Writing Criticism: Taking It Gracefully

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Criticism!

So you’ve finally done it. You’ve completed your writing project. Your baby. The Story You’ve Always Wanted to Tell. And now you’ve put your writing in the hands of your loving beta-readers or peer editors for perusal. Breathlessly, you await their criticism, craving the keen insight they will no doubt bring to your —

Hey, wait a minute? What do you mean my protagonist is flat? Where do you get off saying my writing style is weak? The plot’s muddy? Your mom’s muddy!

Criticism. As writers, we say we want it. We want it hard, fast, and honest. And in our heart of hearts, we’re sure we can take it. But taking criticism of our writing is not always as easy as it looks. Even when delivered thoughtfully and reasonably, criticism can rub the wrong way and inspire anger and acrimony.

There’s no magic bullet to avoid having your feelings hurt by even the most well-meaning reader. But there are ways to soften the blow.

1. Do you REALLY want it?

First of all, be honest with yourself about why you asked for criticism in the first place. By “criticism” did you mean “praise”? No, seriously. Think about that before you answer. Sometimes writers just aren’t good at taking criticism, even when they think they are. Sometimes they’re just not ready. Are you looking for encouragement, or are you looking for the tough love that’s going to make your fiction writing better than it is now? It’s okay if you’re just looking for a boost, but you’d better know that going in.

2. Have a goal in mind.

Now that you’ve established that you do, in fact, want your work to be criticized, ask yourself what you want to get out of it. Do you want weak story points identified? Proofreading? Notes on characterization, structure, prose style? You may end up being disappointed if you give your work to someone hoping for in-depth character notes and getting back a bunch of typo corrections instead. Know your goals, and most of all, communicate them.

3. Buck up.

Yes, taking criticism is hard. Having your work lambasted is less than fun. Everyone wants to hear that their work is revolutionary, heart-wrenching, pulse-pounding, a masterpiece. But it probably isn’t. Check your ego and learn to accept that you’re not going to bowl them over the first time, every time. Which brings me to my next point:

4. Hey, YOU ASKED.

Closely related to #1. Chances are, no one came in your house, printed off your manuscript, took a red pen, laid into your writing, and sent it back to you anonymously. Most likely, you asked for criticism, so don’t take it out on the critic when they, you know, do what you asked of them. If you’re just going to respond to criticism with the vow that you’re not changing one god-damn word, congratulations, you’ve just wasted your reader’s time and your own.

5. Ask questions.

You don’t have to take criticism at face value and accept it silently. If you don’t understand or agree with a particular point, ask for details rather than getting defensive about it. Ask your reader why they felt the way they did. Describe your intent and find out if you communicated it properly. Don’t tell your reader they’re wrong for interpreting your work a certain way — that’s not up to you. Instead, get to the heart of it so you can address whatever problems there might be. Taking criticism doesn’t have to be a one-way street. Make it a dialogue.

6. Realize it’s not personal.

Unless you have very poor taste in friends, chances are your critic isn’t out to destroy you psychologically. They’re not pointing out flaws in your work because they hate your guts and wish you would fall under a dump truck. They’re trying to make your work better. You don’t have to agree with them, but it pays to respect their time and their intent.

7. Know when to stand your ground.

Finally, you’re not obligated to change your work to suit your readers — especially since they’re likely to give you very conflicting advice. “Taking criticism” doesn’t mean accepting all criticism as gospel. If you do the requisite soul-searching and truly think a criticism doesn’t hold water, discard it and walk bravely down your chosen path. Just make sure you’ve thought about it carefully.

So how do you deal with criticism?

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  • You have some really great advice in here (as usual). I’m a little weird when it comes to receiving criticism, because as I’m a rather competitive person I see my critiques as a challenge–something I have to overcome to make the WIP better, so as much as some critiques can hurt, they motivate me to get back to work and improve the WIP.

    • I think that’s a great attitude to take, and something all writers could benefit from adopting. I’d love to read a post about that — hint! πŸ˜€

      • Hint taken. πŸ˜€ I’ll add it to the list.

  • Tracy J.

    My writings and yours are apples and oranges, so it’s tough to draw a comparison because I write about real people, places, and things, and I just don’t have the emotional connection to my work that fiction writers must have.

    That said, it’s never easy to hear criticism, and I’d like to say that my thick skin developed overnight, but it really grew due to a near-daily barrage from editors. I actually grew to appreciate brutal, though well-meaning honesty, however. There is nothing more frustrating than hearing someone sighing loudly while reading your work, all the while telling you “it’s fine! it’s fine!”

    I guess what I’m saying is that graciously accepting criticism takes time and practice, but it’s worth it. The brutal editors make me better at what I do, and I always write with them in mind. The passive-aggressive editors can just piss off.

    • You make a good point that that communication needs to go both ways — an editor / reader needs to be honest, or their feedback is useless. Great comment, Tracy.

  • Awesome post. The bottom line is, if our egos are too fragile to listen to constructive criticism that we’ve actively solicited, we’re in the wrong business. Yeah, it burns. Yeah, it hurts our little feelings. Yeah, it sometimes makes us question our talents. Those are all good things. Those are all the things that will nudge/shove us into improving our skills.

    One thing I’d add–maybe to #5?–is that it’s really important not to respond right away. We need to give ourselves time to lick our wounds, strap on our big girl/boy pants, and open our minds to the possibility that we may just have something to learn here.

    • That’s a very good suggestion on letting criticism simmer. Sometimes we need time to let our reason return after being hustled out the door by Mr. or Ms. Wild Overreaction. Great comment, Kern, thank you.

  • Love it. I’m in the beta circle right now with three others, and I keep fearing their wrath when I send my comments…but they’ve all been super gracious and awesome. Which has made me trust them with my work more. Also, I think I instructed them to rip it to shreds if necessary. After three years of self-editing with little success, I needed it.

    • I think the best kind of beta reader is the one whose wrath doesn’t sting too badly — the ones who can present serious criticisms without making it hurtful. Thanks for the comment, Emmie.

  • Daniel – flippin’ brilliant. The post I have been waiting to see! I agree with the others who have commented. We all can learn to be better and the whole point of asking for criticism is to become better. I liken it to someone proofreading a document or email that I’m about to send. You get too close sometimes and fill in words that aren’t there. So very valuable to have another set of eyes check things out first to see if you really have said what you meant to say.

    By the way, love this line: “Unless you have very poor taste in friends, chances are your critic isn’t out to destroy you psychologically.”

    I shall print this post and frame it on my wall Daniel! Thanks.

    • Thank you, Jo-Anne, as always. It’s true, our perspective is limited, especially when it comes to our own work.

  • Colin Kerr

    This is brilliant. I think people on both sides of the beta-reading exchange need to listen closely.

    “Know your goals, and most of all, communicate them.” Yes! And that’s full-duplex cable; poke a little before you agree to edit, and you’ll have a better idea what the writer is listening for. Is it a first draft? Lay off the obsessive grammar tweaks and dialogue polish; it’s all going to change anyway. Final review before sending to an agent? Think twice before saying major subplots need to be added or removed. First novel? A few chapters, or a few pages of a draft in progress? Think “encouragement” more than “refinement.” The shorter a piece I get, the more likely I am to reply with, “I like it; keep going.”

    • Well said, Colin. In my experience, a lot of readers and writers tend to under-communicate when they’re in the revision process, and that includes myself. We could all do better.

  • You’re completely wrong on every count.

    Just kidding. πŸ™‚ Great article, Daniel!

    I’m very fond of #1 and #7. Usually when I ask for a critique, non-writers assume they have to be nice. But by being nice and saying, “It’s great. Don’t change a thing.” They aren’t helping me in the least. I don’t need effusive, half-hearted praise. I need to know where it’s broken so I can FIX IT.

    #7 is particularly important when dealing with people who don’t read in your genre (or don’t care for your genre). I run into this at critiquecircle when critters stray way outside of their comfort zone for giggles. Why are you reading this again? You shouldn’t soften your gritty horror novel because a teen romance author thinks it’s icky.

    Just my $0.02.

    You should write an article about how to find a great crit partner/circle without begging. πŸ™‚

    • FROM HELL’S HEART I STAB AT THEE — wait, I mean, you make some fine points and I respect your opinion! πŸ˜‰

      Quite often, when I’m handing out a piece of work for criticism, I tell people explicitly to “hurt me bad.” I don’t want praise either. Well, I do, but I’m more interested in the problems than the praise. πŸ˜€

      And I’ll definitely keep that article idea in mind!

  • Fantastic post! I don’t know if you were the one who chose Kristina McMorris’ post (How To Survive a Scathing Review) but we really, really appreciate the linkage. πŸ™‚

    • It was my pleasure, Jenny, thanks to you and Kristina for the great article!

  • Wow, I just put up a blog post on beta reading today. That’s strangely coincidental, don’t you think?

    Very good read. This is stuff I’ve been learning for myself these last few months.

    • Thanks very much, Stacy. It’s always nice to know we’re not alone. πŸ™‚

  • Daniel, loved reading this! I’m currently in the process of editing my first novel and it is difficult on many levels. First of all, as you say, no matter how much you want the crit, it can be hard to stomach not loving your baby. Especially your first baby. But I’ve tried to look at the editing process as finishing school for my first born. I’m sending him through the ringer so that he comes out ready to face the music of editors and agents.

    The second issue is convincing friends that I want them to rip my writing apart. I think this is sometimes as difficult as stomaching the criticism. Many times, friends want to go easy on me. I finally had to explain to them I’d rather hear from them than send it off to editors and agents only to get rejected out of hand.

    Thanks for this post! I’ve shared it on twitter to spread the word. πŸ™‚

    ~Jen

    • Hi, Jen, and thanks for the comment. The first “baby” IS always the hardest. I think that’s why a lot of seasoned writers advise not publishing the first novel you write (maybe even not the second or third). You learn a LOT during that process.

      Thank you for spreading the word, I truly appreciate it!

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  • Certainly. one of the biggest lessons I learned early on was to accept criticism. The next biggest was that a lot of criticism is irrelevant. Of course, I know I should fix all the typos and the errors, technical stuff, and stylistic areas that don’t serve my vision, but critics often misinterpret or don’t appreciate some of the things I put in there that does serve my vision and so I ignore their comments. That maybe sounds arrogant but I know what I mean. I know how to pick the good advice from the bad.

    • No, I think that sounds sensible. You can’t take every piece of criticism as gospel and change your work accordingly. And ultimately, you’re the one who has to make the decisions on what to cut and what to keep, so you’d better feel confident that you’re making the right choices. Thanks for the comment, Matthew!

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