Sifting Through The Comments

What do you do if you’ve entered a contest and the scores you receive range from high to low and the judges’ comments seem to contradict each other? Or if you belong to a critique group where some of the members tell you what you’ve written is fantastic while others tear the piece apart?

I’ve had both experiences, and I’ve seen it happen to many writers. For a new writer, the negatives can be devastating. Their “baby” has been torn to shreds, called ugly. What they thought was so wonderful before the critique or contest is now tarnished.

Some writers, having had that experience, drop out of the critique group or vow never to enter a contest again. That’s not always the wisest move. What every writer must learn is how to sift through comments, take the ideas or advice that’s beneficial, and ignore the rest. It’s not easy, but it’s good training for handling reviews or rejections (if you’re lucky enough to get a rejection with comments).

Points to remember:

  1. Not everyone is going to like what you’ve written or like your writing style. You can’t do anything about those comments. The best thing to do is say thank you and move on.
  2. Some critiquers will miss crucial information, which will make their comments worthless. In that case, look at the scene or section and make sure the information is clear and complete. Sometimes the reader is at fault (read too fast, skipped the scene, or simply didn’t get it), and sometimes what you thought was obvious may not be.
  3. Some critiquers and contest judges are super critical. They’ll snip at every misplaced comma, sentence fragment, or misspelling. In that case, review your grammar and punctuation rules, and correct the spelling. It might hurt for a little while (since they focused on those elements and not the story), but those errors can be correct…and you may even want to leave those sentence fragments in. That’s still your decision.
  4. Some critiquers and contest judges will tell you you’re wrong about how to do something, because, in their minds, that’s not how it’s done. You may want to call them idiots because you know what you wrote is correct, but don’t, at least not so they hear you. (What you say to yourself is another matter.) Do take another look at the scene and make sure you’ve written it in a way that will convince readers that you’re right.
  5. The difficult comments are when a critiquer or judge simply doesn’t like a character. Sometimes it’s personal opinion. The judge doesn’t think a woman could or should act a certain way. Or maybe a critiquer hates male body builders. Whether you think it’s the reader’s personal opinion or not, take a closer look at what you’ve written. Sometimes it’s the words you’ve used to describe the character that create negative impressions. Sometimes it’s how the character acts. Make sure your character is either acting in a positive way or you’ve established a good reason for the character to do something. You don’t want to create a TSTL (to stupid to live) character.
  6. One person loves a scene you’ve written, but two or three people have trouble with it. This is a time to give that scene a closer look. Something is missing. If you’re in a critique group, often what the critiquers say will help you pinpoint the additional information you need to add. With a contest, since you can’t ask, simply realize you need to do more work on that scene.

The main point to remember is not every negative comment necessitates action on your part. Sometimes it’s the judge’s or critiquer’s problem. But, if more than one person has trouble with a character or scene, then it needs more work. You have to sift through the comments and decide which ones need action.

And remember, if you’re the one giving the critique or judging the entry, be kind. Your words can hurt.


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16 Responses to Sifting Through The Comments

  1. Diane Burton says:

    Excellent advice, Maris. You can’t imagine what I’ve called (in my mind only) judges who didn’t get my character. As you say, if more than one person tells you the same thing, it’s time to re-examine the passage.

    A writer has to toughen up, though. Reviewers will be just as harsh or worse. The same rule applies–say/write nothing (except in your head).

    • Maris Soule says:

      You are so right, Diane. I remember an instance where a writer started saying negative things about a bad review she’d received. She was ready to take on the reviewer. It turned around an made her look bad, and as a result, she lost a lot of potential readers.

  2. Steven Kuehn says:

    Excellent post, and great advice for writers AND reviewers. Most of my critique experiences have been in the form of peer review for academic journals, but the situations are identical. For every article I submit, the reviews invariably range from great to awful, often with little rhyme or reason. I never have problems correcting errors of fact or citation. But I would add one thing to your post, which should be stressed: Any review of your work is someone else’s OPINION, nothing more, and should be considered in that light. Just because a reviewer says one thing, that does not make it a fact, or even correct. Writers, don’t be afraid to question or (politely) challenge a reviewer, even if it is in your own mind. The story you are writing is yours, and go with your gut on how best to tell it.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Good advice, Steven. The bottom line is it’s your name on the article, short story, or book. Make sure it’s the best you can write (at the time) and that you’ve carefully checked your facts. After that, it’s the reviewer’s problem, not yours.

  3. susan Payne says:

    I am probably the queen of contest entries – I now have 44 novels and novellas and most have received schizophrenic reviews – one very high & one very low. often I get an additional read from another judge because the scores were so far apart. Every one of your points I have run into – even to them not liking a name. Just didn’t sound Scottish enough -well she had an English mother and THAT had a lot to do with her name. Of course I could not say such things to them. I did take yours ( and others) advice to read an author I liked and see what I really liked – well, the author I liked had sentences of as many as 54 words. A sentence that had 4 semi-colons, a paragraph full of contractions, and sentence fragments. and one hell of a long run on sentence. And she is well published by multiple groups. One story the heroine did not show up till the third chapter! so all the rules were broken, all the things I get slapped for were present and I still enjoyed reading her story. Maybe the critiques know what the professionals say they want – but they seem to buy something else. love to all

    • Maris Soule says:

      Susan, I love it. And yes, there are rules, and many times judges (especially) get hung up on those rules and forget the main rule: If it works, it works. Sentence length often depends on the reader. My husband likes long sentences. I like short sentences (but not 100% short). We read the books that satisfy our desires. One isn’t necessarily better than the other.

  4. Lucy Kubash says:

    I was thinking of entering a contest and having second thoughts (being a bit of coward) because I know some judges can be really tough. You made some good points on how to deal with their comments.

  5. Great advice!
    Thanks for sharing.

  6. Melissa Keir says:

    Wonderfully informative post! I loved the way you broke down all the different thinking!

  7. Great advice, Maris. It’s hard when someone doesn’t like what we’ve written, but sometimes a different viewpoint can make us consider something we missed before.

    • Maris Soule says:

      An excellent point, HiDee. There are times when I’m just too close to my work. What I think makes sense, may not to someone else.

  8. Louise Reiter says:

    Maris, your advice is super! I agree that a writer has to toughen up to stay in this business, but perhaps you can educate the person who critiques. (Notice I didn’t say “judge”; he or she is beyond hope.) So, to all the critiquers out there: Be constructive with your criticism and add a solution to the problem: Don’t just say “I hate that,” say, “I feel your dialogue did not seem credible.” (Note how specific you should be.) And always find a positive element about the person’s writing. Encourage your fellow writers whenever you can…it’s a rough road out there!

  9. Maris Soule says:

    Good points, Louise. You are so right about the need to pinpoint what bothered the critiquer and why. And even though pointing out the weak parts may be helpful to the writer, telling the writer where he or she did well is equally important. Thanks for your comments.