When it comes to criticism from my writer's group, I need to hear or read the same idea two, three, or four times before I can incorporate it into my work-in-progress. Months after arguing with my fellow writers, (so blind! so ignorant!) I re-read their notes and am struck by wisdom where I formerly saw idiocy.
How do you decide what to keep and what to leave behind from critiques? One sure bet is the power of all yea or nay. I can't say it any better than Stephen Koch did in A Guide to the Craft of Fiction:
"When a value judgment is unanimous, be it favorable or unfavorable, something important was said. It is, of course, possible -- unlikely but possible -- that you are right and everyone else is wrong ... But usually something everybody dislikes needs fixing. Unanimity is rare."
An all thumbs up or down is easy to use, but how do you assimilate varied opinions, let alone chose what is useful? H.G Wells noted: "No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else's draft."
I give deeper consideration to the comments of those with whose responses I agreed with when critiquing other's work. If I thought they were so spot-on when deconstructing other's work, chances are pretty good they're on target with mine (no matter how much I try to convince myself otherwise.)
If you're in a writing workshop, by the time you've finished your book you've collected a notebook of criticism and compliments. Be wise with both. Be humble and rent all advice even if you don't buy it. Critique has saved me from simpy, saccharine, and sentimental work. (Also, wise-alecky.)
On the other hand, the worst, sent me into a fog of depression. One particular person sent me into a long period of avoiding the page. Beware of cutting critique meant to show how very clever is the person criticizing. Good advice comes from a well of appreciation of your intent and should be without bitterness or denigration.
As for compliments, they're lovely! Just beware of drinking from that particular pitcher too often or deeply. If it is your friends and family who are your readers, they can be bewitched by every word because they're yours and they love you. Many grains of salt can be useful.
Somewhere in the middle you find your answers. Some critique may be veiled insult. Sometimes praise is the easiest way for folks to respond (those who'd rather be false than take a chance of hurting someone's feelings,) however in all circumstances other reader's eyes are needed.
Find the writer's group that works for you. Do not settle for working with folks who are trying to re-write your work, jockey for position, or show how smart they are by riffing on other's writing. Find writing friends who believe they are in a mutual mission to raise everyone's writing to the highest level.
Waiting until the end of my draft before incorporating ideas from my writing group works best for me. Rushing to change characters, plot, or style too soon doesn't allow me to wash the ideas through my own beliefs. Waiting allows me to take in criticism. When I look at critique notes weeks or even months after receiving them, they make more sense. My instinct to fight is gone. I become a believer of their ideas or I become stronger in my own gut. I no longer have to say, "But you don't understand!"
I remember that having to explain my work means something is wrong. Your work must always stand on its own pages. After all, you'll never get to explain anything to the reader who buys your book.
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