Handling Criticism

Dear Editor:

Please take a look at my enclosed manuscript. If you would be so kind as to reply with some harsh comments telling me why I’m not good enough and should never quit my day job, I would greatly appreciate it.

Sincerely,

A Writer

That’s probably not a query letter you’ve written, but do you ever feel like you’ve sent that to an agent, editor, or even your critique group? It’s what you’ll get most of the time anyway. By putting your work out there for others to read, you’re asking for it.

So how do you handle critical comments? You’re going to get them, so get used to them. Turn them to your advantage.

Here are some ways to handle critiques:

  1. Stick your head in an exhaust pipe and inhale vigorously
  2. Burn all your manuscripts and reformat your hard drive
  3. Get angry at the reviewer because she wouldn’t know great literature if it bit her in the eyes
  4. Eat a tub of Cherry Garcia ice cream

Those are not healthy responses. I know. I’ve tried, or at least thought about, all of them. But with time and plenty of practice, I now enjoy reading critiques of my work, and use them to my advantage. I no longer want to stick my head in an exhaust pipe after reading a harsh review. I do still like the occasional bucket of ice cream, but that has nothing to do with criticism.

De-personalize

Do not take harsh crits personally. The reviewer is not critiquing you, your talent, or your worth as a member of the human race. It is your work that is being reviewed. Never forget that.

See the words, don’t hear the tone

Tone of voice does not come through easily on written comments. You might have spent hours, days, months getting the first page of your novel just perfect. The reviewer read it, hopefully thought about it at least five minutes, then banged out a critique. The reviewer probably did not spend hours to get the tone perfected to accurately convey how he intended it. Imagine a kindly grandmother reading the crit to you in her sweetest voice.

 

Find the positive

I’ve had friends come to me with a tear-stained crit in trembling hands and say, “This is devastating.” I’d read it and think it was positive. The reviewer pointed out how well the writer did character, or plot, and setting. The writer only saw one paragraph of criticism at the end of five paragraphs of praise.

Examine your motives

Why do you put your work in front of a writers group or an editor? Is it so everyone will be stunned by the beauty of your prose, jealous of your talent, and carried away by your characters? If so, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

If, on the other hand, the reasons you put your writing out for crit is to learn, to improve your work, and to enhance your skills, you’re on the right track. Thank everyone who takes the time and effort to read and critique your writing.

Look for the solution to every criticism

When a crit says, “Your secondary characters are two-dimensional,” do you think, “So what? They’re secondary.” Or “I’m a talentless hack.” Or possibly, “My characters are complex; this idiot missed the subtle yet obvious subtext.”

Instead, try asking, “How and where can I add depth? They are three-dimensional in my mind, but perhaps that didn’t come across in the story.” Ask the reviewer for specifics. A good critique will give you suggestions, but not all readers will know how to articulate it, they’ll just know it didn’t connect with them. Engage them in a conversation with questions about what would have made it better for them as readers, not defensiveness.

Pan for gold

Not every comment is valid. You will receive contradictory comments. One will love your opening sentence, say it hooked her immediately. The next reader will think it fell flat. Which to believe?

After reading the critique, step away. Resist the urge to completely ignore the comments, and resist the urge to immediately rewrite based on every comment. Let it settle. Read it again later with a fresh mind. With time for the subconscious mind to sift it, you might spot something you can do to fix the problem, or you can see it’s not a change you want to make. This is especially true if you’re receiving several critiques from different people over a period of time. Wait until you’ve read all the crits, let your brain sort them out for a few days, then go through them to see which ones you agree with.

Then you can revise as needed. Once rewritten, you’ll have a stronger piece, and when you submit it to agents and editors, you’ll be fully prepared for rejection and criticism at a whole new level.

Just think how pleasantly surprised you’ll be when you’re offered a deal when you expected advice not to quit your day job.

3 Responses to “Handling Criticism”

  • Piotr Mierzejewski Says:

    Considering my own experiences, I agree with your recommendations. Now… tub of ice cream… like an actual big tub you wash in, or them smaller things? :D

  • Suzanne Payne Says:

    My biggest fear is looking like a complete idiot. I’ve tried to learn everything and listen to people smarter than me in this business. I still feel like my MS is no where near ready to go, but it’s improving. Hopefully, if I save my money, I can hire you to edit it for me. :)

    • Robb Says:

      Suzanne, a great way to keep improving is to put your work out there for others to read and critique, such as a writers’ group (in person or online). Make sure it’s a group of writers you connect with and feel comfortable with, and who can comment and critique honestly and directly in a supportive, helpful way.