I can talk about writing craft and grammar, POV and character development. I can (and will) discuss how to give feedback on other people’s work. But one of the hardest skills a writer must develop is the ability to receive criticism.
Some people reportedly love criticism. They leap to the harshest editor they can find and lap it up. This post is for you other writers…the ones who maybe take it a little too personally when someone reads “their baby,” the story they’ve poured their life and heart into, and finds it wanting. That’s where I was, early-on, and receiving criticism mindfully will probably always be a work in progress for me.
What’s the goal?
You’ve handed your story to a beta reader, critique partner, Aunt Betty, etc. You’ve told them to tell you what they think, but deep down inside, what are you hoping they’ll say?
You must be honest with yourself as far as your motives, because you must then be honest with the person you’re asking for help.
It’s OKAY sometimes to just want to be told it’s great. Sometimes we just need a cheerleader to rekindle our love for a project and keep us going to the end. On writing Twitter, this has become known as a “positivity pass.” It’s particularly useful for first drafts that have gotten bogged down for lack of confidence. We’ve all hit that moment of despair mid-book where we just don’t know if it’s working anymore.
If your goal is a positivity pass, it’s very important to make it clear to the reader that the goal is not to find faults or correct anything; you just want to hear what’s working. If they can’t be a pure and enthusiastic cheerleader, if they simply must point out this one little thing that needs fixing, they’re not the right reader for you at this stage.
But in most cases, the goal is to make your story and your writing better, and that means digging into the places it is weak. You must keep this goal firmly in mind throughout the process.
You must be prepared to hear that there are things wrong with your story and writing craft.
Whether or not the manuscript is ready for criticism, if you as the author are not ready to hear it, you are wasting your time and your reader’s effort. Put it in a drawer and work on another project. Put some distance between you until you’re ready to hear about the flaws.
There WILL be flaws. There is no such thing as a book that couldn’t be improved. Even authors who have a dozen best-sellers will write an occasional flat character, POV violation, and plot hole. Your book is no different.
Don’t mistake your book for you.
Verbal Judo frames this as removing your ego from the situation.
Your writing and craft are not you. Writing a less-than-perfect book is not a reflection on you as a person, your value as a human being, or your future success as a writer. It is vitally important to separate critique of the book from critique of you as a person. (Yes, even if you’ve accidentally included a bigoted stereotype character that needs fixing.)
You should love your book and your characters, but don’t put them on a pedestal. They can be even better, with the help of an outside perspective.
Stop your first reaction
If your kneejerk response to critique is defensive, if you reject it immediately, stop. Take a moment. Remind yourself that it’s about making the book better.
Let’s face it, critique partners and beta readers are sometimes wrong. But if your first response is strong and emotional, you’re not in a place to effectively evaluate the feedback.
Even flawed feedback is useful
“What do they know?” “They don’t even get what I was trying to do!” “Why should I even listen to someone who uses comma splices!?”
When we’re confronted with information that challenges our views, one way we can defend ourselves against the discomfort is to dismiss the value of the information by attacking the source. When this is part of a strong emotional response, you should suspect your own motives here.
Remember, once your book is published, your readers won’t, by and large, have English degrees. You won’t have a chance to pre-screen them for reading comprehension or knowledge of genre tropes. Once your book is in the wild, anyone can read it and leave a review. If your beta reader doesn’t get what you were trying to do, at least admit the possibility that you just didn’t pull it off effectively enough for a wider audience.
Mind you, they could just be an exception, which is why you want many eyes on your book before you release it in the wild. But insight doesn’t require a degree or byline to be valid.
Never argue with the feedback.
Your job in receiving critique is to listen, not to defend. You can ask questions to clarify. You can ask for suggestions on how to fix a problem. The moment you start pushing back, blocking, or arguing, you’ve stopped listening.
The person giving critique is offering their emotional reaction to your writing. You don’t have to act on that information, but their feelings cannot actually be “right” or “wrong.” Their suggestions might or might not work out, but everything a beta reader says is a data point. It teaches you something about your reading audience. If it isn’t useful to this book, it may help shape a future work.
Beta readers who actually finish a book and send thoughtful critique are GOLD, and I treasure them deeply. Even if I don’t use any of their feedback, they’ve put hours of their time into reading my imperfect work and trusted me enough to offer their genuine opinions. That’s amazing!
If every time a reader offered a critique, I got defensive and argued about it, I’d soon find myself in a bubble of the few readers willing to offer only praise. That might sound safe and comfortable, but I’d risk a rude awakening when the book left my bubble. It means I don’t hear the hard truths in time to do something about them. It also means I never actually get better as a writer.
So when you get critique you don’t like, stop, remove your ego, listen, remind yourself of your goals, and thank your reader for their efforts. You will be a better writer for it.