Receiving Criticism

You asked for it, now you’ve received it—and you have feelings.

Receiving criticism is one of the most difficult things we do as writers. No one teaches us how to manage the emotions that come with it. Yet, we know our work isn’t perfect. Even when we’ve edited and revised and honed until there’s nothing more we can think to change.

The key phrase: when there’s nothing nothing more we can think to change. We need someone else to look at our work. We need feedback, and actionable feedback; from a beta reader, a critique partner, writing coach, or an editor.

To be clear, Im talking about feedback through criticism; not rejection. That’s another difficult and emotional reaction for another post.

To be actionable, the feedback must be critical. We want to know what needs fixing to make a work better, again, because we know it isn’t perfect.

But it’s still difficult to hear that the plot we thought was working has logic holes, or, the reader didn’t ‘get’ an aspect of the story we’re sure is clear. We want to point to the manuscript and say, “No! It’s right here, see?” And we think, that’s not useful criticism. But it is. All of it is whether you make changes based on it. The point is, you need to consider it.

Good criticism doesn’t criticize the writer. Good criticism judges only the words on the page. And if the words aren’t working the critic is right to point that out. It isn’t personal. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It only means what you tried to do with words, right there in that small instance, didn’t work for that reader.

We must look at what the critic reacted to. Dig into and think about what isn’t working. We can only do that if we separate ourselves from the emotional reaction to receiving the criticism in the first place.

But emotions are hard. They are by nature not rational. There are no simple solutions but here are a few things to try:

Don’t read the criticism as soon as you receive it.

Wait to open that email, or view that forum response to the story you posted. Wait until you can prepare yourself–to armor yourself and remind yourself; this isn’t about me. It’s only about some words I wrote.

Don’t Respond to the critic; look into what they said.

Do not write back and tell the critic they weren’t reading closely enough or anything else. The job is to take the critic’s comment and determine why they may have felt that way. Often what they commented on isn’t the problem, but something earlier went wrong and this is the point they realized it. An editor or critique partner may be more accurate in identifying the real problem and potential solutions, but even these critics often react to something earlier.

Fix nothing.

After reading the feedback, change nothing. Wait a day or two. Then read the criticism again and make notes about what you might change. If you have multiple feedback sources (multiple beta readers or a critique group) collect all the feedback. Read it through a few times, make notes and decide which criticism

Change only what you believe needs changing.

Once you’ve collected the feedback and sorted through it, the author is the one who ultimately decides about what to change and how. An editor about to publish your work and may have strong feelings, enough to demand changes, but still, the decision remains with the author.

By looking at the feedback, digging into it, and sorting through it, we can treat criticism more objectively. I worked in technology for many years and this process is not dissimilar to reviewing a technology deployment project after completion. The project manager (the author) reviews what worked and what didn’t work, then makes notes about how to do it better next time. The advantage for authors is that their product hasn’t been deployed yet. We still get to make changes.

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