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.

Do You Need A Beta Reading or a Critique? What’s the Difference?

When you’ve finished a piece of fiction, or think you’re close, you can still make it better. The process starts with sharing it. The question is, how to share it?

Should you post it online on your blog or a site like Wattpad?
Should you share it with an editor?
Should you ask for a Beta Reading from friends or writing partners?
Should you have the work critiqued?

The answer, as with most things writing related, is that it depends.

If you haven’t written many stories or novels, you may want to start with a beta reading. At this stage in your writing experience (and even at other times) you need encouragement and feedback. You want honest feedback, but you also want to hear what’s good about the story, or even some recognition for finishing a piece. Your friends and family, regardless of whether they are writers, are a good first step. You may also find beta readers from volunteers you don’t know. A good beta reader will encourage you and tell you how a general reader reacts. What they are unlikely to do is tell you why they reacted that way.

Does that mean editors or a critique partners are not encouraging? No, but an editor and a critique partner focus on making the story better. There’s a lot less morale boosting and more direct language about why a story isn’t working. Some people find receiving a critique or an edit to be emotionally difficult.

So what’s the difference between and edit and a critique?

For clarity, I’m talking about a developmental editor and someone like a critique partner like you might have in a writing workshop. An editor will be fairly prescriptive and explain why things aren’t working and offer solutions. I think of an editor like a coach.

A critique partner is somewhere between a beta reader and an editor. A critique partner will look at everything an editor does, like characterization, structure, pacing, etc. but the response is less prescriptive and more open-ended. Ideally you want a Critique earlier in the process than an edit and should make an edit easier.

I believe the best way to deliver critiques is mostly through questions. A critique should question the author on the choices they’ve made (consciously or not) and point out the effects of those choices on the reader. The author then has to decide if that’s what they intended and whether to change it. If an editor functions like a coach, a critique partner should be a teammate.

What do these forms of feedback cost?

Beta readers are usually free, though there are many paid services like my own for those who aren’t getting the right feedback from their beta readers or can’t find beta readers. Finding a beta reader for a 120,000 word epic can be a challenge.

Editing is the most expensive, and again, should come at or near the end of the process when the story is as good as the author thinks they can make it. Costs can run between $0.005 – $0.02 per word, or $600 – $2,400 for your 120k word epic.

Critiques are part of what you pay for in a writing workshop, which makes that form of critique expensive. If you are fortunate to belong to a writing group (ideally with some members more experienced than you) the cost may be a critique in kind. Some writers find long-term critique partners. They trade novel length work and give full critiques like you would receive from a workshop.

When it’s time to share your story, consider which type of feedback you need. Even experienced authors sometimes just want a simple beta read to judge what a typical reader gets from the story, and to receive some encouragement. Other times, the story is ready for an editor. Sometimes a story needs a critique: a close reading, critical feedback, and some encouragement.

If you need a beta read or a critique and have no partner or ability to attend a workshop, I provide affordable options here.