How to Handle Critique

Critique. I merely type the word and my breath feels shallower, my airways a little constricted. My hands shake a bit. Critique – so dreaded and so necessary. Like a trip to the dentist.

It’s hard, when I’ve had to fight even to carve out time for my creative efforts. Then I’ve wrestled down every word in succession, pinning them to the page. I’ve labored and worked, but it’s been worth it, because at the end of it all, I’ve produced this beautiful thing, an item of wonder. I’m exhilarated by my amazing feat, having brought forth a newborn baby piece of writing. But when I show it off, someone comments that it smells like someone needs a diaper change, oh and maybe I should do something about that case of cradle cap on the infant’s scalp. And its head sure is shaped funny.

Criticism of your writing. It’s going to happen unless you don’t let anyone read it, ever. Even now, I’m already anticipating what people will think of this post. Too many metaphors and similes smashed all together at the beginning? Probably. So how  can you handle it without being crushed and giving up? I can’t say for certain what will work for you, but I can share what’s helped me over the past few years.

*Is the criticism unsolicited, from a family member perhaps, who wanted to see your writing and so you shared? If the work is still unpublished, give yourself a few seconds to consider whether their comments are helpful. If not, feel free not to think about it any more. One of the most frequent complaints from family members is “But it didn’t happen like that.” Upon which the author  patiently explains that of course it didn’t, because here’s what the word fiction means. You don’t even have to explain much, though. You don’t have to justify or defend your writing. You can end the conversation with something like “That’s an interesting perspective.” Then turn your mind to more pleasant topics – kittens, puppies, flowers – whatever makes you happy.

*Is the criticism solicited? Have you asked for feedback from beta readers? When you receive it, remember it’s what you requested. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with every comment, but if you trusted someone enough to ask for their advice, then you should weigh their words with deliberation, an open mind and gratitude. Nobody has an obligation to read your work. Everyone is busy. Everyone. If someone has volunteered their valuable and limited time to read your writing and do what they can to help you make it better, thankfulness is a better attitude than butt-hurt.

*Have you asked someone for critique and then realized it was a bad move because their advice is bad? True example: I was once in a group where a member had a written a short story with a conceit centered around the name of the main character. I found the idea clever and touching. Someone else suggested the author change the character’s name because it was too old-fashioned. Of course, then there would be no story. If this happens to you, do what this author did. Say, “Thanks for your ideas” and then ignore it.

*If everyone in your group makes the same criticism, they’re probably right.

*Not every beta reader is mentally healthy. I’m fortunate in the extreme to be included in a writing group that includes genuinely nice people who are all good writers and who all want everyone in the group to succeed. But some writers are insecure in the extreme and their critique of others is based more on a desire to cut the person down than to help them become better. It might take a few encounters to recognize this dynamic, but if it happens to you, there are a few options. You can stop asking for advice from that person. If they’re part of a group you don’t want to leave, go back to “Thanks for your comments” and then do your best to ignore them. You can defend your choices, but I find this usually bogs down group discussion and leads to nothing good. If you see Insecure Cutter doing this to someone else in the group, don’t be shy about saying, “I had a different take on the piece.” The good news is that folks like this tend to bounce from group to group, so if you wait them out, they’ll likely go on to be a thorn in someone else’s side soon enough.

*No one person can provide everything you need in terms of feedback. No matter the level of their own writing/editing skills, no matter how good their intentions, no matter how diligent their reading of your work, nobody is going to give you perfect advice. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Some people have a good eye for plot structure, others have a good ear for character voice, some will catch all of your inconsistencies and help you make your writing more cohesive. And each reader has his or her own reading preferences, personal issues, and experiences that will shape their own experience of your work. If you’re writing science fiction, but your writing group buddy is a western writer, both of you might have limitations in what you can offer the other. A good story should transcend genre, so you’ll still have a lot to give. The western writer can still spot plot holes, character motivation and more. But she might not be the best one to ask about whether your description of the space ship is believable. I swap manuscripts with a couple of writers who work in the young adult field. They tend to tell me my paragraphs are too long. Sometimes I shorten my paragraphs. Other times, I decide they’re thinking in YA terms and it’s not applicable to my novel. Read “Life of Pi” some time.

*If different beta readers express disagreeing opinions on the same bit of text, it’s likely a matter of personal taste. Go with what you like.

*Even someone who generally offers excellent, dispassionate comments on your work can get derailed if you hit on an issue that’s personal to them. I once, long ago, had a reader who insisted I needed to expound on the backstory of a minor character, and in fact, make that backstory more central to the plot. As the conversation progressed, I discovered my character reminded my friend strongly of her aunt who had married a man much like the husband of my character. For her entire adult life, the friend had been bewildered about her aunt’s choice of spouse and this was what she wanted me to explain. Well, I couldn’t explain her relative’s life choices to her. I could only tell the story I was telling.  I’m sure I’ve gone on similar tangents a time or two when I was the one critiquing.

*Sometimes it helps to be specific in your requests. You can say things such as, “What I’d like for you to look for is whether the dialog is realistic” or “Can you follow the action in the action sequence?” or “Is my main character’s motivation clear in this scene?”

*Above all, remember this is your work. Your creation. Stay true to your artistic vision. When considering whether to follow a beta reader’s suggestions ask yourself if the advice helps you fulfill your artistic vision or asks you to change it. Here’s another analogy, because I love them so much. If you love bowling, get advice from folks who will make the bowling experience better, not from people who want you to switch to tennis.

Is that one too many analogies? Thanks for your input. I’ll consider it.

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2 comments on “How to Handle Critique

  1. I wish I could be as neutral to criticism as you are:) When it come to me, I like criticism only when it’s positive — just kidding! 🙂

    (BTW, I’d switch to tennis any minute — just pulling your leg:)

    Like

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