Tuesday, April 22, 2014

How to Receive Criticism

I just got my third round of criticism back on this particular WiP, from three different readers this time. Different readers give me different things to work on, and everyone has their own style of offering criticism, but one thing always remains the same:

Criticism stings.

Always. Forever and ever, this will continue to be true. Whenever we send our work out, no matter how practical and realistic we are, there is one tiny portion of our brain that thinks, "Maybe they'll love everything about it!" This thought is absurd, of course, for many reasons.

First - I WANT criticism to be tough. Not harsh or cruel, of course, but tough. I want someone to point out the flaws. I cannot eradicate those flaws until I know they exist.

Second - No one ever loves everything about anything. Even my very favorite book has flaws, my very favorite movie has at least one goof in it, my very favorite band has a single or two that I feel pretty "meh" about, and my very favorite people in the world even have ... opportunities for improvement.

Third - The people who claim to love absolutely everything about everything ever... are lying. I do not want someone lying to me about my work. How can I possibly know when something is actually good? How will I know when I'm ready, if the only criticism I receive is false?

I won't.

That's the bottom line, and that's why I want people to criticize my work. There are some rules that go along with receiving criticism, though, and I thought I'd share with you my personal rules for being on the receiving end of a critique:

- Always start with a genuine "thank you." Before I respond to anything else, I thank the person for helping me. They spent their time and energy reading my unfinished, unpolished aspiring-book-to-be, and they didn't have to do any of it. That reader deserves my gratitude, even if nothing else on this list applies.

- Never go on the defensive. This is a rule I co-opted from the Writing Excuses team, but it's a really good one. If I read or listen to a critique and spend the whole time saying, "Yeah, but..." then I'm not really listening. It's true that the criticism might be wrong. But it might not be. And in case it's not, I need to keep an open mind and be ready to hear what people are telling me.

- Always let it stew. I don't jump into revisions the day I get notes back. I read the edit letter, let it stew for a day or two. Then I read the inline notes, let them stew for a few more days. Then, and only then, do I start making changes. Once I've had a chance to think, to get rid of the "Well that's obviously wrong because no one understands my art!" feelings, and to brainstorm some possible fixes... that's when I'm ready to revise and incorporate those notes.

- Never dismiss an idea straight off. Some suggestions will be obviously the exact right fixes for the story. Others will be good fodder for brainstorms, but ultimately off-the-mark. And still others will be wildly inappropriate for the story, for me as a writer, or for the world in general. But I will never know which is which until I've really thought them through, and sometimes I won't know until I try to work the changes in.

- Sometimes go back and discuss more changes. There are times that a CP makes suggestions that aren't quite right, but they do highlight problem areas in my manuscript. In those cases, brainstorming sessions can be extremely useful, and it's incredibly helpful to be humble enough to go back to the CP and say, "Hey, you suggested this thing, and it's not going to work for this reason, but can you help me find a different way to fix it?"

A couple more quick parting tips about receiving critiques:

- Never insult your reader.
- Don't jump to incorporate every change.
- Use multiple layers of critique (send out one wave, revise, send to different readers, revise again, etc)
- Don't delete CP/Beta notes. You never know when you'll want those notes, even if you don't incorporate those changes right away.

What other tips do you have for receiving criticism on your work?


  1. Yes to all of the above. I'd add two thoughts that go along with these: one, good feedback (after initial processing time) should make you excited and should help you feel closer to the story you've been trying to tell all along. And two, sometimes the feedback is off base, but it reveals a root problem that you pick up on that the reader or CP simply couldn't. I had that a few times with my latest, where I got feedback on a very necessary character who people wanted to axe (I'm sure you know the one). After reading through their comments, I realized the character wasn't the problem, her place in my world was. So I tweaked that around and found her a better fit. Since then, the feedback on her has been everything I imagined it would be.

    So I think it's important to read feedback with a humble, open mind, but also to remember that YOU'RE the expert on your world, and anyone else's vision for your book is seen through (insert name here) colored glasses.

    Your book is fantastic and no amount of feedback should make you question that. :)

  2. Yes! Sometimes the advice is wrong, but it still centers something that's problematic. I've found, in my (limited) experience, that this is particularly the case when everyone comments on a similar issue, but they all have different comments. In my last novel, some people told me to chop this particular section, others wanted it expanded, others just wanted it to be a different tone. Nobody was quite right, but they weren't totally wrong either - it was missing an important thread of a backstory/foreshadowing that needed to be woven through it. But I never would have recognized that if so many people hadn't brought up their issues with that section.

  3. I, too, think if critiques are from professionals, the advice is worth taking. Your work can only improve. Having said that, you must go with your heart. There is a balance that is sometimes hard to find.



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