Nobody likes a critic. They’re picky, pedantic, interfering so-and-so’s who just don’t get your writing. If they did get it, they wouldn’t bring up all this stuff – they would appreciate the true magic of the story and overlook the little things. Right? But despite all their shortcomings, the heart-stomping words of even the most well-meaning critic can be the best writing tool you’ve ever found.
A benevolent few critics (like most on this forum) are gently spoken, offer pointers to the issue and may even suggest a solution. Other critiques are … not so gentle. But even these can be useful if you approach things the right way.
Step 1 – don’t get defensive!
After you have put hours of heart and inspiration into your writing, it can be hard to hear that someone just doesn’t “get it”. You may find yourself arguing or dismissing certain points (especially on favourite passages), but you need to stay detached as much as possible. If you get defensive, you may miss changes that could drastically improve your writing, and the person trying to help you might decide you’re too much hard work and not bother next time.
Step 2 – think about it!
You don’t have to agree with the critic – you’re the author, and it’s your vision not theirs – but you owe it to both of you to think about what they said. Really think about it. See if they have a point. Even if they’re not 100% correct, they might have found a section that needs polish.
It’s all too easy to ignore a criticism and say “yeah, yeah, you don’t know what you’re talking about. You just don’t ‘get’ my writing. You must read another genre or something.” Resist the temptation. Consider if there’s anything to that point that might help you improve. Even if your writing is fine without using any of the critic’s advice, could it be better if it was reworked?
I used to argue with my critic – when they said a section wasn’t clear or didn’t make sense, I would say “Yes, it does. If you look back a chapter when they said X, it totally sets things up.” I finally realised that even if I could argue with my critic and change their mind, I couldn’t argue with every reader who buys a book. My critic will help me find issues before a reader gets to them, but a stranger buying a book will just say “this writer is rubbish” and never look back.
Step 3 – a critic may not always know exactly what’s wrong
A critic doesn’t need to know exactly what is wrong with a story to know it’s not quite right. They may not know how to fix it, or suggest a change that doesn’t really improve anything, but that doesn’t mean you can cross that dot point off and say “nah, they’re wrong”. Look around that passage and see if something in that area has caused the critic to comment. I know this is almost a sub-clause of Step 2, but it is important enough that I think it needs its own Step.
Step 4 – Bad doesn’t always mean bad
Don’t get too disheartened by criticism, because often the difference between “doesn’t quite work” and “nailed it” can be surprisingly small. Sometimes all you need to make something sparkle is a little reshuffle, some polish and some selective pruning / padding.
One perfect example was when I wrote an article for this forum. I had a sudden rush of inspiration and tapped out the whole thing in one sitting, then reread and edited it. I was pretty happy, so I went to my first editor / critic (my wife) and asked her to take a look.
Hmmm. There were problems. It wasn’t great.
I freely admit I went through steps 1 and 2 at this point. When I finally worked through it, I got to step 3 and tried to tease out what exactly was wrong. Turns out the structure was out of whack – I had “benefits of a technique”, “example of application”, “pitfalls”. I was ending on a downer, which put a sour note on the whole thing. I changed the structure to “benefit”, “pitfall”, “example” and tweaked a few words for clarity, and that changed the story from “doesn’t quite work” to “nailed it”. All that with just a reshuffle and polish!
Step 5 – Don’t be lazy
The last hits all of us at some point – writing fatigue. After spending countless hours sinking heart and soul into your work, it’s hard to hear “you need to rework it all to account for X”. It’s so daunting when you’ve already spent so long getting to this point, but it’s worth it. Nothing can compete with reading a smooth, finished product that you would happily pay money for, then see it published on a shelf (or digital shelf). That feeling is worth all the work.
So remember, don’t hate a critic – they are the best friend you will ever have (even the bad ones). They will tell you everything you’ve done wrong before you send your story to an agent who sees hundreds of submissions a day, or the faceless public who shelled out money for your work. Embrace the criticism and use it to make your work the best it can be.