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?