Saturday, May 25, 2013

Being critiqued - handling the pain

Getting your work critiqued by someone else is an essential step on the way to producing a publishable work.

But it can hurt.

A lot.

Here's your writing - your baby - that you've agonized over for months, polishing it within an inch of its life. It's perfect. How can anyone not love it?

You put it out there to your critique group, expecting nothing but unstinting adulation - the next New York Times bestseller! Agents will be flocking to your door to represent you! Publishers will be bidding six figure advances to snag the honor of putting your novel on bookstore shelves. Movie deals are in the offing ...

What you get, instead, is carping criticism from ungrateful Philistines. Boring! Infodump! Characters flat and uninteresting. Confused - what's happening in this scene? Plot inconsistencies. Disbelief - this character would never do that. Your writing sucks!

It's easy to be discouraged, especially when you get a harsh critique on your favorite scene. It's equally easy to dismiss a painful critique out of hand. Both paths are problematic. Do you want to be a writer, or don't you? Do you want to improve, or don't you? If the answer to both is "yes" then you need to persevere and listen to what others have to say.

This first group of tips is all about coping with that pain, because you need to get past that before you can move on and get real value from the critique.

This is meant to help

Critiquing, no matter how painful, is all about making your story better. It's meant to help, no matter how harsh the comments, no matter how offensively they may be delivered, the purpose is to help.

Keep that in mind. Cling to it, even when the critique seems to be hell-bent on trashing everything you have to say. Even when the critiquer has made it perfectly clear that they are not, in fact, interested in helping but only in showing you how much your writing sucks, they are helping nonetheless.

It just may not feel like it at the time.

Distance lessens the sting

Read, but don't respond. Accept the emotion, but don't try to do anything with the critique just yet. Let it sit a few days (or weeks, or months ... whatever it takes) before coming back to it. You will often re-read with a more objective mind and be more able to decide what to pay attention to.

Another distancing trick is to pretend the writing belongs to someone else. Read what the critiquer has to say as if you were eavesdropping on someone else's critique.

It's only one person's opinion

Give this to a hundred different readers, and you will get a hundred different reactions. Remember that what you are reading is just one person's view, and it's just an opinion. It's not truth, engraved in tablets of stone that you are expected to absorb, worship, then swallow with a glass of milk.

It's not a competition

Whatever you do, don't ever ... ever ... argue with the critiquer. They've voiced their opinion. They are entitled to it. You asked for it, for heaven's sake!

The critiquer is always right, even when they're wrong. If a comment is blatantly, factually wrong, just make yourself a note that it is wrong, and move on. This is not about you versus them. It's not a competition to see who's right. From your end of the deal, the only purpose of the critique is to improve your writing, not the critiquer's.

Of course, it is always good to double-check your facts too. I've been surprised from time to time with things I was sure were correct.

It's not personal

Always remember, the comments are not about you, they are about your story. Specifically this story.

A good critiquer will always make that clear. They will refer to the words on the page, not to you as a writer.

Not all critiquers are good at critiquing. So remember, the comments are all about the story, even if they are worded personally. When they say thing like "Your writing sucks" or "You suck as a writer" all they are really saying is "This specific example of your writing sucks ... in my humble and inexpert opinion."

Some critiquers really are trying to be personal. They've decided to make it about you. Remember, they don't know you, except through the words you've written, so it's still only about the story.

OK, this assumes you don't actually know the critiquer personally. If you do, and this really is personal, then there are bigger things going on. This is no longer about the critiquing process and is outside my territory!

You're the boss

No matter what the critiquer says, no matter how emphatic they are that you need to do things their way, remember ... always ... that you're the boss. You are not obliged to pay any attention. They've given you their opinion, but they have no say in how you choose to use it. The next part is up to you.

So, finally, if you get an especially stinging critique, remember that you have the last laugh. Print it out and use it as toilet paper if it will make you feel better.

Phew! That was a long post. My apologies! More posts to follow on the specifics of processing critiques but I think that's enough for now.


  1. Is there ANY part of writing that's easy lol?

  2. I wish, Delores. Sadly no. Not even the writing part of writing is easy!

  3. I gave up thinking my babies were perfect years ago, the first time it as thrown in my face that my lovely words were in fact full of suck. While I like to think that my work has gotten better, it's still far from perfect and on occasion its still full of suck.

    Gotta embrace those crits and squeeze all the good stuff from them and discard the rest. Good stuff, being the stuff you can use. I can honestly say some of the lest helpful crits I've received were the ones who focused soley on everything they considered good.

  4. Better to get the bad news before you have gone to all the effort of getting it published I guess.
    This post should be helpful to those thinking of critiquing too, to help them focus on the words and make it personal

  5. Jean, that's the spirit :) More posts to follow on that squeezing-the-goodness end the process.

    Mynx, the point is, it's not "bad news" at all, it's an expected part of the process. Nothing we write is ready for publication straight off, and critiquing is the way many of us choose to get it there. Big name authors probably dash off a draft and ship it straight off to their editors for straightening out, but I can't afford that :)

  6. The first time I heard someone tell me, "I don't know, I just didn't like it." I was like :(

    But today, I understand that to be a style issue as well. Some people like immediacy in writing (get to the point), and that's me. Other's like to immerse into your environment and explore with sensory descriptions.

    I've since learned to produce both, but not too much of either.

    I still catch hell from my critique group at times, but less and less frequently, because I do listen to much of what they've schooled me on. Why wouldn't I? Several of them are published and one is a professional editor. Talk about feeling intimidated my first time. LOL

  7. Hi Ian - I can imagine it must be a 'horrid' read at times .. but as you say it's their opinion .. having encouragement to move on is the thing ... and realising that we all have faults or challenges and admitting that upfront .. and asking what would you suggest (if you feel you want to!) ...

    Good luck with your road to publication .. cheers Hilary

  8. My husband is a great writer. However he just doesn't do well with critiques. I'm gonna send him to this page to read this. Maybe it'll help.



  9. Diane, that wasn't a particularly helpful critique then. At least they could have suggested why they didn't like it. But you raise a good point about different styles. I will touch on that later.

    Hilary, the best critiques come with suggestions to show what the critiquer had in mind. You may or may not act on them, of course, but it shouldn't all be "this sucks!"

    Valerie, please do. Also worth bearing in mind that there's a world of difference between "critique" and "criticism" :)

  10. Excellent write-up. Since we do share a crit group in common--one I sorely need to get back to, and soon!--it's interesting to see that we share a lot of the same growing pains. I'm almost exactly parallel to you in terms of my acceptance of the critiquing process pain, Ian. I no longer take the experience so personally, but see it as a helping tool that invariably makes my MS a better product. I mean, without fail. I've never walked out of a critique round with a bunch of useless suggestions. It's always a learning process for me, and my story always benefits from what I've learned.

  11. David, I think seeing it as a tool is an essential part of maturing as a writer.


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