With writing, though, criticism is one of the most useful things a writer can get. Assuming the criticism isn’t unfair or brutally scathing, it can be really helpful. After all, knowing our shortcomings is the first step towards improving them.
Being able to take criticism well is not about good manners or sportsmanship. It’s about looking at your writing through someone else’s eyes and seeing its flaws from a fresh reader’s point of view. Yes, they may love what you’ve written, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. It doesn’t mean you haven’t overwritten or overexplained. Or that you’ve been technically brilliant. Bless the ones who praise your work as flawless, but be wary. As a writer, you need to hear the bad stuff, too. Criticism is not about offending you, or putting you down, it’s about becoming aware of what can be made better.
So how do you quell that instinctive urge to go for the throat when you receive criticism?
Here are some ways to help.
1. Write it down
If the critique or feedback is given verbally, all you will remember afterwards is the negative, yet a good critic will give you a balanced view. Okay, so your dialogue didn’t sound realistic, but your action scene was awesome. What you will remember, trust me, is that your dialogue sucks. If you take the time to write down point-by-point what your critic says, though, you will remember the positive too. Tot them up and you’ll probably discover that, actually, there were more good points than bad.
A good critic will be offering constructive criticism, even if it’s not what you want to hear. Writing it down allows you to look back later and consider their suggestions. Maybe there is a way to get around a sticky point in the story, and, for this, a fresh perspective can be invaluable.
2. Give Yourself Time
Your initial reaction to negative feedback will range from disappointment to anger or resentment. First of all, hearing the bad takes some getting used to. Sometimes you have to digest the comments for several days before your emotions subside and you can think about the critique in a more objective state of mind. Just as your reviewer will have had to be objective in commenting on your work, you need to consider their words with a cool head.
You might have initially wanted to dismiss their views wholesale, because hearing about your book’s faults is hard to take, but maybe they have a point? And maybe, now you’ve re-read or reconsidered their comments, you can take a fresh look at your work, and get why they said it?
3. Don’t rush for the tippex
Okay, fair enough, few of us really use tippex anymore, but the principle still applies. One person – the one person you asked for feedback from – happens to not like something about your book. Sometimes it’s down to perspective. Ask a different person, they might give you a completely different set of comments. Ask another. And another.
Before you go for a major re-write, get as many critiques as you can. None will be identical. Some may highlight the same points. Those points are the ones to really look at. If there’s a general trend running through the reviews you get, then there’s a good chance that aspect of your novel really doesn’t work, or may need reconsidering. Guaranteed, if several critics noticed it, most of your readers will pick up on it, too.
4. It’s Your Book
In the end, the book is yours. You get to decide whether or not you leave something as it is or change it,at least until your agent or publisher get hold of it. But let’s not go down that road today.
Reviewers are trying to help you by giving their view on your manuscript, but they can’t make you change something you really love about it. If you feel something should stay the way it is, then leave it.
Neil Gaiman says it best,
“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
Words worth remembering.
Remember that even published, successful and celebrated writers don’t write perfect manuscripts. If there is such a thing as a perfect manuscript, then it has probably been through several incarnations, the first of which would have been full of errors, contained superfluous scenes and characters, structured wrongly and/or (heaven forbid) typos.
Put Aside the Ego
It’s easy to take criticism personally and feel like the comments are aimed at you. It’s natural to feel that way, but it’s also wrong. There’s always going to be some apprehension when you submit something for feedback, and a painful twang when you get negative comments. You can and do get used to it, though. Never forget, the critique is about the writing, plain and simple. It’s not about you, and it’s not intended to hurt you or dissuade you from continuing.
Go For It!
However scary the prospect of having your work disected by an impartial critic might be, don’t be put off. This is an essential part of a writer’s work, and gaining a thicker skin is part of the process. Even if your critic points out lots of faults in your book, that doesn’t mean you can’t write, or that your book will never be any good. It’s a matter of refining both your writing, and your book. Any author who believes their writing to be already perfect is either delusioned or just starting out, so don’t be shocked or dismayed if your reader finds some faults.
There are always faults.
Expect them, and ride the roller coaster that is a writer’s life.