How Much of Critiques Should Writers Take To Heart?

I recently came across some great advice in Madison Smartt Bell’s book, Narrative Design. It has since stayed with me, despite my neglecting to take the wisdom to heart.

This is a section in the book where Bell writes about how he opened/opens his classes (Iowa workshop):

“Assume that when your work is being discussed, about 90 percent of what you hear will be useless to you and irrelevant to what you have done. Learn to listen carefully and to discriminate what’s useful to you from what’s not. Remember the relevant part and ignore the rest. If even one person understands what you intended to be understood, then you can say you have succeeded. Past that, the only issue is just how widely accessible you want your work to be. Don’t try to please the group. Don’t even try to please me. The person you have to please is yourself. Your job is to become the best judge of your own work. If you do become a professional writer at some point, you’ll need that skill more than ever before.”


3 thoughts on “How Much of Critiques Should Writers Take To Heart?

  1. This is very good advice.

    I have recently been changing my first Chadwick Yates story based on the edits I received from several group members.

    It was helpful to me to do the following:

    1. When two readers had totally conflicting opinions, I went with whatever I preferred. For example, the book has a really long list in it. Two readers said they loved the list. Two said I should take it out. It was an even split. I liked it, so I kept it.

    2. If someone said my word choice or sentence was confusing, I looked at the sentence and said, “Do I need this sentence at all?” If not, I cut it out. If yes, I deleted it and rewrote the thought as simply and clearly as I could, abandoning all fancy wordplay. I used this to lean the story down.

    3. For opinions that only came up once from one person: If I like the suggestion, I did it. If I like my way better, I kept it my way. I probably accepted a little less than half of it, but the story is much stronger to me for those changes.

    It was tremendously helpful. So like you say, I think critiques are useful, but they’re not indicative of the overall quality of the work. And they’re not indicative of how popular a work could be. I can think of several extremely popular novels that would be eviscerated by any creative writing masters class you’d care to send them to.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wise words, Brad. It pains me to see writers confused and saddened by conflicting feedback. It’s important to remember you can’t please everyone. The final arbiter is what your gut tells you.


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