Monday, June 6, 2011

Tough Love and Tough Skin

by R.C. Lewis

Receiving criticism—if it's not in the first paragraph of a writer's job description, it should be. Handling it with professionalism and grace is a must-have skill.

Cat Woods recently discussed the basics of critique partners/groups and several real-life examples of changes made due to critter input. Some feedback resonates right away. (Yes, why didn't I think of that myself?) Some leaves you on the fence. (It could work, but the way I have it might be better, or maybe Door #3 ...) And some is immediately dismissed. (I write for teens and about teens, so while it might be grammatically correct, I'm not using "whom" in that dialogue.)

Those are the rational, I'm-the-writer-so-I-make-decisions-for-my-story reactions.

What about the emotional reactions? How do we react to "mean" critiques and reviews?

I'm not referring to an out-and-out bashing that says you have no business writing and calls into question the quality of your parentage. I'm not talking about reviews that turn out to be written by the guy/gal who stalked you in eighth grade and didn't take it well when you had to shoot him/her down. In fact, the feedback I'm talking about usually isn't "mean" at all.

It's honest. When in a pre-published critique situation, the critiquer usually intends to help. They tell you what works and what doesn't—for them. In a post-published review situation, they're doing what they're supposed to do—give their opinion of the book.

That doesn't mean it won't hurt, although some will deliver their criticism with more "cushioning" than others.

Should we hope for the "extra cushy" kind? Personally, I don't think so. Too much padding, and I might not realize how potentially serious an issue is. Tact is certainly appreciated, but not sugar-coating, at least for me.

Either way, still hurts.

So how do we handle it? Here's some un-cushioned advice, which I direct to myself as well: Suck it up.

When I'm working with my long-term critique partners, we know we're in each others' corner, so we can be blunt with both "Love it!" and "For the love of Neal Shusterman, R.C., what's with the eyebrow-raising?" Dialogue about feedback is useful, because it can help clarify both the writer's intention and the reader's perception.

In other situations, though, particularly if you're feeling hurt or have an urge to get defensive, here's my recommended response, in its entirety:

Thank you for taking the time. You've given me a lot to think about.

If you've already been published and it's a matter of negative reviews, I'll say it again: Suck it up. Moreover, ignore it. Don't respond. Stop looking at your Amazon or Goodreads page(s) if necessary.

And if you don't know why I recommend that so strongly, perhaps you missed the episode earlier this year involving the author of a book about a Mediterranean mariner.

How do you keep your ego in check when receiving criticism? What influence does the writer's possible reaction have when you offer feedback?


Sophie Perinot said...

GREAT post. The simple truth is writers have to 1) let go and 2) remember to be polite. Neither of these are always easy.

As for me, years ago there was a movie (can't remember the name but it had Gabriel Byrne and Bridget Fonda in it) in which Anne Bancroft taught a character to say "I never did mind about the little things" (with a smile) when she was crossed or insulted or whatever. That's my mantra for the bad stuff -- "I never did mind about the little things"

R.C. Lewis said...

Thanks, Sophie. Indeed, it's not always easy. But that's excellent advice—even when they feel big, these really are the little things.

Christopher Hudson said...

I suppose the best thing is to remember that criticism is subjective ... even if only your mother likes your stuff. When you get it, say, 'Thanks for the input," and, when you're alone, decide if it has any merit and then commence to gnashing your teeth and pulling your hair.

R.C. Lewis said...

Very true, Christopher. Allowing yourself to vent—privately—is important, and usually helps me get past the sting more quickly. I have certain writing buddies I know I can email with a "what were they thinking??" rant, and it'll stay between us.

Becca said...

I SO agree with you on this, as you know!

As someone who puts a lot of time into a critique, but is always straightforward and honest, it doesn't sit well with me when someone gets defensive over a review. I always say up front (for those who haven't worked with me before)--if what I'm saying doesn't resonate, ignore me!

That said, I do not AT ALL mind what you call a dialogue over the critique. I don't take them as defensive. Whether it's a "what did you mean by....?" Or "I was trying to do that with ______, but it's not coming across clearly. If you can think of any ideas to clarify, let me know." Or "I'm going for _____, not ______, but obviously it's not working. What do you think if I did ______? Would it make it more clear?"

Dialogue like that over a critique is something I'm more than happy to give someone. What I don't want is "Yeah, well you must have missed ________." or "You just don't 'get' it." or other such things.

It's a balance, sure, but it's not so hard. The writer just has to ask themselves why they are are responding. Is it to tell the critiquer what they missed/why they are wrong? Or is it to solicit extra help? Always say thank you. And say nothing more unless it's to get more specific help. Being defensive will just put people off from wanting to work with you.

And, FYI, RC is a lovely critiquer and a lovely writer to give feedback, too. She knows the real meaning of thick skin--that healthy balance of being open to making changes and being thankful even if she doesn't agree.

Great post, RC.

R.C. Lewis said...

Excellent point about looking at *why* you (the writer) feel like responding, Becca.

Is it a dialogue or a diatribe? ;)

Even if a critiquer truly did miss something, that's important for me to consider. Is an important piece of information too buried? Too oblique? Too ambiguous? Or did the critiquer just space it? (I admit, I've done that before, eyes glided right over something.)

And thanks for the compliments. :)

Michael Di Gesu said...

I agree...

If you are going to be a writer you MUST develop a tough skin. Writing is NOT for the faint of heart...

Becca said...

"Even if a critiquer truly did miss something, that's important for me to consider. Is an important piece of information too buried? Too oblique? Too ambiguous? Or did the critiquer just space it?"

Oh, SO well said. Not enough people realize this, from what I've noticed, but it's SUCH a great point.

PS--first link in this thread isn't working :(

R.C. Lewis said...

Yikes, how'd *that* happen? Thanks for the catch, think the link's fixed now.

Michael, very true. I think it's a tough balance, because a writer needs a certain sensitivity in order to create empathy, have our stories feel real, etc. But that sensitivity needs to make way for professionalism once we're outside our little cocoon of getting-the-writing-done.

Cat Woods said...

Awesome post, RC.

I'm solidly of the vent-on-paper-to-get-away-from-the-emotions camp. After which you can burn those negative emotions, rip them up or run 'em through the garbage disposal.

Yes, crits and reviews can hurt, but they are such a wonderful learning opportunity.

Thanks for the great post, RC.

KellieM said...

Good post RC. At this point in my writing life I am grateful for anything someone is willing to comment on! I really want a critter to lay it out there. Not only critique the sentences but tell me if the story is boring, the pacing is slow, or the writing stinks! In order to improve, I need to know the truth no matter how much it might hurt.

In addition, since I am not making a career from my writing (but forever hopeful), it doesn't seem to hurt me as much as if someone were critiquing my work performance. I know writing is close to my heart but at this time it's not feeding the family. Does that make sense?

Jemi Fraser said...

I am learning to develop a thicker skin, but it's hard.

I don't rant or vent, I get sad - which is just dumb! But at least I keep it to myself. :)

I'll keep working at it!

Mindy McGinnis said...

Absolutely true. If we surround ourselves with "yes wo/men" we'll cease to grow as writers. If I'd listened to everyone telling me how awesome I was, I'd still be writing with crayons and insisting I be short listed for the Pulitzer.

R.C. Lewis said...

Thanks, Cat. Ritual burning—sounds like Zozobra (which actually freaks me out ... look it up). But that could work. :)

Kellie, I definitely fall into the "if it sucks, I need to know, so tell me" camp. How else can I learn and get better. Funny thing, though—my job performance is critiqued on an annual basis (by my administrator), so I find it stings a lot less than criticisms of my writing. Maybe because so far I have more confidence in that area.

Jemi, I've definitely gone the "get sad" route at times. We all have our moments. Key is to keep going and yeah, don't sulk too publicly. ;)

Mindy, definitely, I don't want to hear "yes" unless you mean it, and I need to hear the hard stuff to grow.

Thanks for the comments, all. :)

Becca said...

Another thing I find useful, if I'm *feeling* defensive of a critique, is going to a long term, trusted partner and saying "Could you look a few comments over for me and let me know if they are really something I need to consider?"

Beware, this can end in many ways. Sometimes it's an immediate pick me up because they'll say "PLEASE disregard that critique. It's way off base. Did they even read the MS?" or "Those suggestions would make WORSE." They joke about it, and it restores my confidence (especially as it turns out this way moer often than not, so I know my instincts are pretty spot on--but at least I'm not being rude to the person who critiqued for me and at least I gave their thoughts real consideration before dismissing--I hate to think I'm dismissing good advice just because it stung at first.) Other times, however, these same people will tell me, "They have a point with ____ and _____. I wonder if you could do ________?" Then I know, okay, this wasn't a blooper--this is something I really need to fix. I still feel better because I have confidence in what I need to do. And once I do it and I get the end result (and love it), I'm happy again.

That helps me. I'm sure there are other ways to deal, too, but I like getting the support from my friends and I like getting the critique off my mind--either by realizing I need to take the advice on board, or by realizing that I am right to reject the comments. I hate to reject them outright because whenever I'm considering *not* taking advice, I always have that small voice in the back of my head saying: What if I'm wrong?

So, sometimes a critique rubs you the wrong way because it's crap advice (just being honest here. It's like the critique that tells you to start putting all your punctuation outside your dialogue. It's just WRONG) but other times the critique is something you really do need to consider. It's not always easy to tell which is which.

But in the end, when it comes to the person who gave you the critique, the answer is still the same. Say thank you, move on. If they made any points you appreciated, you can say something like, "I especially liked your points about _______ and _______." (I tend to say this even if I've found the entire critique valuable lol).

This really is such a great post, RC. It's one that EVERY writer needs to read.

petemorin said...

As one who's slightly notorious for his curmudgeonliness (hey, five syllables!), I can say that around here my bluntness has been taken rather well.

All things considered.

(Where are the smileys?)

R.C. Lewis said...

Becca, absolutely. It's great to have someone you can go to and say, "Hey, have I totally lost it?" knowing they'll give it to you straight.

Pete, we love your curmudgeonliness. ☺ (found a smiley, had to work for it)

Janice Hardy said...

If it's a personal negative comment I ignore it. I've read reviews (and gotten crits) back where the person acted like my goal was to make them angry or insult them. I can't do anything about that and they never offer anything constructive back.

But if a comment stings, I try to understand why the reader made that comment. Maybe I don't like it, but if I reacted strongly to it there's likely a reason. Maybe it's about something I really love (so perhaps it's a darling that might need to go) or something I had a feeling was wrong but hoped it wouldn't be. (because it would change something major about the story I didn't want to change)

I try to be objective about all feedback. It's all opportunities to improve.

petemorin said...

I recall initiating a post on Authonomy titled "rip me a new one."

Ruth said...

When you find a critique partner who fits you -- you keep them.

I tried critique groups that were unnecessarily harsh for me. As much as I don't want response sugar-coated, I don't want it sledge-hammer coated either.

I've tried critique partners who said they loved everything I wrote. Well, although nice, it wasn't helpful.

Luckily, I met one woman who gets my writing and listens to what I ask for. Sometimes I'm not ready for the full disclosure of what is wrong with the MS...not when I'm still working on finding the characters' voice. Sometimes I'm looking to debate the value of an entire chapter. Keep it? Trash it? Tear it apart and start over? I need help sifting through piles of crap and pulling out anything worthwhile...if I was lucky enough to put anything good in that day.

My favorite part of my critique partner is that we can completely disagree and I'm still glad we discussed it. Sometimes I see her point and sometimes I find my answer while I'm disagreeing with her. And she doesn't seem to mind at all when I ignore her advice.

It's that kind of honesty you need in critique partner.

As far as critiques from editors -- I give it the three read test. I read it once...and decide it's trash. I read it again a week later...and sometimes begin to see the editor's point. I read it a few weeks later and pull out a few more points. I get nothing out of the emotional first read.

Online reviews...well, I'm learning as I go. I definitely think they are worth reading to find trends. Not everyone will love my writing, but if many people have the same complaint...I'd do some reflection on that area.

R.C. Lewis said...

Those sound like good strategies, Janice. Look past the sting and see what's really there in the feedback.

Ruth, absolutely, it's so important to find a critique partner that fits your style, understands your genre, and meets your needs. Too soft or too harsh ... neither really helps, but the appropriate balance will vary from person to person.