs seemed anticlimactic and unearned.

I was fully aware of the problems with my story, which is why it was comforting to receive that validation in the form of a professional critique. It meant that I could feel no guilt in going back to the drawing board and restructuring my story in a matter that would leave me—and the reader—more satisfied.

Separate the Wheat from the Chaff

This is something an old high school teacher of mine used to say. It means to separate the things of high value from the things that are worthless—the “chaff.”

Make no mistake: there is a damn fine novel buried within the chaffy nonsense that is my current draft. I see it, and so does the judge that gave the critique. But they also stressed there was a lot of fat that needed to be hewn from my work.

What I viewed as essential world building, the judge regarded as unnecessary filler that killed the flow and pacing and reflected none of the amazing story that I outlined in my synopsis.

Looking back, I realize even in the context of my entire novel that certain scenes just don’t fit and go against key elements in characters that I’m trying to build. When I revise, these are the pieces of chaff that need to be hewn away to get to the wheaty goodness of my novel.

You. Can’t. Please. Everyone.

Can an individual survive being crushed by a Dumpster bin? 

The entry fee to the contest was $30, with a $25 fee for the critique. I would later discover that two separate judges would judge my entry: one judge provided very simple feedback, while another provided the in-depth critique. The critiquing judge, while recognizing the glaring flaws of my writing, praised my story and offered helpful insight on how I could go about improving the areas in which I had struggled in my manuscript.

The other judge was a different beast entirely.

Now, mind you, had I received a more detailed critique from this judge, perhaps I’d have a better idea where they were coming from. But this judge could not get past a key point in my story.

There’s a scene in which the main character has to brawl her way out of a precarious situation, and it culminates with a man being neutralized by a falling Dumpster bin.

The judge was horrified at the idea of the main character murdering a person and colored a good portion of her feedback with references to this scene (four times).

Problem was, I never intended for this scene to read as a murder. I was indignant, but my boyfriend suggested that because I never mentioned the fate of the man after the Dumpster fell upon him, it wasn’t unreasonable to assume he died.

Reluctantly, I conceded to this oversight. I don’t have to like the attitude of this judge, but I can’t deny the truth to the feedback given.
Lesson learned: not everyone will appreciate your writing. But rather than get offended or angry, try to glean the constructive criticism that will ultimately make your story stronger for it.

So What Now?

The critique sparked a newfound energy to revisit my manuscript and do some heavy work. I feel enough time has passed for me to kick into gear the next phase of perfecting my manuscript.

Sylvie Soulet has had a passion for writing since she was a little girl. And now, she’s finally decided to pursue her lifelong dream of writing a novel. When not deliberating over plot holes and negotiating extra-lean word counts, Sylvie can be found in small-city Toronto. Check out Sylvie’s website here.

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  1. Sylvie,

    I also love to enter my work into contests that include critiques. I find it well worth the price to get feedback from professionals, and I always take all comments into consideration when I work on my revisions. As a matter of fact, it’s the negative comments that help us the most, as long as they’re constructive.
    Thanks for getting it out there.

  2. This was very useful. Thanks for being so candid about your writing journey, it’s encouraging to those of us who are also struggling.

    1. I’m still a long way out from reaching my goal, but receiving unbiased feedback was invaluable in my journey to eventually publish a novel. I take comfort in knowing that for many of us, it gets a lot worse before it gets better; being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel is what keeps me going. Keep at it – thanks for reading! 🙂

  3. “By not properly double-spacing and submitting in .rtf format instead of as a Word doc, I communicate to the people I want to impress that I have no disregard for the rules, so why should they be bothered to extend the courtesy of giving my manuscript a second glance? AFP – Always Format Properly: that is my mantra going forward.”

    Did you mean to say, “I communicate to the people I want to impress that I have no REGARD for the rules”?

    “While the judge that gave the critique admitted to enjoying my concept, they lamented that my formatting was atrocious”….

    I find it preferable to say “who” instead of “that” when referring to a person. Is this obsolete?
    Speaking of obsolete, “judge…they” sticks out like a sore thumb to me. I had just become accustomed to “he/she” if the gender is unknown. b

  4. Of course we all want to hear how great our work is, but that’s not what usually happens when we submit our work to professionals for a critique.

    For one thing, their comments mean more work…but we’re tired of fooling with it.

    For another thing, they point out the problems/flaws but don’t provide any solutions, so now we’re left alone scratching our heads as to how the heck to fix the doggone thing.

    And it’s not just the story/manuscript. I’ve had pitchlines, queries and synopses critiqued as needing work. Part of the problem is often being unable to see our work from their perspective, because it’s very difficult to reorient our own thinking

    1. A good writing coach will point out what is weak and why, and how to fix it. Yes, comments do mean more work. The point of the critique is to show what needs work, right? But I, for one, offer lots of suggestions and ways to fix structural problems. I provide details, resources, and pointed instruction for how to learn what is lacking and what exactly is lacking. However, a writing coach isn’t there to fix a story for the writer. The point is to help the writer see what skills they lack and where their structure is off. We all have things to work on. Just like a sports trainer who will focus on the 10% weak areas of the athlete, a writing coach’s critique should point out the big area needing immediate attention before the writer can really proceed. Too often aspiring writers tackle writing a novel before they even know how to craft a character, write dialogue, or put together a scene. So one step at a time!

      1. Yes, you’re absolutely right. There are some elements I feel very proficient in, but there are others where I know I am lacking. The critique reaffirms these fears, but also confirms where I need to put in the extra work in order to improve.

        Thanks for commenting. 🙂

    2. Yes, very true. I appreciate the honest feedback from the critique, but I have to be honest: I’m practically paralyzed by the amount of work I see ahead of me. I just have to remind myself how to ‘eat an elephant’ and soldier through it.

      Thanks for reading. 🙂

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