Let’s face it. Criticism sucks. None of us want to hear a long list of things we did wrong (especially with something as personal as writing). We don’t always admit it, but what we’re really hoping for when we submit our beloved babies for evaluation is a pat on the back and something along the lines of: “This is a masterpiece like no other. Go ahead and open a bank account for all the profits this book will generate.”
Unfortunately, this never happens. And if it does, the comment probably came from a family member or close friend (aka: people who love you and think you’re awesome, which you probably are, but that is irrelevant here.) More often than not, our “objective” critiquers—colleagues, teachers, agents or editors—will come back to us with a list of grievances the size of Russia. The effects can be devastating. They can range anywhere from shame, frustration, anger, sadness, self-doubt, self-deception, or all of the above. You may also experience a sort of indifference or numbness (if you’ve been exposed to this kind of criticism too many times—in the form of rejection letters, for example—but in my experience, this is a rare occurrence.) The most common emotions after a negative critique are pretty intense. After all, your life-long dreams are being crushed in a matter of minutes. These emotions are normal and I believe happen to all writers at some point in their careers. Some survive this bitter episode, but others may question their writing abilities and give up altogether.
Don’t let this happen to you! Here are some of the techniques that have helped me make the best out of a negative critique.
1. Don’t get defensive
In my own experience with critiquers, defending my work didn’t lead anywhere. The initial impression the writing caused cannot be changed. Even if you change the reader's mind later with an explanation, you cannot change what they thought while they were reading. Knowing what this initial impression was can help you determine if you're coming across how you intend to.
When you get defensive, you're in a position where you're not really listening to suggestions. You're just thinking of how the other person is wrong and you're right. A back and forth between writer and critiquer is not productive for either one. The end results are not the best: either you lose your beta reader or they stop being honest with you to avoid the drama.
2. Give it time
Your first reaction when you get a critique (be it written or verbal) will probably be surprise (after all, if you thought you’d made a mistake, you wouldn’t have done it, right?) The second may be one of the following: frustration (“such-and-such doesn’t get my work”), shame (“how could I have made such a stupid mistake? Must defend my work immediately so critiquer doesn’t think I’m an idiot/bad writer”) or anger (“how dare evil-critiquer judge my work so harshly when he a, b and c in his novel!”)
My advice is to detach yourself as much as humanly possible (for the moment) from your novel/critique and just listen/read the notes without responding (unless you plan to be gracious when you open your mouth/type back.) Thank your critiquer, grab your manuscript and leave the premises immediately before your ego responds prior to having a chance to process the unpleasant information. The longer you take before reacting to your critique (be it by making the suggested changes, ripping your manuscript to pieces or insulting those who dared criticized your protagonist) will make your decision more objective. The time you should wait really depends on the person. It has taken anywhere from days, to weeks, to even months before I could really grasp the criticism without emotion.
3. Go back to your notes
After you’ve cooled down, it’s time to go back to your critiquers’ comments. Reread everything they’ve told you. You will realize this time that either your critiquers were way off with their comments, or they were actually right and their suggestions will make your work stronger. Either way, you will see that whatever they told you wasn’t as inflammatory as you originally thought.
4. Evaluate suggestions and value of critique
Now that you’re back to your charming and reasonable self again, you’re in a position to evaluate whether or not the solution(s) your critiquers offered will make your manuscript better. Make the easy changes first (those suggestions you had no problem with). If you’re not ready to make a big change, DON’T do it. Give it more time, but keep it in the back of your mind.
If you’re comfortable with your critiquer and know this disagreement was temporary, then continue working together, but if the experience left a bitter taste in your mouth, you must evaluate if this person’s style will work for you. (More on this later.)
5. Take more time off and reread work
Now that you’ve implemented the suggestions you agreed with, give your mind a rest for a few days (the longer, the better, especially if the change was a big one.) Work on other projects or other portions of the novel. What you want to achieve with this break is to become as objective as you can be in this subjective endeavor.
Once you’ve created enough distance, read your entire manuscript so you get an overall sense of your story’s progression, and see if the applied changes flow well with the rest of the novel. This is the true test of whether the criticism you received was on target or not.
At some point in our relationships with critiquers, there needs to be an objective evaluation of whether they’re a positive or a negative influence on our writing (this doesn't mean that a critiquer who always likes your work is necessarily a positive influence, or one that is always pointing out your mistakes is always negative.) What, IMO, determines a good relationship is whether or not after a constructive critique (which, as earlier established, you may not be ready to accept/understand/open your mind to right away) you are still encouraged/enthusiastic about your writing and after implementing the changes your work becomes stronger. (As opposed to having the feeling after every meeting that you're not good and you might as well give up.)
What are your feelings on critiques? Do you think you should only point out the positive about a writer’s work (in order to encourage them to continue writing)? Or do you believe that honesty (as brutal as it may be) will be more helpful to the writer in the long run? Should friends/family members be beta readers? Are peers or industry professionals too harsh/uptight in their critiques?