If you’re lucky and if you look for it, during the writing, rewriting, and submitting process, you’ll get some feedback and advice. In my video this week, I talk about why agents don’t often give any feedback (or even a rejection) these days. So if you get some, it’s valuable. It can be hard to take criticism, even when it’s constructive, so here are some tips:
1. If you can’t take criticism early and in private, you’ll get it later and in public.
If you have a hard time hearing where your book might be flawed from your friends, beta readers, and your editor, pause, take a deep breath, and vow to dive in and deal with it anyway. Because if you don’t fix those flaws, they won’t magically disappear. It’s much better to hear this feedback now, when you can still address the problems, then to read about them in a review, after your book has been published, when you can’t fix it, and everyone can see the criticism.
2. Take it with the intention it is meant
Editors only want your work to be the best it can be. We have no skin in the game if you don’t take our advice and don’t address your manuscript’s issues, so there is no incentive for an editor to make bad or erroneous suggestions. Your friends and family don’t want to see you be embarrassed. Your writing group just wants to help you improve and to give equivalent feedback to what they’ve been receiving from you. No one is trying to demoralize you or put you down. This isn’t about you; it’s about the story (even if it’s memoir). If someone does make personal pot-shots, cut them out of the loop permanently.
3. Get multiple opinions—do they all agree?
One of us had a client who had a big flaw in his book. He didn’t take her advice. But he mentioned that another reader had pointed out the same problem. So he ignored two readers’ suggestions to fix it. He was later taken to task for this error in a review. Moral of the story: if multiple readers are pointing out the same problem, then it really is a problem and you need to look at it more closely. If more than one person isn’t getting something in your story, you haven’t made it clear regardless of how you meant it to read. Feel free to get a second opinion. Multiple readers are a great idea. What more than one of them points out is something you need to pay particular attention to.
4. Do not respond in the heat of the moment. Do not.
Sleep on it. Sit with it for a few days. The immediacy of hurt will fade and you’ll be able to see the issue more plainly and without the clouds of emotions. This is especially true if the criticism is something in public such as a review or an online comment. Don’t address those at all. They never end well. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.
5. Do not awfulize.
Criticism does not equal “I hate it.” The longest editorial letters I write are for the books I really love. There’s a thin line between love and hate. The opposite of love is indifference. That’s where the real danger lies. But if I have a hundred issues I pointed out, that doesn’t mean you’re awful or the book’s awful or you’re never going to get published. It just means you have a hundred issues to look at and think over.
6. Listen to this podcast about dealing with criticism
7. Read this book about hate mail: Letters From People Who Hate Me by Steve Almond
8. Read these scathing reviews of books that are now classics.
Appreciate that there are people who want to help your writing improve. And it will. Writing is a skill and it gets better with practice, and with coaching. No one is born writing like Shakespeare, not even Shakespeare himself.