Criticism: How to Handle What People Say

Criticism isn't always helpful

Writing is hard and writing is personal. There is nothing quite so crushing as mom’s faint praise unless it’s frank, harsh, lacerating criticism from someone who thinks “truth” is a blunt weapon.

What you write reveals a lot about you—your ignorance, your unorthodox approach to spelling, your secret principles, what you dream about, and all your worrisome complexes. It takes a whopping load of courage to share the fresh, raw pages of a novel manuscript with others. Fear of exposure, however, should not prevent doctor visits or editorial review.

Criticism and Conflict of Interest

Rule No. 1 of receiving criticism is: Consider the source. Mom, Mrs. Kravitz, and your subordinates at the office cannot under any circumstance give you an unbiased appraisal. Period. In sharing your book with the people in your personal universe, you should not be looking for the unvarnished truth. What you really want from what I will call critics of the First Circle, is encouragement.

You are blessed if “I loved it!” is followed by “I was a little confused in the fourth chapter when Shirley called her boyfriend Jason—wasn’t his name James?”  1) You have a fan, and 2) It’s nice that error was caught by a safety reader and not an outsider.

Sometimes, however, Uncle Bob will tell you that you lost him when you went into that girlie stuff, or your brutally honest BFF will confess that she’s just never going to find time to read it, or Grandma may return it with all the errors marked in red pen but without a single positive note in the margins.

The fact is, these people—who love you dearly—may feel like you’ve given them an onerous chunk of homework and may not be comfortable with the pop quiz they know is coming. They are almost certainly not trained to see the finished diamond in your rough manuscript, and they may not even be inclined as readers toward the kind of book you have written. Glean any constructive criticism you can from the first circle and all the encouragement offered, but don’t sweat it if they aren’t able to tell you what you need to hear.

Peer Pressure and Constructive Guilt

Rule No. 2 is Test the Authority of Your Peers. Before there were writing workshops, there were coteries, coffeeshops, salons, and milieux. Artists were thrown together by society kingpins who specialized in fostering culture, or else an artist fled society with or without his friends and drew followers to his little sitting room where booze and bonhomie went round with the sharing of works in progress. This is the Second Circle.

As a modern equivalent, you can join a writing group or assemble a panel of beta readers. You can blog your progress. Workshops operate on the Weight Watchers principle that if you are being monitored for progress, progress you will make. You’ll receive encouragement and advice from those engaged in a similar struggle.

But things can go wrong: If your Pynchonesque epic is turning into a domestic comedy or the dry sardonic wit has been drained from your warrior princess, it may be that the influence of your peers is having a counterproductive effect on your work. If a beta reader informs you that the brassy heroine with whom you closely identify is a brainless floozy, the rest of his/her critique may be colored by a worldview or literary aesthetic that is out of tune with your own. Seek criticism that takes your book on its own terms and helps to refine rather than re-envision.

Comments from Your Editor

Rule No. 3 states, Choose Your Editor As You Would a Godparent. You may think the world of your brilliant and charming Aunt Kate and still not want her helping to raise your children. By the same principle, a good editor is not necessarily the right editor. Any good editor will find errors and spot problems, but not all good editors will spot the same problems or even consider as problems the same things. If you are fond of wordplay and rogue punctuation, you may not be well served by a strict constructionist; if you have produced a delightfully Dickensian doorstop, you may not be in the right corner with a faithful adherent of the Elmore Leonard school.

An editor who understands your authorial intent will provide feedback—yes, criticism—that will make sense to you, illuminate your own dim ideas, and tell you when you’ve gone off the rails. Yes, if you write a 2,000 word conversation full of impassioned dialog and crackling atmosphere that basically repeats a previous—and better placed—conversation, your editor may point out that readers will find it tedious. Don’t be hurt, even if you worked really hard on that scene and it’s the best thing you’ve ever done. Your editor (the Third Circle) may have a suggestion for incorporating what you love about this scene into the earlier scene, or you may have an ingenious solution of your own—either way, the book is suddenly better, stronger. And if your editor tells you something you don’t agree with—say, that your protagonist is a bit whiny—there may be something deficient in your presentation of that character. Consider whether you have supplied a full and true picture of the character before deciding that if Hamlet can be interpreted different ways your character can be too.

Stand by Your Book

Rule No. 4, the Golden Rule, is, It’s Your Book, You Can Do What You Want. Even an editor who is otherwise totally on the same page with you can make a lame suggestion, misinterpret a regional idiom, think your hero is a jerk, or tire of your narrator’s drug-induced circular reasoning. If you wrote it that way on purpose and stand by your original decision because it is integral to the work as you envision it, keep it. The book is entirely yours, and criticism is always yours to cherry pick—ignore it or make use of it, but don’t be afraid of it.