Consider the Criticism

Photo by Melissa Bowersock
Photo by Melissa Bowersock

Nobody likes getting criticism, at least nobody I know. It’s painful. It’s debilitating. It’s confidence-destroying.

I think it’s pretty normal to want to dismiss criticism out of hand. Bah, what do they know? They haven’t published 10 books. They haven’t been in this business for over 30 years.

The other alternative is to take it all together as a soul-crushing package and think your work is terrible. Who were you kidding? You can’t write. Look at that critique. It’s over. Done with.

Not so fast. There’s a middle road. There’s a demilitarized zone somewhere in the middle where you can walk safely between hubris and defeat.

Consider the criticism.

I know it’s not easy, but take every single comment, every single critique, and hold it up to your story, like holding up two typewritten pages, one on top of the other, to the light of a window. See how the criticism lines up with what you’ve written. Does it make sense? Is it valid? Does it make a point? If it doesn’t, then you haven’t lost anything by considering it. If it does, then you stand to gain. If the truth is that the criticism has hit its mark, that’s to your benefit.

I am reminded of an excellent book called The Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women (1979 Sally Miller Gearhart).It’s a wonderful bit of feminist utopian literature about a time when women have broken away from civilization, gone out into the wilderness to live without men and without men’s aggressions and  intrusions. There’s one point in the book where two characters are at loggerheads. A mediating cooler head asks them, “Would you be willing to yield?” Not, “Would you yield?” but only, “Would you be willing to yield?” Would you consider it? Would you be open to the possibility? Just being willing to yield opens the door to all manner of options, all manner of conversations, all manner of communications and resolutions. It’s a first step. From there, you may step forward, or you may step back. But you’re not locking yourself out of any options.

One point to remember: bad spelling and bad punctuation are never okay. If you’ve got mispelt werds and incorret punctuation, in your book, you’re making the reader work twice as hard to figure out what you’re trying to say when they should be gliding along on your words. This is one area that I would say is non-negotiable. If the mistakes are in there, and someone has been good enough to bring them to your attention, fix ‘em.

The rest of criticism is grayer, less black and white. However, if you get the same reaction from more than one reader, you might want to take a good long look at that aspect. If more than one beta-reader or reviewer says they had trouble following your dialog, understanding your characters’ motivation or feeling empathy for them, you might want to revisit that. One of the largest disadvantages to being a writer is having the entire story (including backstory) in your brain, while you’re only parceling out bits and pieces to the reader. Sometimes it’s hard to know if you’re giving the reader enough or too much. If you’re getting frequent complaints about similar issues, look closely at that. Please.

Consider it.

Then, after all that, you’re the final authority. Only you know what the story is, where it goes, what it wants to say. Only you know what your characters want, need.

I once had a publisher try to change the way my main character spoke. The character repeated herself. It could be annoying. She had very low self-esteem, very low self-confidence, and she felt she needed to justify every decision she made. The way she spoke embodied the way she felt, deep down in her soul.

But I considered what my publisher said. I imagined changing the dialog. I imagined my character not being quite such a pleading doormat.

It didn’t work.

The style of her speech told us who she was. It revealed, in its tentative way, how she felt inside, what drove her. It showed us who she was.

I didn’t change it. But I did consider it. And that same publisher made some other suggestions for changes with which I did agree. I’ve gotten to the point that I find myself comfortably taking roughly half of the suggestions given to me.

Getting criticism is never fun, but it really could be doing you a favor. Criticism just could be the grit that polishes your work to a brilliant shine.

Have the guts to be willing to yield.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is the award-winning author of twelve novels and one non-fiction title. She lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

33 thoughts on “Consider the Criticism”

  1. Thanks, Melissa. I once thanked a reviewer who gave my book two stars, and then I did some revisions. It’s not easy, but it’s best to pay attention to what they’re saying.

    1. Helen, good for you! Yes, it’s hard, but sounds like you chose writing the best book you could rather than balking. We’ll never be able to please every reader, but if their criticisms are valid, it’s to our best interests to pay attention. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Being able and willing to “consider” criticism is the sign of maturity in all aspects of life, writing not the least. I can say with confidence that when I shut up and listen in my critique group, instead of jumping to my own defense, I learn a great deal more. And it has made me a better writer. When we stop listening we risk losing our path. As you say, listen, consider carefully, and then decide what’s best – for you.

    1. Yvonne, I totally agree. Being open to all possibilities is the mark of a mature, self-confident person. The one who immediately takes remarks personally and goes on the defensive (often morphing into the offensive) is the one who feels the most threatened. We’ve all seen AAB (authors acting badly) and it’s not a pretty sight. Thanks for adding that.

  3. I had the pleasure of working with a structural (big-picture) editor for many years on my first manuscript. From that experience, I received what is perhaps the greatest education–raw, brutal, practical–that a young writer could ever be blessed to receive.

    I remember the first time that Barbara and I met; this was on my 2nd draft of my MS. She had a stack of critiques almost as big as my “masterpiece”. With surgical detail, she disassembled nearly everything about my MS that I believed was faultless. A good editor is like a book-psychologist. If any of you have been to therapy before, it is usually because we have encountered a crisis in life that requires professional guidance and intervention. And I think that most first-time manuscripts resemble a person who is in need of clinical help 🙂

    Anyway, we went through this process three more times, over a period of two years. And including the original work, I cranked out a grand total of four, 700 pg. manuscripts (I’m obsessive and prolific, I am told). We went deeper and further into the story and the world. With each draft, I actually ended up writing from a different point in my world’s history, until I settled on the era, and characters, which made the most sense. The origin of the story. At that point, everything clicked, and flowed, like it never had before. Finally, during our last meeting Barbara showed up with only a few pieces of paper and I wondered if she had forgotten her notes at home.

    So yes, I am a huge advocate of *quality editors. The best part is that just like any other education, what you learn stays with you. As a result, I am a much more careful and concise writer. And when I see Barbara with my second MS, I am anticipating far less paper! 🙂

    1. (Self-edit: too many sentences beginning with “and”. I would redraft, if I could! Grrr,)

    2. Christian, sounds like a fabulous introduction to world-building, and what better school ground than your own MS! I can see why this would stick with you so much more than, say, a class dissecting a book not your own. This way, you evolved as a writer as your book evolved from your own efforts. I would guess you know from reading other authors’ horror stories online that your experience was priceless. The fact that (1) Barbara was so willing to go so deep into your work and (2) you were so willing to see what your work could become is invaluable. Thanks very much for sharing such a great story. And don’t worry about the “ands.” I think the emphasis was just right.

  4. Excellent advice. I have benefited quite a bit from constructive criticism. When someone brings to my attention the fact that I’m telling and not showing, or that I have too little sensory input in my story, it enables me to make revisions that enhance the work. Criticism is a mixture of wheat and chaff and it is important to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    1. Robin, great analogy, which is exactly why we should consider all the criticisms carefully. Some will make the work better, some won’t, so it’s up to us to figure out which is which. Thanks for adding that.

  5. I wrote a perfect short story, and posted it on a critique site. Everyone loved it, but one person said that each character needed more back story. I wasn’t angry, I just gave it a try and was amazed how the story jumped to life. It’s amazing to read the previous perfect story, when compared to the finished perfect story.By giving each character a little bit of back story, the whole thing leaped into the stratosphere, where it remains unpublished.

    Keep an open eye out, someday, for “Check Stand of the Damned”

    Of course, a lot of criticism needs to be ignored. Writers who take each complaint to heart will shred the story into ruined and useless pieces, all to please someone who didn’t know what they were talking about in the first place.

    *IMPORTANT*

    Some critiques will be written by smart people who write really well, and they will hate your piece and offer advice on how to fix…or REWRITE it.

    Just because someone sounds/is smart, doesn’t mean they know you, your story, your message, or even that they “get” you. As some plagiarist once wrote, (yet again) “Be true to yourself.”

    When you are done with your piece, and you breathe in long, deep, and happily, you are done, except for the tweaks. If you finish, and your chest feels constricted when you breathe in, keep plucking away.

    (In my humble opinion)

    1. Kenyon, great story. It sounds like that one piece of advice just added a whole new dimension to your work. I think it’s important that the advice was offered as WHAT to do, not HOW to do it. You’re right about a lot of critics trying to rewrite a story in their own style when the original style may not be the issue at all. Whenever I get constructive criticism, I pay close attention to the feel of the suggestions. Those that are punctuation, grammar, etc., and absolutely useful, but very often the suggestions of style are not.
      I like your breathing test; if you’re breathing easy, you’re good; if not, back to work! Thanks for commenting.

  6. “One of the largest disadvantages to being a writer is having the entire story (including backstory) in your brain, while you’re only parceling out bits and pieces to the reader.”

    Very true!

    ***

    On another note, it’s tough for anyone to get criticism, whether it’s constructive or not. BUT AUTHORS NEED IT, regardless of whom it comes from and how harsh it may be. As both a reader and an editor, I often try to soften the blow by complimenting the great points first.

    Sometimes it doesn’t always work, but I try. 😉

    What’s more is that I like receiving feedback on my writing. Having beta readers is great, as long as they are honest. I am pretty receptive to the advice of others, too.

    Most authors aren’t, but it’s great to see proof of when they are. For example, after I posted a negative review (my one and only, ever) of Rapunzel (by Molly Greene), she re-released this book under a new name. Either she took my suggestions to heart or she felt the negative review hurt her. Either way, she was willing to make some changes, which is good. 🙂

    I think more of us can learn from people like both her and you.

    And even after 30 years of being in the biz, it’s easy to make typos. I do it all the time! I can’t tell you how many times in a day I hit the “backspace” key or spell “the” as “teh.” Seriously, it’s a lot!

    Typing and writing are two different things. Most think they’re the same, but they’re not.

    1. Lorraine, we all have our foibles, whether large or small, and we often need someone else to point them out, as you know so well. And as I’ve said many times, my fingers sometimes have a different idea than my brain, leading to those “teh” moments. Interesting story about the negative review. Let’s hope the change in the book was for all the right reasons. Thanks for commenting.

  7. It helps immensely to have good beta readers to iron the worst of the wrinkles out of your work before it goes public. I use four good friends who also write, and take their criticism on board according to what I know of their strengths and weaknesses.
    Jane is great on structure and tells me where it needs tightening or expanding – but she’s not great on language. Judy is a whiz with themes and characters but not as good on tension. Jillian nitpicks every last comma and over-used word, and June knows where to add layers of emotion and depth to a story but tries to weed out words that are an essential part of my voice.
    So I take their suggestions, hold onto the useful parts and let the chaff blow away. They give me a better story and save me from public criticism later. (And yes, I’ve changed their names just in case they read this!)

    1. Bev, sounds like a great team you’ve assembled, and sounds like you’ve figured out the best way to work together. You’re very fortunate in that regard, which I’m sure you know!

  8. Everything you said is true, Melissa. Criticism stings, yes–but in our guts, we know if it’s justified or not. We should never let an opportunity to improve our writing pass us by. As I always remind myself: Creativity is imperfect.

    1. Linda, exactly my point. If we take the criticism seriously, really think it over, we’ll know if it’s right for us or not. Yes, creativity is imperfect, subjective and unruly, which is what makes it so darned interesting and satisfying! Thanks for commenting.

  9. I tend to err on the side of ‘I’m a hack, I can’t write -sob-‘ so it’s nice to be reminded that complete capitulation is not the best policy either. Middle grounds are always good. 🙂

    1. If our confidence level is a little flagging when a critique comes in, it would be easy to cave under it, and I’m sure many have felt that weight from time to time (me included). In that case, I would suggest taking a break, taking care of ourselves and coming back to the critique when we’re feeling stronger and a bit more objective. Then, always remember the quote by Pablo Picasso: Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.
      Thanks for commenting.

  10. Excellent article, Melissa, and I think it takes a mature writer (not necessarily in years) to have a balanced reaction to criticism.

  11. I crave feedback. I guess that can be criticism, but that’s okay, it helps a writer grow. I love that you wrote “mispelt werds and incorret punctuation” in the ‘one point to remember’ paragraph. Great example of exactly what you’re trying to convey 🙂

  12. Thanks, Julie. I agree; much as I hate to hear the criticism, it’s necessary and it does help us. And better we should catch all the mistakes before publication rather than after. I’m just re-reading my second book (published 25 years ago), and am horrified at the little typos I’m seeing. I wish my first publisher had seen them and brought them to my attention then, but no such luck. Well, better late than never. One more item to add to the to-do list!

  13. Feedback is critical to progress. Having people who will give it to you is a gift.
    I am relieved to hear that someone else looks at an old project and finds things wrong with it. Is the editing ever finished? 😉

    1. No, Lois, I don’t think it is. It’s almost like deep, spring cleaning; seems like I have to drag out the old books every so often and spruce them up again. I still think those damn typos propagate within the pages of the closed books!

  14. Considering criticism is always worthwhile, and you make some good points. There is, however, one point on which I must take you to task. I read books by American authors, British authors, Australian, Nigerian, Indian, in fact many different nationalities who use English as their written language. They also have different spelling conventions and, naturally enough, most commonly use the one with which they have grown up and been educated. Who is to say, therefore, that theirs is wrong when it is being read by someone who grew up with a different tradition?

    Although It’s not my first language, I learned English in Britain, and therefore generally use English English spelling. Mr Microsoft’s system spends an inordinate amount of time trying to change this, but I have, over the years, managed to re-educate my computerised dictionary. I went through agonies trying to translate my new novel, Chinese Take-out, to American spelling so that it would suit the American market. But I still got picked up by one like yourself who found two ‘speling mistakes’, where I had missed translating words.

    Fortunately I have a sense of humour and can laugh at such pettiness. But I feel others ought to learn the conventions of different countries before levelling criticisms about spelling.

    1. Ian, my week would not be complete without you taking me to task.;-) What you’ve done (and what you always do) is point up my isolationism, and you are absolutely right. Because American English is my one and only language (just a smattering of Spanish and Latin), I tend to have tunnel vision when it comes to spelling, grammar and punctuation. What I should have said about those issues was “correct them according to your region or (in your case) your target region.” I’ve beta-read and helped edit and format for a couple of Canadians, and every time I’m tempted to correct their spelling, I have to stop myself and just flag it instead, because I know it could be perfectly correct for them. I’ve also had non-American readers query some of my slang sayings or try to replace a word that might have a different meaning for them. In this global community, there is always going to be a little wriggle-room for the vagaries of our shared (but not exactly the same) language. I commend you for taking the time and effort to “translate” your work into the dialects of the various English-speaking countries. You are more accommodating and more thoughtful than I am! Thanks for putting your two cents in.It’s always a pleasure to have your take on an issue, and you keep me honest.

      1. I had some excellent help with the translation from a native born American.On the other hand, she originates in New Mexico where they spell Chilli as Chile, so even using a native speaker leaves room for contention!
        Dialect words and slang are invariably different and I think one has to adapt to what the author knows and regularly uses, except when translating. You so rightly point out that the same word has different meanings, some of which can be offensive to one side whilst being commonplace argot to the other. Also, some cultures are a bit more explicit about things, whereas Brits tend towards reserve and euphemistic expression.
        It all makes language very interesting and, at times, a nightmare for authors, particularly independent ones, trying to reach a global market. Perhaps we should all write in Esperanto?

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