Monday, July 23, 2012

The Proper Care and Receiving of Criticism

By Julie Daines

As writers, we are constantly putting our writing out there for critique. We have writing groups, beta-readers, we win a critique from someone, we get a rejection letter enumerating all that is wrong with our story. It's a tough business and we need a thick skin.

So let's talk a little about how to receive criticism. Some of it is valuable, some of it--not so much. How do you know what to accept and what to reject?

First of all, consider the source. If an agent or editor tells you the story is too slow or the voice is off, listen. Agent feedback is valuable and almost always spot on.

When it comes to your writing group, they feel it is their job to point out as many problems as possible. If they have no negative feedback they feel they are failing at their responsibility so they may dwell on the nit-picky. As we say in my group, scraping the bottom of the barrel. Consider their advice and then go with your gut reaction.

Non-writer feedback can be useful because they tend to look at the story as a whole. But if your writing falls outside of their preferred genre, their feedback could mean nothing.

Second, pay attention to the feedback's level. Criticism that considers the story as a whole is more valuable than the nit-picky. If a reader mentions overall plot issues, says the story didn't hook them, it was confusing, didn't care about the main characters, too much repetition, too slow--those are red flags. Listen up and fix it.

If the feed back is full of nit-picky small stuff then those are the kinds of changes you think about and then go with what you feel is right for your story.

If a reader says your story just really isn't their thing, no problem. Move on. They are not the target audience.

In the end, all criticism is based on personal opinion and should be carefully considered. Most writers and readers that offer feedback are well-meaning and want to help you write the best story you can, so don't get offended or disheartened by negative comments. Listen to them, think about why that person said what they did, and then use those comments to strengthen your writing.

What are your tips for receiving (or giving) criticism?

Coincidentally, I just noticed that Mary Kole wrote an excellent article on agent vs. paid editorial feedback and why agents say the things they do. Check it out.


Tiffany Dominguez said...

My tip? When receiving feedback, keep your mouth shut and just listen. Ask questions if you need further clarification. But don't DON'T explain yourself or justify anything without thinking through the comments first. My pet peeve is when writers defend their work instead of just listening.

Scott said...

Having once been in a group with somebody who dished out decent criticism but argued with every critique comment on his work ("that change would destroy the rhythm of the sentence," "you obviously don't understand what I'm going for here," "this scene is based on a real event and it didn't happen the way you suggest") and, it so happens, never actually finished anything, I raise my hands in a loud (well, as loud as I get, anyway) halleluja to Julie's comments. A group can be a disaster if even one member doesn't know how to either give or take a decent critique. I've also been in a group where you were not allowed to speak when your work was being critiqued unless asked a direct question. That might be extreme, but I tend to lean that way.

You'll never agree with all the comments made, even by people whose opinions you respect immensely. So, listen, think, ask questions if you don't understand, and then accept or reject in silence. If you hear the same thing from different people, especially if it's at different times, think extra hard before rejecting.

In the end, it's your work and you should never make a change that makes you uncomfortable or that you don't want to live with when you look at your story. Like any decision you make in life, you have to go with what feels right, and you have to be willing to accept the consequences of your choice.

Elliah A. Terry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elliah A. Terry said...

Excellent post. I agree whole-heartedly with everything, especially the part about critiquers feeling like it's their job to find the negative things and they feel like they are failing if they don't find them. I sometimes feel this way as I critique and have to remind myself to also offer the positive, good things about a story. When we know what we are doing right, we can do it again.

Julie Daines said...

Great comments everyone! Thanks for contributing your thoughts and suggestions on this topic: listen, don't defend; go with what feels right; remember to mention the positive. I agree with all of it!