What this blog post will give you: A set of steps on how to approach, deal with, implement or ignore, and ultimately benefit from criticism.
If you have any experience with writing, then you well know that criticism is both coveted and feared. It can boost our egos, inflate our sense of self, build us up, but it can also kill our spirits, crash our hopes, and tear us to tiny bite-sized pieces for the Inner Sharks of Doubt. Metaphors aside, criticism is essential even if it is dangerous.
For a bit of clarification, when I say criticism, it includes the following:
- Inflammatory Hate-Spinning
- Helpful Hints
Without further ado, here are the steps to absolute freedom of Doubt Sharks:
Step 1: Take emotion out of the picture.
If someone is giving you feedback, the first step (we’ll call it step zero) is to say thanks! This person (beloved family, victimized friend, or obligated classmate) has agreed to read your work and give you some sort of response. Even if their comments are unhelpful or annoying, a thanks is in order! To all you un-thanked readers out there, this is me, Rebecca, giving you a big THANKS!
Okay, back to Step 1. I know your book (or poem, story, collection, etc.) is your second soul, your baby, your dearest love, and your precious darling. HOWEVER, you need to be prepared to accept criticism. This can be especially difficult if you’ve written something person or in the memoir-vein of nonfiction. It can be tricky to separate heart from mind here. It might feel that when someone says they don’t like a particular scene that they are degrading, disrespecting, or not appreciating what happened. Take a deep breath, hold your horses, and try to separate yourself from your work.
Take their criticism at face value. They are reading your writing and responding to it honestly (hopefully), and you need to have enough distance between you and your writing so that you are open to receive their criticism.
Step 2: Get it in Writing! (try to get their criticism in a written format)
Don’t worry, this isn’t an issue of legality like the adage may suggest. It’s an issue of memory. If you let someone read your book, and they come to you and say a million things, you’ll end up doing a lot of nodding. And unless you have an extraordinary memory, you’ll be doing a lot of “Sure, I’m listening”-nodding. And we know from experience that “Sure, I’m listening”-nodding (popular when you get introduced to someone) is just a polite way of forgetting.
So. If you’ve asked for criticisms or responses from someone, ask if they are willing to do it in a recording format (writing, typing, voicemail, etc.). For a few examples of different formats for receiving responses from beta readers, see this blog post: How Beta Readers Work.
This way, you can go over their criticisms at your own pace, in your own place, and where you can cry or shout at the comments in privacy (that could just be me though, I suppose).
Step 3: Decipher the Intent of the Criticism
Half of the time, you’ll get comments like this:
- Love this scene
- I don’t like this part
- Not sure what’s going on/What’s happening here
- Who is this
- Where did this come from
- Things changed really fast (abrupt transition)
- (my favorite critique) Why doesn’t this just happen?
Your job as a reviser of your own work is to look at each and every one of those comments and find out what it really says beneath the surface. The underlying issue is that most people don’t know how to critically respond to work. That’s not a bad thing, it just means most people read for enjoyment and haven’t taken a collegiate course on intensive, excruciatingly detailed examination of literary text
“Love this scene” — So. When someone says they like a scene, is it because it’s well-paced and the action flows well? Or because there are some key characterization points where we really get to know and love the main character?
“I don’t like this part” — If they don’t like the scene, don’t freak out. It doesn’t mean the concept is bad or that the writing is unfixable. Just ask yourself: What isn’t working? Do they not like what happens, or does it just not happen in a believable manner?
“Confused” — If they’re confused, is that because the reasoning isn’t developed, or because you didn’t realize that it wasn’t explained fully, or because your characters are distracted by the hairy, hungry morca prowling in the trees?
“Not sure what’s going on” — If they don’t know what’s going on, reread the section and try to understand what isn’t working.
“Who is this” — If they don’t know who a character is, when is the last time you mentioned them by name. When did you introduce them (or did you forget), or are characters popping out of thin air as is convenient for the plot?
“Where did this come from” — Well, where DID it come from? If you can explain it in words out loud, awesome. Now go look at the writing. Is it described there? Sometimes, talking it out is the best way to get to the answer you’re looking for.
“Things changed really fast” — Take a look at pacing, and (maybe more importantly) at transitions. Sometimes all a section needs is a good transition. A reader will pretty much follow wherever you lead them, as long as you lead them with attention to detail and accuracy.
“Why doesn’t this just happen” — This is the best criticism ever. It is closely tied to plot holes and invariably a bit of a headache. Firstly, it’s a great sign which means that the person reading your book is actually paying attention and thinking about what’s going on. Secondly, it’s almost always easier to fix than you think. When a reader says, “Why don’t they just sneak out through the kitchen instead of going out on the roof when your MC is afraid of heights?” And you’re thinking: “My MC needs to face their fear, and the kitchen is boring, and who doesn’t like a good rooftop?” Instead of falling into the bottomless plot hole, GIVE THEM A REASON! Add in a line somewhere that says why the kitchen is a No-Go option. your reader might scoff and say, “That’s cheating,” or “You took an easy way out” or “That’s improbable.” But nonetheless, the next reader who goes through won’t have that question. Instead of falling into the plot hole and ripping your story apart at the seams, built a bridge or fill up the hole, or light the hole on fire. Essentially, work your way out of the plot hole so that it isn’t a plot hole any more!
Step 4: Choose When to Ignore a Critique
Ultimately, you’re the one writing the story. A reader might have a good reason for giving a suggestion, but that doesn’t mean you need to follow it. If they point out a plot hole, just build a bridge! If they don’t like a scene, try to figure out why. If you disagree, and the scene is awesome, and they’re just upset about their favorite character dying, then press on! Keep revising and writing! A reader might not always be happy, but that doesn’t mean their not enjoying the book. Just get to the heart of what their issue with the section is, and devise your own solution.
Step 5: Keep Critiques in Mind
Just because you ignore something or just because you make a change, it doesn’t mean that the section is all better and fixed. Sometimes, unfortunately, by fixing something we make it worse. And sometimes when we try to fix something, we break it. I know it’s tough, but remember that just because you’ve revised, edited, changed, and fixed something once or even twice, that doesn’t mean it’s done yet! Be ready for the possibility that you could spend a week on a single sentence (I speak from experience here).
Step 6: Enjoy What You’re Doing
If it’s not fun (at least some of the time), then you’re doing something wrong! If you love writing, then you’ll need to learn to love (or tolerate/excel at) revision, which includes accepting and responding to criticism,