By Maria Arnt | A 7-minute Read.
In our new how-to-write series, we’re going to focus on overall improvement, rather than improving a specific area of your writing such as character design or chapter length. There are lots of ways to do this, but we’ll be covering the ones that are applicable to the most writers. These include where to learn your craft affordably, where to find writing communities to connect with and learn from, and the importance of finishing your projects.
But none of that advice will be useful without this first piece of the puzzle: how to handle the critiques. Because just as in order to be loved we must submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known, in order to improve our craft we must submit to the mortifying ordeal of others telling us our flaws.
And let’s face it: we all have flaws. Whoever you, personally, think is the best writer ever, they have (or had) flaws. It’s just part of being human. The good news is, that means there’s always room for improvement! (Can you tell I was raised on Concord Circle Transcendentalism? There’s a reason my mother patterned her parenting after Mrs. March in Little Women.) But to get to that, we have to learn to let go of the hurt of being criticized and see the incredible opportunity it presents. Here are a few ways to help ease that process.
Most authors have the luxury of choosing who gets to see their work while they’re still working on it (unless you’re writing fanfiction you post when each chapter is done, which at least then you’re getting real-time feedback as you develop the story). Try to find a few good friends or colleagues to review your work who you know will give you honest, insightful responses. There are several different aspects to critique you’ll want, and while the best beta reader would have all of these, you’ll usually have to work with several people to get everything you need.
- Spot the Problems – This might seem obvious, but you need someone who isn’t afraid to tell you what’s wrong with the piece but be incredibly specific about it. If someone says “it was a bit boring,” that doesn’t really help much at all. But if someone says “this chapter drags on too long, these paragraphs aren’t really necessary,” that’s something you can act on.
- Analyze – Having someone’s in-depth opinion of what they think you’re trying to do is important to ensure that your efforts are successful. You may have meant for a scene to come across as tense, and it ended up funny. If the reader doesn’t know you weren’t trying to be funny, they might give it vague approval and you don’t know that there’s a problem at all.
- Encourage – The easiest kind of critique to find is encouragement, because we all have a friend or family member who loves us and wants us to be happy (at least I hope we all do). Writers who are trying really hard to improve often skip this kind of reader, though, because they don’t necessarily see the value. If someone is just cheering you on, it doesn’t show you where to improve right? But it’s very important to stay motivated, and cheerleaders are extremely useful for this. My dad calls me up every so often and reminds me that he’s waiting to hear my next book, and it’s not only heartwarming but also very motivating. The reason my dad says “hear” and not “read” is because my mom has to read it aloud to him, and it’s even more moving that he (and she) thinks it’s worth the time to do that.
As you might imagine, a fellow writer is probably going to be good at the first two kinds, but might not be great at the latter. One of my professors in graduate school was like this, and after our sessions I would lie down on my studio floor and cry for fifteen minutes as a result, but once I got that out of my system I could get up and get to work. Which leads us to our next point:
Get Some Distance
For most of us, our initial response to criticism is to defend ourselves. It’s only natural. But when we’re defending, we can’t listen. So you’ll want to get some kind of emotional distance from your work before you start reading the critiques and revising.
Some authors achieve this by putting a piece away — sometimes literally, such as putting the printed manuscript in a drawer — before they give it to beta readers. If you give someone your work and they get it back to you within a couple weeks (lucky you!), you might want to wait a bit until you read it. Personally, I like to wait until I’ve gotten word back from all of my beta readers (and some are notoriously slow) so I can consider it all at once.
But the most important time to wait is after you’ve read those critiques. Read them, and then set it aside for at least a week. Repeat this process until you can do so without feeling hurt or finding your immediate response to a comment starts with “but….” Once you’re able to approach the revisions with logic, rather than emotional reasoning, you’ll be ready for the next step.
3. Know When to Correct
Believe it or not, even as a professional editor I wouldn’t want my clients to accept all of my changes carte blanche (and when they do it makes me cringe a bit unless they just asked for technical proofreading). No one, not even the most talented editor in the world, understands your work better than you do. So when a beta reader presents a problem, here are four possible responses, in order of how frequently they are likely to occur:
- I made a mistake and I should fix it as suggested. Simple enough. Certainly true of any kind of technical correction like grammar or spelling, and often true of other things you just missed.
- I can see this is a problem spot, but I have a different idea of how I might change it. Sometimes, the problem is actually “upstream” of where a beta reader has flagged it. If a character’s action seems inconsistent, or a plot twist is too sudden, then you’ll need to go back to earlier in the manuscript and lay the groundwork for it to function as you intended.
- Cackle evilly. Sometimes, we want to make our readers uncomfortable. If a reader flags something as unpleasant, and you meant it to be, this can be a sort of unintended encouragement. The same could be true of things you meant to be confusing, unsatisfying, or misleading. Just be careful to judge if you’re evoking too strong of a response with these moments, as you don’t want to kick the reader out of the narrative entirely.
- Politely disagree. It’s rare that you’ll want to reject a correction entirely, but sometimes things come down to a matter of personal opinion. You might have a beta reader who has learned certain theoretical biases, such as never use the dialogue tag “said,” or the word “suddenly,” or adverbs, etc., which aren’t actually hard-and-fast rules of writing, and on which you ascribe to a different belief. This doesn’t necessarily mean that this person isn’t a good fit for a beta reader. There’s value in questioning your own personal beliefs, writing rules included. Maybe using the word “said” isn’t the best thing for this precise line of dialogue.
Come Back for Seconds
If at all possible, ask your beta readers to read your manuscript after you’ve revised it according to their critiques. This is especially true if any of the corrections were large-scale or based on some misunderstanding. They don’t necessarily need to do an in-depth critique again, just ask if it addressed most of their concerns. Especially with a fellow writer, there’s always going to be things we differ on, but if they feel the work has improved overall, then your revisions were successful.
Try not to fall into the trap of doing this too many times, though. Eventually, you’ve got to finish the piece and either send it out into the world or consign it to the trunk. We’ll talk more about this later in the series.
Don’t Listen to the Haters
Because you can usually control who reads your book before it’s published, this step usually only comes into play after it has gone out into the world. Critiques from the public at large can be helpful for improving your future writing, but they don’t much help with the item being critiqued. That said, you can still take the advice given with the tactics listed above and apply it to your next masterpiece.
However, every so often you’ll get a critique that’s really more of an insult than a criticism. It may be non-constructive and vague. It may even be hateful, especially if you’ve chosen to use your book as a vehicle for representation for an oppressed group — the bigots who oppress them are likely to throw a fit. And some people are just plain mean.
Don’t let the bastards grind you down. If you can tell that a comment was given in the spirit of tearing you down, rather than helping you improve your craft, just ignore it. Yes, it’s going to hurt, but not letting them see that is the sweetest revenge because they likely did it to get a reaction and draw attention to themselves. Delete the comment, if possible, (especially if it contains hateful bigotry, most websites will be willing to help you with this if you’re not usually able to remove comments) and move on with your life. Whatever you do, don’t feed the trolls. They’re like cats or raccoons that way, and while it might be delightful (to some) to discover the stray you fed yesterday brought eight friends along today, the same is never true of hateful commenters.
Never forget, the whole point of allowing critiques into your life isn’t to dwell on your flaws, it’s to find the path to better your craft. Excelsior!