Sunday, September 18, 2011

How To Handle Negative Criticism

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.

Final thoughts

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?


  1. I have three critique partners and none have a problem pointing out what doesn't work in my manuscripts. And it doesn't bother me - I usually read their suggestions and think "Oh yeah, that is better!" Doesn't hurt that one of them infuses so much humor into his comments that I bust out laughing when I read them. Who can laugh and be mad at the same time?

  2. This is a touchy subject, Sister Lorena, since most of the criticism I get comes from you! But I will use some of your tips in my real job where I don't get such fair-minded reviews.

    It´s bad to get defensive on the face of criticism, much, much worse is to be found out. I will add that hiding the disappointment/anger/humiliation and making a gracious exit is a very useful skill.

    For the record, all of my Beta Readers are nothing but kind, helpful, fair evaluators, but once I made the terrible, terrible mistake of showing my MS to something akin to a cyber boyfriend On our first fight, he shredded my work to pieces with gusto. Sound advice; beware of who you let into the private world of your craft.

    Writing is something so intimate, you have to shelter it from anyone who is not an expert and who is not willing to give you constructive appraisal.

  3. I am so sensitive that just reading this post almost pushed me to tears!!! :)

    Thanks for the helpful advice!! Rejection DOES feel SO personal...

  4. Great topic, though Violante is right ... it's a sensitive one! :) Being critiqued is essential, but it sure can be devastating. I got used to criticism when I worked at a newspaper and got edited daily, but fiction is something different. It's one thing to get copy-edited (that doesn't hurt at all) but to be told a story's not going anywhere, a scene flops, a character is flat -- those things are very hard to hear. Hardest still is when you know they're right and have no idea how to fix it.

    Another tricky bit of critiques is sorting out what feedback is useful and what can safely be ignored. If you get two (or more) critiquers who say the same thing, though, chances are good that aspect needs changing.

    I will have my family read short passages sometimes, if I have a very specific question. But for an overall critique, I think a critique group or hired critiquer is better. I don't send my stuff to friends to read unless they request it, and lately I've been saying no to that as well. I agree with Violante that you need to be very careful about who you show your work to. A bad critique can be destructive.

    It's so important to include praise with every critique. I was in an online critique group one time that had a form critiquers would fill out (in addition to their own notes). One of the bullet points was: "My favorite thing about this chapter ..." I found I could hear the "negative" feedback so much more easily if I knew there was something that did work. That form (with all its questions) kept us focused as beta readers and gave the writer an idea what to expect in terms of feedback.

  5. Although this was a post about gracefully taking criticism, it has touched another subject: how to choose Beta Readers. When it comes to family members…I think it´s a personal choice. I wouldn´t let my mother read my work, Dad refuses to, and my brother is one of my harshest critics, so I think it depends on the family.

    Another point to keep in mind when selecting a reader is if he/she knows about your genre and likes it. You must always have at least one Beta who is familiar with your field, particularly if it´s a “not everybody’s cup of tea” genre (erotica, fantasy, inspirational, etc)

    And at the risk of sounding sexist, don’t force a male reader to give you his opinion on romance, children stories or women´s fiction. According to statistics, most men read less fiction than us, and prefer especific genres (thrillers, war or adventure novels, etc.)

  6. Ay, a sensitive issue indeed.

    Your tips are very helpful, Lorena. I especially like the "exit gracefully and think about it" strategy.

    I also appreciate Stephanie's mention of including praise in every critique.

    I have put into practice the "don't get defensive" strategy and I agree it's key. But in order to be at my best writer-receiving-critique behavior, I find it useful to prepare mentally. Mantra-like repetitions work for me. So I just tell myself over and over, right before I meet the person or read his/her feedback: take it lightly, don't get upset, breathe deep, you don't have to agree, just listen, be thankful she/he's taking the time to offer a critique [...]. Maybe a bit ridiculous, but it helps me.

  7. No.4 is SO, SO important. Whenever you got over yourself and accepted critique, your first reflex is to listen to what everybody has said and change everything. Everybody has a different opinion. It's not because a beta reader didn't like it that it's necessarily bad.

  8. I suppose I am hardened after many years of having my work, (non-authorial), criticized. I look at my writing as a challenge. I am willing to consider any and all criticism, and accept it or reject it without it affecting me much emotionally. Sometimes ,I do as my Grandpa said, 'consider the source'. My limited experience with writing groups has been disappointing. A lot of the time was spent sympathizing with other's failures. One lady showed a rejection letter that she thought was especially compassionate. No doubt, I was in the wrong group.
    One area where I feel incompetent, is gauging the reactions of younger female readers. My MC is an adolescent youth, and if I am to be honest in his portrayal,certain of his actions may offend the delicate sensibilities of some. . Don't get me wrong, he isn't Portnoy.
    I am still not sure who my target audience is. I agree with Violante, that finding suitable readers is problem number one. Unless they are fiction hounds, family members are nearly useless, partly because they are afraid of offending, and they don't know what you want. I have tried asking questions about content, format etc. They say 'it's OK, don't change a thing'. Older male writers, have been the best 'critiquers'.
    I'm sorry if I seem unsympathetic. It's either a 'guy thing' or because I'm getting crusty in my old age. I realize that my reasons for writing are different from the majority of aspiring writers. Regis

  9. As I mentioned before, L, I wish I would have read this post a year ago.

  10. Alex -- Yes, humor definitely helps. I also find myself laughing when my critiquers make funny remarks (which is not uncommon since English is my second language and sometimes I make up words or use the wrong verb/preposition/expression in my text.)

    Regis -- I also feel "hardened" after four years of having my work critiqued, but I have noticed that many writers are very sensitive about their work. I have the fortune of having wonderful critiquers who are usually right in their assessments. I don't know where I'd be without them!

    Sisters Steph and Violante -- You've both touched on a very important issue: the selection of beta readers. (And based on what you say, Violante, asking a "significant other" may be a very bad idea in some cases. I guess it all depends on the relationship and whether or not the two of you have a similar taste in fiction. (But I think it probably hurts more if they don't like it than anyone else, except for parents, maybe.) Like both of you, I don't ask family members to read my stuff either (although some of them have recently asked. I'm still thinking about what I'm going to say.)

    Ben -- that was exactly my problem when I first started getting critiqued. I would change everything. And since not everyone agrees (like you say) I kept going back and forth, ha! I think Regis is right in saying "consider the source." But the decision is ultimately the writer's. After all, the writer is the only one who knows what story he wants to tell.

    Raquel -- I like your mantra!

    Dear Maggie -- I think you're stronger than you think. ;)

    Suze, I don't think it's too late for you. :-)

  11. I whole-heartedly agree with taking a step back and then when you're ready, sit down and go through everything the critiquer has pointed out. A little space cools the engines. I was rather touchy in the beginning when my work was getting critiqued, but now, I just want to know what's wrong with it so I can fix it and move on. I think that our first manuscript is the one we tend to get most attached to, so it's nice to move on and delve into another world and just step away from that first one.

    I don't believe family and close friends are a good idea when it comes to beta readers. Like others have mentioned, they are too close to you as a person and don't want to offend. I do occasionally read small portions to my husband, but usually because I'm having a technical problem in the scene and I need it to sound realistic. You need to have a good group of people who know what they're talking about when it comes to having your work critiqued. Mine have been great! ; )


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