Comment Triage


An incredibly important part of a writers group, or any critique, is learning how to decide if a comment is good or bad. It’s not easy, but it’s an important skill to hone.

Lisa Rosenthal, the author who started one of my writer’s groups, told us to look at comments as a gift from our mother-in-law: well-intentioned. Imagine that the comment is a vase. Say thank you, take it home and decide if it fits with the decor of your story. If it does, great, keep it. If not, toss it on the imaginary Goodwill pile.

When I get back from a writers group, I compile all the comments onto one copy of the manuscript. This way I can see if multiple people said the same thing, or if there were contradictory thoughts. Plus, it’s nice to see all the good comments in one place.

Tag showing levels of triage: White=non-injured; green= 3rd priority, delayed; yellow=2nd priority, moderate; red=1st priority, immediate

Triage tag used by the U.S. Army. Wikimedia Commons

When I triage my comments, I do them in reverse order. Medical triage handles the most severe cases first. I work on the simplest yes/no cases first.

Non Injured: Easy Fix

Spelling and grammar notes? (If correct,) Done.

Some comments makes perfect sense and I adopt them right away. A recent example is the phrase “wedding-coiffed hair.” I really liked the way it sounded, but a critiquer pointed out that a 20-something guy would not say it. She was absolutely right. I liked it, but it had to go.

Other comments I reject right away. How I decide this is harder to explain. Sometimes I just know that the wording is right the way it is. And sometimes I have more background than my critiquer. My writers groups only meet once a month, so they don’t read everything in my WIP. This isn’t ideal since, from their point of view, the story can be choppy. They may even miss important info. In a recent session, a critiquer didn’t understand a reference to a conversation that my characters just had. The suggestion to explain the reference it didn’t make sense since the conversation took place the page before…the critiquer simply hadn’t seen those pages.

3rd Priority: Maybe/Maybe Not Fix

I try not to reject a comment just because I don’t like it. I give myself a day of thinking “that critiquer just doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” then I dig down to find out why I don’t like the comment. This is where combining the comments helps. If more than one person had a similar comment, I know I need to adjust something. Maybe that point I thought I had explained, I hadn’t. Or, maybe, I know the comment is right but I just don’t want to put in the work. I know I’ve got this kind of comment when my stomach turns into a heavy brick.

2nd Priority: Big Changes/Unsure

But what if only one person had an issue? I need to think about it some more. I don’t ignore their feedback, I consider the source. This is why I think it’s important to review the work of the people who are reviewing you.

I like Person A’s plotting. Person B writes romance and avoids action. Person C only writes in symbolism with sweeping themes.

If Person A says there’s a problem with my plot or that there isn’t enough forward momentum, I listen. If Person B says there’s too much action, I file the comment away, but don’t worry about it until I hear that comment from others. But if she has a comment about a character’s relationships, I pay attention. If Person C says they are bored by the small family moments in a piece, I realize that this isn’t a story that they would normally read. Again, I make a note, but don’t act.

1st Priority: Second Opinion

Enter multiple writers groups. If I can’t decide whether or not to make a change, or I don’t know if the change I made solves the problem, I take the piece in question to a different group. They don’t know what was said about the piece, so they haven’t formed an opinion yet. If they comment (one way to the other) on the section in question, I have my answer. If they don’t, I ask.

Your Opinion

This was a tough post. Actually writing down how I determine what comments to accept and which to ignore highlighted how “it depends” everything is.

When you get comments back, what do you do with them?

11 thoughts on “Comment Triage

  1. Thank you!

    Yes, you can use this in your class. I’m glad you found it helpful.

    I’d be curious if you or your class modify the system…always looking for other editing tricks.

    I’d love to hear more about your creative writing class.

  2. I use a similar approach with my beta readers’ comments. It really is useful to put all the comments together to see any similarities/discrepancies. If there are contradictory comments, I use Stephen King’s rule: tiebreaker goes to the writer. 🙂

    • Let me try that again. Compile all the comments onto one copy of the manuscript? What a fantastic — and relatively simple — idea. I feel pretty doi for not thinking of doing that myself, but thanks to this very helpful post, I’m going to start doing that now.
      I imagine it took a fair amount of time to put this post together, just want you to know I found it extremely helpful and appreciate your taking that time out to help other writers.

  3. PS: Also had no idea you were in a book club put together by Lisa Rosenthal. Pretty cool! I don’t know her personally, but I know her reputation: she’s a writer’s group Goddess!


  4. Great post! I’ve never really considered it, but I think I instinctively go for a method similar to yours. Fix typos and small issues first, then look at who said what about the plot, who agreed with whom about bigger things, and so on.

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