Taking critique like a pro

"Too early to give up my day job?"

In our line of business, it seems our lives center on offering critiques – during the editing process with our authors, advanced readings at writer’s conferences, reading pages with queries – and we can never be certain how the other person is going to react. I think a lot of it has to do with trust.

If you’re sitting across from an editor at a writer’s conference who has only read 25 pages, do you trust them? Do you believe their crits are valid? What about a writer’s board where you post your work…do you trust those who read and offer their comments?

More importantly – are you willing to listen, even if the critique isn’t what you’d expected?

Defense Mode

It’s scary to dangle your big toe in the water and finding the temperature is freezy cold, knowing that you’re going to have to jump in anyway. The first thing your body does is go into defense mode in order to keep you warm. Listening to someone critique your work is a lot like that, and I have to say that if I have the choice of working with in full blown Defense Mode and getting run over by a bus – I may opt for the bus.

It’s hard delivering unhappy news, and few enjoy the prospect of sitting across the table from someone while you comment on the character development, writing style, or the pacing. The Defense Mode makes life sheer hell for both parties. I can see it in their face and body language. They go all stiff, and almost rear back with every little point I bring up.

Many years ago, I had a writer get quite verbal about being critiqued. She interrupted me and spat out that no one had EVER geven her writing anything other than laudatory reviews, and I MUST be brain dead. Taken aback, I reminded her that my opinion is simply that – an opinion – and that it was her decision to listen to what an experienced editor has to say, or she could leave. She packed up her things and blew out of there in a huff.

Wow. She paid $50 to storm out. Guess she showed me.

If you go into Defense Mode, then how can you possibly learn? The point is to listen, not defend. When you defend, you close your ears to all the valuable nuggets. Seems counterproductive to me.

If you’re asking for crits and spend your time defending why those crits are wrong, then people will wonder why you bothered asking in the first place.

Your Writing Doesn’t Come From the Hands of the Great Cosmic Muffin

I’m just thinking out loud here, but do those who are defensive believe their writing is perfect and needs no critique other than high praise? I’ve seen this aberration, too. Writers believe their writing is a direct gift from the Cosmic Muffin, and they pay for a conference critique in order to fight off the contract offers. And no one is more shocked than the author when this doesn’t happen.

Pardonez-moi? My writing ISN’T perfect? DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM? Yeah, seen it. Here’s the thing, I’d be willing to bet that Mrs. Cosmic Muffin would agree that her Husband needs editing. Everyone does. I’ve read authors for years whose writing declined and it’s because they are so big that they can insist that no editing be done. As a result, I quit reading their books until they developed some humility.

Being humble means that you acknowledge your human-ness and imperfections, and are willing to listen to an unbiased critique.

Crits Aren’t Personal Attacks

No one is out to get you when they offer their comments on your work, and you should honor the fact that people have taken the time to read, absorb, and write a thoughtful critique on what they feel does and doesn’t work.

OK, let me backtrack a second. MOST crits aren’t personal attacks. I’m sure we all know folks who are so insecure that they purposely attack someone’s writing in order to make themselves feel better. They’re jealous, petty little things who should be soundly thumped. A personal attack disparages you, not your writing. Or their crits may be so achingly paltry and shallow that they have no meaning.

An example of this happened with one of our books. A section of the book was very controversial, as was our intent because the issue needed to be recognized and discussed. We warned the author that he may be attacked, and he was fully prepared. The majority of the reviews were very powerful, but there were a few that disparaged the author for his choices and offered zip on the book itself. Those were personal attacks. Thankfully, these sorry folks are in the minority.

We all have varying degrees of suckosity, and wouldn’t you rather hear it now than read it in a Kirkus review?  You aren’t perfect – no one is – so bless those who take the time to bring your writing out of the heavens and more down to earth…where reality resides.

If you appreciate that the intent of a critique is to HELP, not attack, you won’t feel the need to be defensive.

What to Use, What to Lose?

Getting crits can be like the beagle in a bar. She sees all those bottles of booze lined up against the mirror and goes into overload because she can’t decide which one to pick. Crits are like that, too. You can get so many crits that say so many things, and you’re on overload trying to figure out what to use and what to lose.

Does It Resonate:  The first thing you must do is decide if a crit resonates, that when you see it, you say, “Yep, totally know what you’re talking about.” Or maybe it’s something you hadn’t seen or considered before, and it just feels right to consider making the change. If a crit goes against every fiber of your being, then consider not using it. I’m not saying the crit isn’t valid, but it’s simply not something that you’re comfortable changing. And we all know there are crits that, deep down, resonate, and we know we need to make the change – but oh, how it hurts!

Case in point, a lovely woman brought her advance submission to me at a writer’s conference. I loved the premise, but the writing just hit me wrong. It was too angry and belittling in all the wrong places, and the writing was choppy, making it hard to stay engaged. For the following three years after that, she brought me her advance submission, which was largely unchanged. She’d spent at least four years trying to sell the work, but without enough changes there was no way it was going to sell. She ended up giving up on it. It broke my heart.

Now, would she have had a hit on her hands if my crits had resonated with her? Who knows? Just because you’re shown a store of fabulous clothes doesn’t mean you have the sputz to choose a dress that looks good on you. And just because you’re given solid crits doesn’t mean you have the sputz to make it a great book.

I’m not sure if she didn’t have the sputz or was overwhelmed at the thought of changing the very foundation of her writing, but it was plain that she chose not to make very large changes, and her book now resides in her desk.

If you get a good cross-hatch of critiques, there has to be something that resonates, that says, “yes, that makes perfect sense.” Look for it. Be open for it.

The Consensus Crit:  In a perfect world, you get a consensus – tra la! I’ve given crits at writer’s conferences and watched the author nod her head, “Yep, that’s what I’ve been hearing all weekend.” Nothing better than a giant wart because it’s easy to fix (hopefully). That is why getting critiques is so important. We get so close to our work that we don’t see those big “oopsies.”

If you have enough people telling you something is a wart, take heed.

The Contradictory Crit:  This is the part that drives many to mainline engine grease because hearing contradictory comments is overwhelming. Some may love the character development, others may feel you need further character development. Gah! Whom do you listen to – Super Dooper Editor From Hoo-Ha House or Editor From Small House? Your writing buddies, or the guys at Starbuck? Believe it or not, valid critiques aren’t a matter of pedigree because they’re all readers. Deciding on what’s valid comes down to what you feel in your heart. It’s the crits that make you think, “Ah ha.”

You need to be selective about what makes sense to you and what doesn’t.

“I’ll Take Them All”:  If you make changes based on every single crit you receive, your work will lose its cohesiveness, and you will be ready for your designer straight-jacket because you’ll drive yourself nuts. What’s worse is the work will no longer feel like yours, but rather a collection of others’ opinions. Before long, you’ll hate your story and be thoroughly defeated and confused.

The best gift you can give yourself is to massage your confidence. No one knows your story better than you do. Yes, those unbiased eyes are a godsend, but you need to have the confidence about your story and your ability to filter out what’s right and what’s wrong for your book. I’m not saying that your work will be better for it, but it has to be yours. You have to own it.

Not everyone is right. Learn to grow your filter so you know what to use, and what to lose.

Being the Pro

When you take the giant leap to allow others to read and crit your work, you need to have your head screwed on straight. You need to be clear about why you want critiques. If it’s because you want to stroke your Ego, then look forward to a sound bruising. But if you truly feel that you’re floundering and are asking for specific help, then you’re all about learning and becoming better.

Being a pro means that you’re objective about your writing. You’re able to stand outside yourself and see your writing as a business, not just something that is near and dear to you. If an editor tells you that your book about cancer doesn’t bring anything new to this very crowded marketplace, then it’s not an attack, but a professional opinion from someone who does this for a living.

If a reader from a writer’s board tells you they found the pacing really slow in the first three chapters, they’re giving you honest feedback.

Writing is a solitary endeavor, and at some point you need to escape Writer’s Island and seek out other opinions.

You don’t need to defend it, but rather grow from those comments so you can become better. And really, that’s what we all want, right?

12 Responses to Taking critique like a pro

  1. This is why I sit quietly and take notes when publishers/editors/agents/etc are critiquing my work. My first impulse is to explain and defend, but I know that it will work against me in the long run. So I listen, even if every atom in my body wants to fight back (especially the time the agent suggested that I make my 50-yr old housecleaner-turned-detective a 25-yr old nun instead). At some point later in time, I know I can review the comments with a more objective attitude and make changes that improve the story.

  2. Novel Girl says:

    Thank God you said it. I may not like the stuff someone says about my manuscript but it’d be embarrassing, amateur, and non-productive to batter down the person offering to help me. I find my anger resides after a day or three and that’s when my crit’s message makes sense.

    I think, “Ha! I’ll show you! I’ll rewrite it and make it better.”

  3. Great post, Lynn. As a book publicist, I’m often asked by fellow writers and filmmakers who are personal friends if I’ll look at some of their work. If I’m at all honest about it needing some polishing, I usually end up on the receiving end of countless email messages defending why the author/artist did so and so…. It’s frustrating to deal with the defensiveness, especially given the fact that I took time away from my business (and/or my family) to honor their request for feedback.

    Anyway, thanks again for shedding some always-stellar insight into this crazy writing business of ours.

  4. Paula, you hit the nail on the head. The time spent in critting someone’s work is no small matter. Critiquers put in time to read the pages, analyze them, then put their thoughts down on cyber paper. When a writer reacts poorly, all I can think is how that’s two-three hours of my life I’ll never get back. If it’s a whole manuscript, I just want to toss myself under a bus.

  5. Bill Webb says:

    Hey Lynn you wanna crit on that blog post?

    Illegal use of red.

    Otherwise I think you’re a genius.

  6. Phhht. Editors adore red. Bloody, gooey red. Mother’s milk to the bereft-of-a-soul.

  7. Louise Curtis says:

    I’ve had a lot of really excellent critiques and two peculiar ones. One editor loaded up my short story with (no joke) a dozen semicolons in a page and a half. (He was a friend, and when I pointed it out his response was, “Oh, I have no idea what I was thinking. I’ll redo that right away.”)

    The other was a small publisher who had a literary bent even in their fantasy, which I thought would suit my prettily-written fantasy. I was so wrong. Among other things, the one-on-one crit editor said, “I thought the character was having a dream because there were pirates, and pirates are imaginary.”

    Not every editor reads fantasy. . . ever. At least now I know not to send my books to that particular publisher.

    Louise Curtis

  8. Ouch, Louise. That just hurts the heart.

  9. tristan says:

    Contradictory critics have always been my problem. I gave up on peer-review writing competitions and the like because I couldn’t ever seem to get a consenus. There’s are big misconception that popular things are popular with everyone for the same reason. Trying to address too many criticisms can leave you with a work that everyone likes but no one really loves.

    Personally, I think your best bet is to establish a relationship with a small group of people whose opinions you trust. A critic who knows you respect their opinion is more likely to give you honest feedback in a way that you can work with.

  10. […] Taking critique like a pro Lynne Price of Behler Publishing on how to take critique and how to use it to make your book better. Taken aback, I reminded her that my opinion is simply that – an opinion – and that it was her decision to listen to what an experienced editor has to say, or she could leave. She packed up her things and blew out of there in a huff. […]

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