When I first started submitting Julius on the Novels-List at the Internet Writing Workshop, I was anxious to learn how to critique, but also receive feedback.
The few valuable critiques I did receive were about craft and killing a lot of the megillah of back story that was slowing down the action. However, before I came to the conclusion that these handful of critters were right (remember how much I love back story) I discovered the majority of the crits had more to do with copyediting, formatting, or simply insipid comments like, “I really liked this.”
After some time of belonging to the list, I dropped out because much of the feedback was not helpful. However, that’s not to say that I didn’t learn anything about the process of an online critique group. As a novice writer, I discovered what to distinguish what was valuable and what wasn’t.
In the beginning I was delighted that readers liked the tone, and that I had few copy edits. As I made my revisions and resubmitted, I noticed that many of the comments were suggestions that altered the characters’ motivations. Other readers wanted all the information up front in the first chapter that ended giving away the entire plot. That’s when I realized that a good chunk of the people on the list were just as clueless as I was about craft. Does that make them bad writers who have no talent? No, of course not. They are or were just as inexperienced as I was, and offered what they thought was a valid critique. In essence, to use a cheap cliche, the Novels-List can be like the blind leading the blind.
At first, thinking that most of the participants had published books, I took their comments seriously and made the changes to see that it simply wasn’t working the way I had envisioned the story. As I continued to follow my instincts, I realized that you don’t have to agree with what everyone says. Conversely, there were comments that my first chapter was boring, and this I fought this for a long time, but after re-reading the first page for what was now the one thousandth time I agreed with the critter and revised it to a more dramatic opening, which plays nicely into the story’s theme (at least I think so).
What’s important to keep in mind when getting feedback is to not let the comments get in the way of your writing. Don’t let them interrupt the momentum. In the long run, you’re the one who knows best what works for your characters and the plot. Don’t get sidetracked trying to change things to please your audience, but if you change elements do so because they make sense to you and, ultimately, helps the story.