The Art of Receiving Criticism

You signed up to be a writer.  But the fine print it says: you will occasionally be eviscerated by someone who doesn’t like or appreciate your work.  It’s part of the deal.

Feedback can be a real gift.  Or, it can squash you. 

Part of moving forward in this game is recognizing what to let in and what to… regard carefully and perhaps take lightly.  Somewhere between believing-in-yourself and I-don’t really-know-if-this-is-any-good there resides a healthy middle ground.  It can years to find, and even more years to find the strength to live there.

A good writer friend of mine recently landed an agent with a speculative novel. 

I’d been a sounding board for her early in the story-search process, and she’s been a staunch advocate for my story development model, which she says helped her get it right.  She believed in the story, and so did I.  It was a great concept.

Her critique group… not so much.  They didn’t respond to it — some were actually put-off by it — at the conceptual/outlining phase.  Too risky, they said.  Didn’t get it, they said.  Offends traditional sensibilities, some said.

She didn’t listen.  Oh, she heard them, and it stung.  Caused her a moment of doubt, too.  But she believed in herself, and she believed me when I said not only that she should go for it, but the concept was absolutely stellar… for those same reasons the nay-sayers were laying on her.

In essence, they weren’t — and would never be — the target audience for the novel she had in mind.

So she chose what to hear and what to respond to.  She didn’t let the criticism block the process or her vision for the outcome.  And now… she’s on the cusp of the dream coming true.

Here are a few guidelines and truisms for weighing criticism:

The broader and more general it is — depending on the source — the more valuable it is. 

Conversely, the more moment-specific it is (down to and including nit-picking of specifics and minutea), the more craft-focused it is, the more you need to filter it before you decide on it.

Consider the source of the input.  Non-writers can provide very useful feedback, because usually their criticisms are at the highest level.  But again, they may or may not be familiar with your genre, and if it’s a treatment or just an idea you’re pitching, that’s hard to sell to any listener because the proof is always in the execution.  Which was the case with my friend’s novel. 

Back in the day, my first agents told me that my idea to adapt one of my screenplays into a novel wasn’t a good one.  I didn’t listen.  I believed.  A year later the book was on the USA Today bestseller list.

We are never in control of what’s said to us… but we are always in control of how we respond to it.  The trade off between self-belief and feedback is tricky, it’s a skill-set you need to cultivate along with your writing chops.

As for other writers and especially critique groups (remember, their mission is to find something to criticize… they feel they’re failing you, or being lame, if they can’t find something to pick on), so be very careful.  Their cautionary feedback could simply mean they would have made different choices about specific things.

Might be right, might be wrong.  Consider the source, the context, the big picture, and trust your gut.  Then move forward.

But if an agent says it’s too slow… don’t argue.  It’s too slow.

Separate the moment-specific from the story-specific.  If someone doesn’t like the way a character talks… okay, they don’t get it.  But if they feel the story takes too long to kick into gear… that could be golden.  Pay particular attention to that level of input.

When someone says, “it’s not really my thing,” say thank you and move on without a second thought.

Here’s the type of constructive feedback you should be listening for:

It didn’t hook me.  Kinda slow.  Found it hard to root for your hero.  It was confusing, wasn’t sure what was going on.  Over-written.  Too many characters.  Too much description.  Too vanilla, I’ve read this before.  Flat characters. 

Even… “I dunno… the idea was okay… but it just… I dunno… it just didn’t work for me.”  If that comes from an agent or editor, pay closer attention than if it comes from someone you know.

Notice how these are all big-picture, story-level issues.  They’re trying to tell you the novel doesn’t work as well as it could, or should.

The higher the level of the critic, the more you should listen.

What you need to weigh carefully are little nits and opinions that really don’t affect the story at all. 

When this input arrives, you can be sure it comes from one of two places, maybe a combination both: the critic is genuinely trying to help… or the critic is trying to sound like they know better.  And possibly a third… the critic doesn’t know.

Nobody really knows.  Every first-novel bestseller in history has a bloody trail of rejections leading from the writer’s house to the bank.

Criticism is out there.  Always has been, always will be.  Sometimes the stuff you hear after you publish it is the most hurtful of all.  Even if it’s too late.

Try this: think, plan, listen, decide, commit, write, listen, respond accordingly.

Repeat.

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16 Comments

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16 Responses to The Art of Receiving Criticism

  1. Interesting post on a subject not widely covered.
    My favourite thoughts on criticism go something like this;
    If one person calls you a dog, you can ignore them.
    If two people call you a dog, you should ask yourself why are they calling me a dog?
    If three people call you a dog, buy a kennel.
    The other thing, which you have covered in your post is, if you ask for criticism, don’t be surprised if you get… criticism.
    It’s hard to judge when to listen to critics and when to ignore so I usually ignore them, but that’s probably why nobody has ever heard of me yet…. 🙂

  2. I wish this subject were covered more often by people who know how to give good council on it. Thanks for offering it.

  3. Great post. These are very good points to keep in mind while reading another writer’s work and giving criticism, too.

    It is so difficult to get “this story doesn’t work” type advice from writers – ’cause they can’t help it, they want to rewrite your story their way. I’ve seen short stories critted on-line that were fab…and were revised to watered-down nothing after a chorus of fellow writers gave their 2 cents. Yet, we all need feedback.

  4. Sheri

    Thanks so much for your timely article on taking criticism. I just read through comments from four different people from a contest I entered, and they varied widely. I was frustrated because the nit-picker who scored me the lowest picked about things that she was WRONG about (historical details). Reading your article helped me put things into perspective.

    I had set that particular person’s comments aside to look at later, thinking I might glean something useful from them. Unfortunately, I didn’t.

    My son refers to people on the internet who like to attack other people’s work as “Trolls” (like the troll under the bridge, ready to exact payment from anyone daring to cross it).

    I think I just met one.

  5. Excellent post on receiving criticism, and on giving criticism. I wish every author and aspiring author would read this. I’m definitely linking to this on my blog. Thank you so much!

  6. Martha

    Thanks, Larry, for a boost to all of us who are sometimes shaken by the criticism we receive, especially when it comes from people we respect and admire. Sometimes they’re right — sometimes they’re wrong. The real trick, as you say, is discerning when to make changes and when to believe in oneself.
    For my own story and its basic idea, the payoff came for me when my agent said, “I LOVE this concept. I think I can sell it.”

  7. eviscerated

    Adding word to vocabulary. “to deprive of an essential part; take away the force, significance, etc. of”

    I know my story is an essential part of my life right now and it certainly has its own force. 🙂 Thanks for the warning and, the others are right: people don’t talk about (warn writers about) this enough.

    Note to self: Develop thick skin!

  8. Adam

    Got this in my inbox today, and wanted to thank you for this.

    This is applicable across the whole spectrum of art really. i’m currently taking a break from novels and working on animated shorts, and knowing what feedback to listen to, and from whom to listen, when doing any artistic endeavor is so critical at the stage where you need feedback before moving forward. Just what i needed to read today, so thank you.

  9. Terrific stuff!

    For as much as I hear about hot to take criticism on an emotional level, it’s nice to see someone address the idea of how to break down criticism and actually get something useful out of it.

    Thanks!

  10. Interesting essay. I’ve noticed that if something is true, both the people who love it and those who hate it will point it out. Then I have to ask if it’s a bad thing or an arrow that points directly toward my target audience.

    In my critique group if I can’t find fault with someone’s story, I’ll usually spend a few paragraphs analyzing what I think its best market and target audience would be. Critique doesn’t have to be fault finding.

  11. This is a great post, Larry. Definitely one to be bookmarked for future reference. Thank you!

  12. Larry,
    I really like what you had to say about differentiating between story-level feedback and moment-level feedback. I’d always thought that feedback in a certain moment was “easier to tweak” and I preferred it, but story-level stuff takes a longer time to adjust. Can you tell I wish I could edit things quickly? 🙂 But if something is noticeable on a story level, I realize that you’re telling me that it’s a bigger deal, and should merit more attention. That makes so much sense. Thank you!

  13. I second the consensus here about this being a great post. The art of criticism is tricky, both giving and receiving. I especially like the part about hearing the same comments from multiple sources. If more than a few agree about a particular scene, sentence, dialogue exchange, or higher-level concepts such as plot structure, theme, pace, etc., then PAY ATTENTION. But in the end, be true to yourself.

    think you have to at least like, if not love, every word on your page. If you write what someone else tells you to write, but it doesn’t work for you, write what does work.

    Thanks for keeping us from drowning in critique confusion, Larry.

  14. Pingback: More on Criticism, Confusion and NaNoWriMo Nausea

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  16. What a happy coincidence that I belatedly found this post! Thanks so much. I was meant to read it, given the first less-than-stellar review posted last evening on my first e-book. However, as a professional journalist and writer of 30 years and knowing I can write, and given the book had serious interest (albeit rejections) from some agents, I’m going to find that middle ground. I’m also going to follow your great advice: “Consider the source, the context, the big picture, and trust your gut. Then move forward.” Moving forward.