How (Not) to Deal with Constructive Criticism

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Happy Monday, All! Today marks the second week of my blog tour and I’m excited to announce that 3 fanfriggintastic authors have been kind enough to host me today!

Mel Kin over at A 5-Minute Piece of My Mind  is sharing a book spotlight and Emma L. Adams at From the Writer’s Nest is interviewing yours truly. You can see past and future tour stops here.

But in the meanwhile, let’s talk about an issue I’m sure all writers have dealt with: criticism.

I’ve been seeing a lot of requests for critique partners and beta readers online lately, but I’ve been hesitant to volunteer because you never know how some folks are going to react to criticism.

I’ll give you an example:

Back in the day (way back, before Facebook), I took a creative writing course. In this particular class, there was a student who was very vocal about the “mistakes “in other people’s writing. In fact, prior to reading her work, I thought she was some creative writing guru because she was so knowledgeable about the craft of writing (translation: she nitpicked our poor manuscripts within an inch of their lives, and she wasn’t always so nice about it). So when it was time for us to read her manuscript, I sort of assumed that her work would be…well, perfect.

But everything that glitters ain’t gold. When I took that manuscript home, I was shocked.  I don’t like to disparage people’s work (because, hey: we’re all God’s children), but honey, you talk about the biggest mess you ever wanted to see! I’m talking characters who were so unbelievable you wanted to toss the manuscript out the window (and I’m sure several of my classmates probably did), scenes that made me laugh out loud (and they weren’t supposed to be funny), and the ending? Let’s just call it the plot twist from hell. Now, did I tell her this in my critique? Of course not! I mean, I love keeping it real just as much as the next gal,  but mama ain’t raised no fool.  You never know how some folk are going to react to criticism and I would hate to really “let somebody have it” in a critique session and then walk outside and find them waiting. By my car. In a hoody. Holding a baseball bat.

But I digress.

As you can imagine, some people in the class (probably remembering how mean she’d been with their critiques) really let ole girl have it. And what ensued was a blood bath like I had never seen. She became completely belligerent despite the fact that, in the past, she’d critiqued the work of her fellow authors with such vecerosity (I just made that word up. It means “exceedingly crass, even for an asshole”). Anyhoo, I sat back in my chair, cringing, and when it was finally my turn to offer my thoughts, I really tried to be positive with my critique. But others were brutally honest, and the person got so upset she eventually started crying. Do I say all of this to celebrate the blood bath that occurred that day? No. I say let this be a lesson to us all: critique unto others as you would have them critique unto you.

I know this is an extreme example, but it’s one of the reasons why I don’t always volunteer to beta read: some people might take the criticism personally. Letting other people read your work can be nerve-wracking, but if someone is kind enough to give you feedback on your writing, here are a few things not to do:

  1. Get defensive.
  2. Say: “But it really happened!” Doesn’t matter if your story made the front page of the paper. If it doesn’t ring true on the page, people won’t buy it.
  3. Say: “Well, you’re all just a bunch of idiots and aren’t intelligent/hip/socially aware enough to ‘get’ what I’m doing here.” Listen, someone actually took the time to read your story and just because you don’t like what they say doesn’t mean you have to berate them. Don’t agree with the criticism? Say thank you anyway and keep it moving.
  4. Cry. Please don’t! We’ll hand you a handkerchief but it won’t change how we feel about the manuscript (really, it won’t). Besides, if you think your critique partners are harsh, wait until you’re published and reviewers get a hold of your novel. It takes tough skin to be an author!

As authors, we have to learn to accept criticism and separate ourselves from the things that we write, so I want you to repeat after me: “I (insert your name) fully recognize that a critique of my novel is not a critique of me as a person.”

I’ll say it again for those of you in the back who didn’t hear me: a critique of your novel is not a critique of you as a person. If someone takes the time to give you feedback on your novel, be grateful. Even if you don’t agree with everything they say, there’s a chance that there’s something in the feedback that can help to make your story better. After all, if you didn’t want people’s opinions, you wouldn’t have asked for it. And if you thought your story was perfect, you wouldn’t be asking for feedback…right?

Right.

What about others? Any critique session horror stories (As an author, critiquer, or both)? I’d love to hear your thoughts!


38 thoughts on “How (Not) to Deal with Constructive Criticism

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  3. One of the beta readers I had for Little Orchid was someone from a writers’ board whom I didn’t know personally, and the critique he gave was quite harsh. I was taken aback at first but when I went back to it few days later, I realized he’d only said what he thought was best for my ms. He wasn’t nasty, he was just honest in the most direct way. And most of his feedback did me good. Am I glad I asked for a critique and he’d said yes!

    It was a critique exchange, so after reading his comments on my story, I’d thought here was a person who really knew his stuff in kid literature. When I read his ms … mmh, his writing skills (narrative descriptions, character behaviour, rhythm etc.) didn’t strike me as strong as his critiquing skills did. Maybe some writers are better at being an editor than a writer.

    I always add encouraging feedback in my critique though when it comes to areas that sound odd to me, I try not to hold back on letting the writer know, too.
    Claudine @ CarryUsOff Books recently posted..Kiki’s Delivery ServiceMy Profile

  4. Agreed, though I think it’s really hard for we writers to disconnect ourselves from our work. Especially since we live with these people in our heads, so hearing someone say they’re not real or not likeable or what-have-you, it’s hard to not have it feel like it’s personal. But we have to.

    And likewise, when you’re critiquing someone else’s work and don’t like it, it’s hard not to be harsh. I’ve experienced this in the past, and had to go over my own notes to make sure I was only talking about what in the story needed to be fixed and not being snarky or mean. I was really nervous when I gave the story back, for fear my CP would get upset with me, but fortunately they liked what I said. Still nerve-wracking, though.
    Mason T. Matchak recently posted..Antagonized.My Profile

  5. AND I’m laughing out loud, as per usual. This one in particular got me: “I would hate to really “let somebody have it” in a critique session and then walk outside and find them waiting. By my car. In a hoody. Holding a baseball bat.”

    I also laughed because this post is SO TRUE. Man, writing workshops can be cutthroat. They can also be highly annoying, because writers a) cry; b) defend their work with vecerosity, and c) do all of the other things you gently an truthfully point out that we shouldn’t do.

    I’m very careful about who I offer to beta read or CP for, for the same reasons you have here, but also because (and I know this will be a huge shock to you) I’m such a thorough reader. I give a lot of time to the projects I read, and a lot of thought. I’m not saying my feedback is made of gold (as you said, just because it glitters…) but that I spend a long time on it. And therefore, I need to trust that the work is well-thought-out and enjoyable and well-written (with plenty of problems, of course; I never expect it to be perfect!), that the person who wrote it is a sane person who can hear constructive criticism, and that that person will treat my work with the time, thoughtfulness, and respect. Oh, and I have to have TIME for all of this, too 🙂
    Liz Blocker (@lizblocker) recently posted..Dribbles and Drabbles and DrivelsMy Profile

    • Ha! Sounds like we need to have some kind of screening process for the people we volunteer to read for. The first question should be: “Are you crazy?” The second question: “Are you SURE you aren’t crazy?” LOL! Like you, I’ve learned to be selective. Sometimes you give feedback with good intentions only to have someone say, “Well, about that thing you pointed out, what I really meant to say is ___________.” Dude: if it ain’t on the page, it don’t exist. Point blank and the period!
      Quanie recently posted..How (Not) to Deal with Constructive CriticismMy Profile

  6. Yup. Totally agree. That verse about specks and logs is so true.

    Learning to critique is as much of a process as learning to write. Like Arlee, I mix in good with the negative, and I try to end on a positive note. If my last mark is a criticism, I add a note at the end that says something nice and encouraging.

    It is a necessary evil, though. I chuckled when I read the part about ‘if you think your CPs are harsh…’. I’ve always said I’d much rather get raked over the coals by my critique partners than get vilified on Amazon. 😉
    Melissa Maygrove recently posted..I’m aliveMy Profile

  7. Great advice. When I critique something I try to add a balance of good to any bad that I might say. Constructive advice is a good thing I think, but some people think any kind of criticism is an attack on not only their work but them personally. It’s best to be honest, but some people would rather get the flattery and I’d rather not succumb to administering praise where it’s not due.

    Last year I did an Amazon review on a work by someone I was in a writer’s group with. I believe a gave him a five star review–in any case it was overall a very positive review. However I did point out a couple problems I saw with the work from the standpoint of how I thought some readers might find and the guy got quite upset and defensive with me beginning with a response directly on Amazon and the carrying on into a series of emails that led him to cut ties with me. I was baffled in that I was not just trying to help with the review, but I was also actively promoting his work on my blog and social media. Sometimes you just can’t seem to do enough for some people.

    Lee
    Arlee Bird recently posted..Survive and ThriveMy Profile

    • Arlee, I know what you mean–even if you’re careful and think that the feedback isn’t at all insulting, an uber sensitive writer will find something to nitpick. No one likes hearing that their work isn’t perfect, but if we can’t handle criticism then the only other option is to keep the work to ourselves and never let anyone see it. And I can’t believe that author did that to you. Geesh. You just can’t please some people!
      Quanie recently posted..How (Not) to Deal with Constructive CriticismMy Profile

  8. I’m just like you, Quanie, when it comes to critiquing. I like to be gentle about it because I know how I would feel if someone wasn’t gentle to me. It doesn’t feel good. And I hate to make someone feel bad. Even if their work is horrible, I point out the good things first and then mention what they could do better. And I feel the need to reassure anyone I beta read for that despite my suggestions their work is good.

    But there are so many out there who are brutally honest. When I asked for betas not too long ago one person warned me that she’s brutally honest. I like honesty, but do you have to be brutal about it? I decided not to let her read my work.

    In this day and age, writers really do need a list of things not to do when it comes to critiques, reviews, and other writing. It’s sad that these things aren’t common sense, but that’s what you get when you throw in social media and the fact that everyone goes to the Internet to rant and rave.
    Chrys Fey recently posted..Sexy Snippets from 30 SecondsMy Profile

    • I’m with you, Chrys. I think it’s just so much better not to burn a bridge over a manuscript. I mean, really. Even when I’ve read things that didn’t really work for me, I’m fully aware of the fact that there is an absolute audience for everything, so even if I don’t like it, I don’t want to be harsh and keep someone from proceeding with a piece that might be just what its intended audience is looking for. So I try not to be too heavy handed.
      Quanie recently posted..How (Not) to Deal with Constructive CriticismMy Profile

  9. SO true! Even with my freelance writing, I deal with it every day. It hurts…and you never really get past taking it personally. But I’ve found the best thing to do is to read it, digest it, step away from it, then come back to it later. It may be later that day or a couple of days later (depending on how much time you have), but often once you ignore that hurt and start taking the person’s advice, you find your work is MUCH stronger for it.
    Stephanie Faris recently posted..Can You Make a Full-Time Living as a Writer?My Profile

  10. I love how your posts combine sharp good sense with your wonderful humour.
    It’s a difficult process learning to both give and take criticism and, sadly, some never learn. And when we’ve put so much of ourselves into our writing it’s hard to separate criticism of the work from criticism of ourselves. But absolutely necessary if we want to write stuff that other people will want to read.
    In your example, I agree that the uber-critical students might have been projecting her own difficulties. Sometimes extra harsh criticism can be motivated by envy, but I don’t think there’s much we can do about that other than shrug it off and avoid consulting a person in future.
    Annecdotist recently posted..9 fictional psychologists and psychological therapists: 9. The Delivery Room by Sylvia BrownriggMy Profile

  11. So timely, this post! Accepting constructive criticism–with class–is definitely a skill. I love the way you approached this post with so much humor even though I’m sure the actual “blood bath” was anything but humorous 🙂

  12. I sure enjoy your posts! This was certainly amusing while it openly explored an uncomfortable issue that all too many decline to deal with an end up hurting themselves in the long run. As in hiding. If no one sees your work, no one will criticize.
    I admire (and appreciate) a reviewer who tempers constructive criticism with at least a dash of praise and perhaps helpful suggestions as to improvements. It takes a bit of the sting off and offers a ray of hope.
    Great post, thanks!
    ~ diedre

    • Hi Diedre, completely agree! I think the best readers soften the blow by saying something positive about the work first and then saying what didn’t work for them so much. I was once in a creative writing workshop where a guy got ripped into so bad I was CRINGING. Seriously. The person giving the feedback had the manuscript on his desk and went through page by page (while frowning), and saying with contempt, “And then THIS,” and then he threw the offending page to the ground before launching into what he didn’t like. Yikes!
      Quanie recently posted..How (Not) to Deal with Constructive CriticismMy Profile

  13. “I, Faith Simone, fully recognize that a critique of my novel is not a critique of me as a person.”
    I need to say that again ten times. I’m so sensitive about what I write! But, I had to learn that constructive criticism is an author’s best friend. My writers group really helped me get over my fear of sharing my work. Do I always agree with their critique? Nope. But I always appreciate anyone taking the time to read my work and give honest feedback. They truly help me to be a better writer.

    This post was full of humor, but it also hit home with some real deal truth. If you can’t take it, you sure don’t need to be dishing it out. The nerve of old girl! It’s really sad. And it just goes to show how important critique partners are. She could see every flaw in other people’s writing, but was blind to her own short comings. I hope that was a valuable lesson for her. Did her critique style change for the rest of the course after everyone gave her the business?
    Faith Simone recently posted..I Know A Girl…My Profile

    • Her critique style didn’t change, if you can believe that. I mean, seriously. I thought her work would be the doggone holy grail as much as she ripped into other people. I should have realized then that she was probably just projecting her own insecurities onto others. But I think we’re all blind to the flaws in our own writing, so thank God for beta readers, critique partners, and editors. And I feel the same way that you do: I don’t always agree with people’s assessment of what I write, but hey. I’m always grateful for feedback.
      Quanie recently posted..How (Not) to Deal with Constructive CriticismMy Profile

  14. You know something, Quanie? Reading this post made me think back to one of my favorite professors in college, my Creative Writing teacher. He was critical but in the sense that he wanted our writing to be at its best. My writing was so raw back then and at times, I took his criticism to heart. But by the end of the course, he actually pulled me aside and told me my work had a lot of potential.
    A lot of times, we don’t realize how criticism helps us to grow and become better authors. We get all hot tempered or broken hearted, often dwelling in a space of denial.
    I had an author interview a couple of weeks ago which I will be blogging about once I wrap up my spooky Halloween tales. But during this interview, I was so nervous and you could tell because I abused the words “umm” and “like.” Even though everyone said I did such an amazing job, my boyfriend who both brutally honest and loving, criticized me. But he did it in a way which would help prepare me for my next interview. He’s in the Marketing industry so he sat down with me as we went over some really important points. He also congratulated me because snagging an author interview with an award winning radio host is not to shabby!

    • Gina, I have also been in the position of taking criticism to heart (I think this happens a lot when you’re just starting out as a writer), but as you go on, you realize you need that criticism to make the work better. Can you imagine if nobody told us what we needed to hear regarding our manuscripts because they were afraid of hurting our feelings??? Our manuscripts would certainly be in poor shape! And it’s good that you were able to take that feedback about your radio interview and learn from it. Not everyone can do that! Thanks for sharing that with us.
      Quanie recently posted..How (Not) to Deal with Constructive CriticismMy Profile

  15. I am so glad I discovered your blog–this was a fantastic post, Quanie! I agree–I’ve had both good and bad experiences. I’ve agreed with the critiques I’ve received on my MSs b/c they were presented in a super helpful way. The worst anyone ever made me feel was in a creative writing class in college. Not to toot my own horn but I had never had an English teacher not like my writing, from 5th grade on. Well, this professor hated me for some reason. And then this girl I was friends with in the class read a memoir piece i had to write and laughed at me. Um it was a one page true story about taking my driving test. She made me feel like a terrible writer who relied to much on Microsoft word’s corrections rather than making my story good. Ugh it really threw me!

    • Hi Beth,

      I had one particularly harsh critique (the professor told me that when he got to a particular scene in my story, he had to “sit it down for days.” LOL!) It’s never good when a critique session turns ugly. I always try to say something positive but others aren’t always so nice.

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Quanie recently posted..How (Not) to Deal with Constructive CriticismMy Profile

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