I have some great critique partners. But after several years of participating in both online and offline critique groups, I’ve learned that some types of advice just need to be ignored. Not that you should go on the defensive. In fact, in my in-person critique group, Word Weavers, the critiquee is forbidden to defend. Just smile, nod, say thank you…and ignore the misbegotten advice.
I’m not talking here about stuff you could look up, like “never use an adverb.” I’m talking about more broad suggestions that reach into the gray areas of craft.
Urging you to explain
These folks ask questions about your character motivation or backstory: “Why did she do that?” or “Why does the place look that way?”
Being a good writer, you know the answers to these questions, but you have not included them — at least not at this early point in the story — because you are resisting the urge to explain. What we call RUE.
But you answer their questions, and they start suggesting ways to work the answers into the text. Smile, nod, ignore.
If your crit partners urge you to explain, keep resisting. They are asking questions because the questions came up in their minds. That’s good. Curious readers keep reading. But just because the question came up on page 20 doesn’t mean you have to answer it on 21. Chances are, if they read to page 210, they’ll have the answers they seek.
Tell them that, if you feel it will help.
Changing your voice
I often use obscure words, like ebullience and balustrade. And occasionally I wind up with a crit partner who will cheerily admit to not knowing a word and suggest changing it. (I personally would keep my mouth shut and look it up later.)
Diction is part of voice. I am a smart writer writing for smart readers. If my readers don’t know what a balustrade is, they’ll happily look it up and thank me for teaching them a new word. (I felt this way when I learned sabatons from Rebecca P. Minor.)
A similar principle applies with sentence structure. Now, while I do advise writers of long sentences to switch to short, choppy ones for fast-paced action scenes, I don’t ban long sentences altogether. Some critters will, editing your work to make it as terse as their own. The reverse also happens. At these times, evaluate what best serves the scene and preserves your voice. But a critique partner who edits your work to make it sounds like theirs is not helping.
Making your story their own
The critique partner who goes so far as to change your story is — dare I be so blunt as to say this — out of line. This is among the most unhelpful things a critique partner can do.
I’m not talking about pointing out genuine plot problems. Good critique partners will point out holes and inconsistencies, and may even brainstorm ways to fix them. But they always understand that it’s your story, and you’re at the helm.
An overbearing critique partner, however, will grab the wheel and chart a course of her own. “Accountants are boring. Why don’t you make her a writer instead? And then the hero can paint the cover art for her book.”
That might make for a good story, but it would be an entirely different story from the one I’m telling. This is one of those times when you just smile and nod and do it your own way.
I think sometimes people say these kinds of things because they feel they have to say something. But just because your critique partner says it doesn’t mean you have to do it.
Part of your development as a writer must be discerning which advice to take and which to ignore.
Do any of your critters give advice that’s better ignored?