How to handle criticism

Writing is a lonely endeavor, until it isn’t. At some point, you need to show your work to a reader, an editor, or an agent. They will have their own opinions about your writing, your characters, how well you’ve painted a scene. You will need to deal with that criticism in some way. It might be upsetting. You’ve spent months, maybe even years working on this story, and you love it exactly the way that it is. So hearing anything negative will be painful. But what should you do with the criticism?

1) Consider the source. You should choose your first readers carefully. Ideally, they should be people who love books, who read in your genre, and who can give you constructive feedback. Family members can be biased and may want to protect your feelings. Some friends may not be as supportive of your choices and have a hidden agenda that isn’t in your best interest. Writing groups are ideal for some people, but even then, you have to weigh their words carefully.

2) Pay more attention to how they feel than what they say. Often people aren’t able to articulate what exactly is working or not working for them in a story. They like this part, they don’t know why. Or they hate that part, but can’t pinpoint the exact reason. But that’s important information. Subconsciously, something is or isn’t working for them, and sometimes this is a better  critique than what they actually say. Take a hard look at the parts that they didn’t like, and leave the parts that they did ALONE.

3) Trust your gut. It may be cliche to say “to thine own  self be true,” but there’s a reason it’s cliche. It’s because it’s the truth. You’ll never go wrong doing the thing that you really want to do, and skipping the stuff you think you should be doing.

4) Say thank you. Regardless of how well or how badly your critique goes, always be gracious. Even if your back-stabbing wanna-be-writer cousin tells you it’s a load of crap. Say thanks anyway. It’ll throw her off.

5) Take a break. Give yourself a few days to absorb everyone’s comments before you start revising. It’ll give your mind a chance to sort the wheat from the chaff as it were, and find common threads in the various opinions. You may find trends that really help you tackle a thorny part.

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4 thoughts on “How to handle criticism

  1. That Unique* Weblog says:

    I have reviewed several books and essays by people I know and by friends. None were well received. I think that my demeanor in general makes them think I just love everything and won’t be candid. But my high school students could have told them differently. One colleague didn’t speak to me for over a year after I read a piece he was about to send out. I was correct (I always am*), but perhaps my “English teacher” persona could have been toned down.

    *English teacher sarcastic self-deprecation.

  2. Tracey says:

    I should do another post with the opposite… how to deal with giving critiques. Some people really don’t take a critique well, and if you’re reading something they wrote, it can be tough to deal with their reaction. Sorry that your critique recipients weren’t gracious, even if your review was tough. I’m sure they don’t expect professional critics to be gentle once their work is published.

  3. laurastanfill says:

    So glad to see you back writing posts, Tracey! This was a particularly timely post for me, as I’m waiting for my novel group to critique my WIP in two weeks. I’ve worked with them for a number of years, so I trust them and adore their various perspectives, but your point about picking readers in your genre is an interesting one. My group is all literary fiction, and my current novel is historical fiction. It’s literary, too, but I’m going to keep the genre difference in mind going into the critique. And I’ll definitely try to force myself to take a break from the work after it’s over so I can process the comments and figure out where to go next with the draft.

  4. Tracey says:

    Taking a break before you act on comments is probably the most important one in the bunch. You really need to process what everyone’s saying before you tackle changes.
    And I haven’t forgotten about the versatile blogger award, I just haven’t yet found 15 blogs to forward the award to yet! I do more book reading than blog reading lately. 🙂 Thanks again for that!

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