How to Take Criticism (and How Not to)
I had a recent bad experience with a critique I had been paid to do. The writer felt
that I had done a bad job because I hadn't seen his brilliance and told him where he
had a few misplaced commas, the correction of which would lead to immediate
publication. Or perhaps told him the secret word that he had to write on his
envelope to make every editor open it and read it immediately. Or something like
that. I actually thought he was a fine writer who just needed to look at the
marketplace and focus the story a bit. I thought he had a good chance at being
published, perhaps even with the manuscript I read. I tried to communicate this,
along with my criticism. But soon after, he sent me a series of emails, each one
designed to lead me into a trap to prove I hadn't actually read his manuscript, that I
had given it to some junior member of my "staff" to read. Eventually, I offered him
his money back, and he accepted it and then proceeded to write my friends emails
telling them what a terrible critique I had given him.
This led me to reconsider the whole idea of offering critiques for sale to beginning
writers. Really, who wants to pay to be told what he is doing wrong? In great
detail, point by point? Who wants to know that the manuscript she has spent the
last four years working on will never sell because of fatal design flaws and that its
only use is as a practice piece? Who wants to be told that the character he loves and
has modeled on himself is sexist, racist, or just plain annoying? Who wants to be
told that the jokes on the page are not funny at all? Who wants to hear that the laws
of physics make certain events impossible? Who wants to be told that the shape of
the book is confusing and unworkable?
We all have to deal with criticism, whether we work as writers or not, but no one
likes it. Would you save up your money and instead of going on a mini-vacation,
get a critique of your appearance? Or a critique of your cooking skills? Or a
critique of your parenting skills? (Though as a society, Americans do marriage
counseling fairly often, which is a critique of our marital skills -- and we pay for
that!) It doesn't sound very fun, does it? I suspect this is why there are actually
very few people who do critiques. They don't get a lot of grateful feedback for
their work. And yet, beginning writers are always complaining to editors and
agents that they just want a few more words than "I'm not interested." Just a hint
as to where they are going wrong. Just a scribbled line to show where the editor
stopped reading would be something, wouldn't it?
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I think the idea of taking criticism on your writing goes wrong in elementary
school, where a teacher corrects students' papers with a red pen, underlining
misspelled words and adding a comment here or there about the main sentence of
the paragraph. The student then goes home, corrects these few mistakes and gets an
"A" on revision. But in the real publishing world, revision isn't like that at all. I
take one of my "copyedited" manuscripts with me occasionally to show students
the level of revision that is going on late in the process, two years after I have
signed a contact and been paid money for a book that is to be published. There are
still large sections of text being cut and paragraphs being added in. And that's after
all the really hard work has been done. When an editor tells me that a character
isn't likeable, or that an ending isn't working, or that I need to work out the rules
of magic more clearly, that is just par for the course.
But I do understand finding it difficult to deal with criticism. I'm naturally rather
sensitive and though I have been publishing for ten years now, I still struggle with
stinging reviews, friends who don't bother to read my books at all, family members
who tell me what they think I "should" be writing instead, and my editor or agent's
letters on what is wrong with a book. You'd think I'd develop a thicker skin. I'm
not sure that I really have. Mostly, I have learned how to deal with the criticism
without making it utterly useless. If you are like me, find it excruciatingly painful
to read your manuscripts out loud at a writing group, to even send them off to an
editor you've never heard of for fear of the rejection letter you will inevitably
receive, I understand.
Let me tell you a story. When I was in graduate school at Princeton, I remember
the first semester I took four classes. Most grad students only took three, but I had
a masochistic streak. I was also engaged to be married the following spring, but
ended up sort of eloping over the Christmas break because we were both so
miserable several thousand miles apart. So I wrote my papers in a rather distracted
mindset on my honeymoon, new to grad school, unsure what a paper was or
wasn't, and so on. There was no other basis for a grade in any of these four classes.
Sometimes the professors liked to pretend that they cared if you attended their
lectures. I look back and don't believe it. The paper was all. And I had been at
Brigham Young University for my B.A. and M.A. I was, to be honest, only two
years out of high school. I had been a prodigy, but a prodigy doesn't get you that
far in the real world. No one cares how young you are if you aren't doing the job of
I turned in the four papers when they were due. It turned out not everyone did that.
About half the class asked for extensions and took an "Incomplete" in the
meantime. I hadn't realized that was even an option. Maybe it was best I didn't.
About three weeks after I turned the papers in, I received them back, in manila,
inter-departmental envelopes, tied neatly at the top. I was terrified of seeing my
professor's comments. I got my grades shortly afterward, and I opened them. I had
mostly gotten B's, which was acceptable. Not the A's I was used to, but good
enough to stay in school and keep my scholarship. I admit, I did not want to know
exactly what I had done wrong. I knew I hadn't done a good job, and I figured I
would do better next time, when my personal life had settled down. I was
conscious of my inferiority and didn't need to hear it described in detail. So I kept
those four papers, still in the unopened envelopes, for four months. Until my new
husband and I moved to a new apartment at the end of the second semester. That
was when my curious husband said, "Hey, what's in these envelopes and why
haven't they been opened yet?"
I rushed forward, snatched the envelopes away and explained that those were my
papers from last semester, and I was saving them to read at some later date, when I
was ready to hear the comments from my professors. My husband stared at me in
astonishment. "You wrote your second semester papers without reading the
comments from the first semester papers?" I nodded. When he put it like that, it
didn't sound like such a good idea, did it? Most of the professors weren't the same,
but they probably all had some similar ideas about how to write a good paper. I
could have learned something from the old papers. But I still didn't have the
courage to read them. I shook my head, told my husband I was going to keep them
for later, maybe during the summer. He flat out refused to accept this. He started
opening the envelopes. I ran away. Literally. I ran into the next room, closed the
door and put my fingers over my ears. For the next thirty minutes, he read through
my professor's comments and made notes of them. When he was finished, he
knocked on the door and I opened it.
"They weren't that bad," he said. And he gave me a short, kind synopsis of each
professor's comments. "But I really think you should read them yourself. It could
be helpful in the future." I looked at him, snatched back the papers, thrust them
into the envelopes, retied them, and then went to the trash incinerator. I threw the
papers all in at once, and walked away, my heart still pounding, my hands still
shaking. I never did read my professor's comments on those papers. I have no
recollection of anything my husband told me they said. In fact, I don't remember
any professor's comments on any papers during the whole of my grad school
career. That might be part of the reason I didn't end up teaching German
Literature. Or it might not. Nonetheless, I think I learned a lot, about writing and
about other things that helped me on my way to the path I am on now.
But I tell the story to describe how bad I was at taking criticism. You'd think that
the best advice to give to someone like this might be simply not to become a writer.
Or not to try to become a published writer. But the truth is that many artistic people
are like this. We care so much about our art that it is extremely painful for us to
hear criticism about it. I have heard other authors tell stories about how difficult it
is for them when they receive an editorial letter. Professional, NYT bestselling
authors. They know they need to have criticism to be better. And they also hate it.
It feels like having your heart ripped out and stomped on. It doesn't get much
better than the beginning. I think that whatever novel I am working on now still
needs almost as much work as my first fantasy novel published in 2004 did. I am a
little better at figuring out what is marketable, but not much. I am a little better at
writing a first draft, but not much. I have to accept criticism, but I still hate it. I still
want to run away and burn it.
So, a few tips on how to take criticism from someone who is still working on the
1. Don't bother with people who don't matter.
By this, I mean, don't have your manuscript read by someone who doesn't like
your genre. If you are in a writing group and some of the people simply hate genre
fiction, I would take their comments with a lot of salt. You won't be able to please
them because the best of your kind of fiction wouldn't please them. Don't give a
horror novel to a literature professor. Don't ask your mother if she will read your
manuscript unless she happens to be an industry professional, and even so I am a
skeptic about her objectivity. Good or bad, the comments you get back from a huge
number of people simply will not help you. So why waste your time and theirs?
2. Look at the big picture.
When I get an editorial letter or a phone call about a manuscript, I take everything
in at once, but then I pick it apart into larger action items and smaller action items.
Smaller action items are things that can be dealt with in a single chapter. Larger
action items are things that run throughout the manuscript. Other large action items
include additions of more than ten pages or cuts of more than ten pages. If you
look at the big picture first, and don't focus on all the smaller revisions to be made,
it frees your mind to accept these larger changes. Accepting them is the first
important step in being able to make the changes. Put the smaller action item list
aside for the first little while, and stay focused.
Some editors and agents are really good at starting every critical discussion with a
few sentences of what you have done well. Not all of them are, however. These
assume that if they don't say they like it, you know that they love it. As a writer, I
find it difficult to assume that and will sometimes revise everything, turning in a
manuscript that has no actual words that are the same as the first one. So people
who work with me learn fairly quickly that it's not just complimenting me to tell
me what I did well. It's a necessity if they want to see those parts again in the next
draft. But sometimes I have to make a list of what I did well for myself, or I will
ask questions about what my agent or editor liked, and I write them down so that I
can keep a balance sheet of good and bad. They don't have to be equal, but there
has to be some important things that are good if I'm going to keep working on a
manuscript, so I will sometimes keep a list of those.
4. Take some time (possibly vent).
When I get an editorial letter, I read through it quickly, put it down, and try not to
think about it consciously for a few days. I let my subconscious work on it, and
when I go back to it, I make a few comments in the margins and then I don't work
on the manuscript. I wait at least a week before I go back to it. I know the process
by now. I know that when I first read through an editorial letter, I will think that
my editor is crazy. I will think that at least five of the revisions requested are
impossible. I will think that I should call my agent and tell him how crazy the
editor is. I will think about the real possibility that my book will be canceled. I will
think that I am not up to this. I have called my agent about this sort of thing, and
there can be something valuable about venting. My poor agent has to deal with a
lot of crazy writers who vent to him. Sometimes I try to vent to other authors
Then some time passes, and I start to see that I can do a few of the changes. So I
open the file up again and start fiddling. Just a little, not seriously. I lie to myself
and say that I'm just going to read the manuscript through. And lo, every time, I
find that the manuscript I am reading is not the manuscript I think I sent to my
editor. I do not know how this happens. Some evil genie gets into my computer
and changes things so that my perfect manuscript never got to my editor. And it
turns out that my editor's ideas are a lot closer to the perfect manuscript than the
words that got sent to them. So I make the manuscript a little closer to the perfect
one in my mind and hope the genie stays away this time. (It doesn't.)
5. Accept imperfection.
I don't like accepting imperfection. And I'm not saying that you should send out a
manuscript that is less than your absolute best at the time that you send it out. You
should have gone through it several times to make sure that there are no errors in it.
You should have a checklist of common mistakes you make that you will fix. But
don't hold onto the manuscript forever. It is never going to be perfect. One of the
bittersweet realities of becoming a professional writer for me has been rereading
books I thought were perfect when I read them in the past, or reading new books
by authors I idolize, and realizing that they are not perfect. It's not just arrogance.
It's that I've learned a lot of things, and I'm not looking up anymore. I'm looking
across. The book that is published is never going to be the perfect book you want it
to be. It will only be as good as you can get it. That has to be good enough, for you
and for the world.
6. Don't give yourself grief.
I don't read a lot of reviews of my books. I used to. I used to have a "google alerts"
set for the titles of all my books and my full name. I thought it would be good for
me to see what people were saying about my book. Maybe I would learn something
that would help me to write my next book better. I don't believe this is true
anymore. If I learn what I should have done better in a book (dubious), it tends to
actually mess up the writing of a second book because each book is completely
different. At least, even in my series, the stories are about new challenges and new
characters, only loosely related. A criticism of one book that says that my hero is
"milktoast" tends to make me overreact in the other direction for another book.
And that is not a good thing. A writer needs creative space to work in, not harsh
criticism. Reviews are for readers, not for writers. Leave them that way. Don't go
seeking out your reviews on goodreads or other websites. That is my advice for
people who are sensitive like I am. You will only make yourself insane. You will
not change anyone's mind. And if you do hear good stuff about yourself, it will be
exactly as useless as the bad stuff you hear.
There are times when we are not ready to take criticism. I think this is one of the
big reasons that editors and agents simply do not give feedback to writers who
submit to them, even if they think a manuscript shows promise. They have been
burned, as I have been, and have decided that people do not want to accept
criticism. They just aren't ready to move to the next step, and they may never be.
An editor or an agent does not want to work with this kind of an author. They want
to work with authors who, however much trouble it is, can take criticism and
incorporate changes without rancor. Or at least without spilling rancor onto them. I
remember at a recent conference I went to, an author said that she was frustrated by
beginning writer's conferences. She said that everyone wanted her to tell them if
the one piece she had read proved they could be a professional writer or not. But
one piece, even a brilliant piece, does not show how a beginning writer is going to
deal with criticism. And that is the most important part, this author argued, in
becoming a professional. You have to take it. You have to accept it. You have to
You do not have to like it, however.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison