I’m often asked for suggestions for how to sort through all the notes that a writer receives in a critique. And how to organize all the feedback into a coherent plan for a revision.
These types of requests warm my business analyst/process improvement consultant’s heart. I have recently been in that very situation myself. Here’s the process I use to get from critique notes to ready-to-revise.
Please remember this is a process. Not the process that you must comply with exactly or risk extreme flagellation from your inner critic. Yikes, no.
These are general steps that work for me. Keep what works for you, and ditch the rest.
Chunk, Ponder, Plan, Confirm
The Critique MD’s 4-Step Process to go from Critique Notes to Ready-to-Revise
STEP 1: Chunk
As both a business analyst and a project manager, I have to make decisions on large sets of data. The first thing I do when faced with a lot of data is to chunk it. Meaning that I group like things together. It’s easier to assess 20 chunks of data versus 1,000 data points.
I chunk critique feedback the same way and use three main categories:
- Yes!: These are points that clearly resonate and feel right.
- Maybe?: This is feedback I need to spend more time considering, because I’m not sure yet.
- No!: These are feedback points that I, as the author, fundamentally disagree with at the moment. I say, at the moment, because maybe later I will change my mind, but for now these points strongly land in the not gonna happen chunk.
Note #1: To do this analysis assumes that you have been given written notes or have taken your own notes during the critique.
Note #2: If you have conflicting feedback, dump it into the Maybe? category until you are clear how to proceed.
I have a novel out on submission with publishers. Multiple editors have turned it down. Because of that, my agent and I agreed that I would complete a revision. I parsed the rejection letters to pull out the feedback themes—i.e., the reason(s) the editors were passing on the manuscript. There were three main points. I decided two of those points were in the Yes! category, which meant I would address them. One was solidly in the No! category. I confirmed my assessment with my agent, she agreed on all points, so on to the next step.
STEP 2: Ponder
With the data chunked, give yourself time to ponder. To sketch out ways to resolve the points in the Yes! category and come to a decision on the Maybe? items.
The best advice I can give you for this step is to not rush it. Give yourself time and space to come up with the right solution. Your story will be all the better thanks to your self-discipline and care.
I took three weeks to ponder the solutions for my two Yes! items. Though, technically I had been thinking about solutions for one of them as soon as the first rejection came in. So for that point, we can say five’ish months of indirect pondering, and three weeks of direct pondering.
The end result? The solution for the first issue would involve a lot of cutting and pruning. The solution for the second major change would require adding new chapters.
STEP 3: Plan
Now that you have your solutions, it’s useful to sketch out where in the novel you have to take action. I do this by going into the document and, with the help of search and memory, find the places where I need to make changes. I use the Track Changes tool to highlight and make notes about what I will need to remove/add/revise. At this point, I am not making any revisions.
Sometimes this step is hard to do; I just want to dive in and make the changes already! But when I’ve done that in the past, I’ve often had to backtrack and rework edits because I didn’t have a holistic view of the changes’ impact.
Note: To do this initial rough planning, I’m not reading the novel from start to finish. Think more of a high-level scan than a deep read-through. I use the search tool and keywords to find the obvious places that will need to change. And then I use memory to help me note the less obvious places that will be impacted.
Novels are amazingly interconnected, and it sometimes boggles my mind how even a small change can have ripple effects throughout the manuscript. Using both search and memory helps me get the bulk of the key changes noted.
For the first issue, where the solution would involve a lot of cutting, the keyword search was hugely helpful to find the main places where I would have to take action. And the scanning jogged my memory of other parts of the novel that would be impacted. I made notes in the margins wherever I identified a needed cut/change.
Note: Having this planning part, also helps me validate a solution that contains a lot of cutting AND work through the internal panic of, “Whoa, are you really going to vaporize all that?” Better to work through that panic BEFORE you start messing with the story.
For the second issue, where the solution would involve adding new chapters, search was useful again as all the new chapters would be in the voice of a main secondary character. That character already had an indirect presence via emails he writes to the protagonist. My gut instinct was to place his chapters right after those emails. So easy-peasy to search for his email address and then leave a comment: Add chapter here.
As for thinking through the less obvious places that would need to be reworked by adding these new chapters, I couldn’t do as much in advance as I did with the cutting change. I had to see how the new chapters landed (the details of them) to know if they would lead to revisions in other parts of the story.
STEP 4: Confirm
I print out the novel and do a deep read-through. I make any adjustments to the plan as I go. Making notes in the margins. Looking for nooks and crannies where the bigger changes necessitate changes/rework.
In the read-through, I definitely found additional places impacted by my two main revisions. This was particularly useful for the adding chapters change. As I read through slowly, I was more in touch with the details leading up to each new chapter. That allowed me to identify with greater clarity the key emotional hit I wanted in each new chapter.
For this step, I read the novel in one day to keep my mind intensely in the story. If you have a longer novel, you will likely want to break it up into multiple sittings, but if at all possible, keep them on consecutive days.
Once I had this step done, I was ready to revise. Wahooo!
And there you go, that’s how I approach getting from feedback to Ready-to-Revise. If you are thinking this is a lot of work to do before you revise, let me offer this:
There’s a collaborative method used in software development called Agile that’s designed to help teams work together more effectively. One of the catchphrases in that approach is: Slow Down to Go Faster. It works for revisions as well.
Slowing down to do this planning part, enables you to revise faster, with more certainty. At least it works that way for me. I was able to make the bulk of the revisions in one day*, including drafting five new (very short) chapters. And the best part? I was confident the entire time I was doing it. No fear that I was missing something major or mucking up something worse.
One final IMPORTANT note: Everything above assumes that you are in a grounded place after receiving the critique. Perhaps something someone said irritated you or charged you up a little, but not so much that you are in tears, or thinking you just want to throw it all in, or are cursing the name of everyone who gave you notes.
If you are still in a triggered, unsteady state, then self-care and compassion are the the first needed actions. Your story deserves your calm, connected attention while getting ready to revise. (And while revising, too.) Not someone in an emotional downward spiral.
It’s a total badass move for both you and your story to get yourself back to center before diving into feedback and planning your revision.
Okay, peeps, was that useful? Did it give you any ideas for more effectively moving from critique notes to ready-to-revise? Do you want more process suggestions like this? Let me know in the comments section below.
Onward in kindness,
Christine Carron, The Critique MD
* The complete revision process (a process post for another day) took more like four weeks, which was mostly letting the novel sit between revision passes, but the initial pass to put in all the changes I identified was fast and focused.