How to Tell if Criticism is Valid (And What to do About Valid Criticism)

Here are some of the important lessons on writer learned from the critiques she received while writing her debut novel.
Publish date:

One of the best ways to improve your manuscript and get it ready to submit to agents and editors is to have another writer read it and offer an honest critique. And getting several such critiques is even better. Although most writing manuals tell you that this is crucial for improving your writing, many authors still avoid having their manuscript critiqued. Some believe that only they can judge what is right for their work. Others fear that they will be emotionally shattered by the criticism and it might even cause them to stop writing. Of course, most of us bruise easily, and can’t bear to be criticized. But that’s not the only obstacle. Even if we steel ourselves for criticism and claim that we are ready to accept advice, there is still another problem: How do we determine what is a valid criticism versus that which is purely subjective or even gratuitous? When should we listen to the criticism? And once we do, what steps should we take to follow that advice?

Here are some of the important lessons I learned from the critiques I received while writing my debut novel Come Back for Me.

This guest post is by Sharon Hart-Green. Hart-Green is the author of the debut novel COME BACK FOR ME, a story of trauma, loss, and the redemptive power of love set in the aftermath of World War II. It was chosen as the inaugural fiction offering of The New Jewish Press. Sharon received her PhD in Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and has taught Hebrew and Yiddish literature at the University of Toronto. She is currently at work on a second novel about the mystical inclinations of a young man in search of love. You can connect with her on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or her website.

Sharon Hart-Green featured
Come Back for Me - Cover_1

Listen carefully to your critics

When you get back your manuscript and it’s covered in a sea of red, take a deep breath. It may take a day or two to get over the initial shock of seeing your manuscript torn to shreds. Yes, it’s normal to feel hurt and dismayed. But remember: it is not a personal attack. You mustn’t let those feelings get in the way of all you can learn from a good critique. In fact, in order to get the most from a manuscript critique, it is vital to pay close attention to each individual comment. Review all points carefully before deciding whether or not to accept or reject them. Even if some points seem absurd, there may be others that are relevant. If anything rings true, make note of it and consider what it would take for you to implement the change.

And most important: if you receive the same criticism from several sources, then that’s probably a sign that the criticism is valid. Rather than reacting defensively, consider it a gift that will help you improve your work.

[The 7 Rules of Dialogue All Writers Should Know]

When to say no

If a criticism seems completely wrong to you, of course you should follow your instincts and say no. It is your work and you are not obligated to accept everything a critic suggests. There are certainly times when other writers simply don’t “get” your work. And sometimes readers get tired and misunderstand something that would be clear on a second reading. But don’t be tempted to reject all of their comments just because they might have slipped up here and there. Rejecting a criticism should only be done after seriously considering the point that is being made.

The best approach is to view the criticism as an opportunity to learn. All writers need another pair of eyes to point out flaws in their writing. And the more people who critique your work, the more you will learn. One caveat: don’t ask for a critique from someone you sense is untrustworthy or is overly competitive with you. You may not get an honest critique.

Don’t fear the time it will take

Don’t dismiss criticism because it would be too much work to implement, or because making the necessary changes will take too much time. We all feel overwhelmed when asked to make substantive changes. But remember that every minute you put into editing is worth it in the end. Professional writers edit their work obsessively in order to improve it. One major plus is that the more experienced you become as a writer, the less time it will take to implement changes.

Taking a positive approach to major editing

Small things are easy to change (overuse of words, change of tense, etc.) It’s the big things that make you want to hide in bed with the covers pulled up over your head. But taking the initiative and making the necessary changes in your manuscript provides an added benefit: it helps build confidence in oneself as a writer. It is an opportunity to prove to yourself that you are prepared to do all that it takes to perfect your work—even it if it means restructuring the entire book.

I rewrote my novel completely after realizing that the original structure had been seriously flawed. Yes, it was a scary enterprise to tear apart the entire edifice I had built. But by doing it, I showed myself that I could do it. And the best thing was that I ended up producing what I believe to be a much tighter and more powerful manuscript in the end.

[10 Meaningful Practices for Every Writer]

How to begin

The best way to start is to make a list of the needed changes. Seeing that list in front of you helps alleviate a lot of the fear. If the changes are structural, drawing a diagram can also be helpful. It allows you to see the structure of the manuscript as a visual image. Another method is to break the manuscript up into individual sections by writing on cue cards, and then spreading them across a large table to rearrange at will.

Whatever technique you choose, the process of editing always becomes easier after you start. You begin to realize that it can be done. After all, that is what separates the professional writer from the amateur: the ability to write, tear down, and start again.


Get Feedback (from an Agent) on Your Plot for One Flat Price

You'll Love This Plot Critique Service If:

—You're looking for a professional critique of your plot
—You want to know what an agent thinks about the strengths and weaknesses of your plot
—You want a clear idea of how to revise your plot to ensure the most compelling story

Invest in your manuscript and order your critique here.

Thanks for visiting The Writer's Dig blog. For more great writing advice, click here.


Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
Sign up for Brian's free Writer's Digest eNewsletter: WD Newsletter
Listen to Brian on: The Writer's Market Podcast

Shugri Said Salh: On Writing the Coming-Of-Age Story

Shugri Said Salh: On Writing the Coming-Of-Age Story

Debut author Shugri Said Salh discusses how wanting to know her mother lead her to writing her coming-of-age novel, The Last Nomad.

100 Ways to Buff Your Book

100 Ways to Buff Your Book

Does your manuscript need a little more definition, but you’re not sure where to begin? Try these 100 tips to give your words more power.

Kaia Alderson: On Internal Roadblocks and Not Giving Up

Kaia Alderson: On Internal Roadblocks and Not Giving Up

Kaia Alderson discusses how she never gave up on her story, how she worked through internal doubts, and how research lead her out of romance and into historical fiction.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: Seven New Courses, Writing Prompts, and More!

This week, we’re excited to announce seven new courses, our Editorial Calendar, and more!

Crystal Wilkinson: On The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

Crystal Wilkinson: On The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

Kentucky’s Poet Laureate Crystal Wilkinson discusses how each project has its own process and the difference between writing fiction and her new memoir, Perfect Black.

From Script

Approaching Comedy from a Personal Perspective and Tapping into Your Unique Writer’s Voice (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by, interviews with masters of comedy, screenwriter Tim Long ('The Simpsons') and writer-director Dan Mazer (Borat Subsequent Movie) about their collaboration on their film 'The Exchange', and filmmaker Trent O’Donnell on his new film 'Ride the Eagle' co-written with actor Jake Johnson ('New Girl'). Plus, tips on how to tap into your unique voice and more!

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Accepting Feedback on Your Writing

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Accepting Feedback on Your Writing

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not accepting feedback on your writing.

Writer's Digest Best Creativity Websites 2021

Writer's Digest Best Creativity Websites 2021

Here are the top creativity websites as identified in the 23rd Annual 101 Best Websites from the May/June 2021 issue of Writer's Digest.

Poetic Forms

Englyn Proest Dalgron: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the englyn proest dalgron, a Welsh quatrain form.