How To Handle Criticism Of Your Writing

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stick-figures200xThere is a great temptation when writing a novel to show it to friends and family before it is finished. As in my other post, I refer to my chapter reader: a secretive, dynamic woman with a love for story and a keen mind that speaks clearly when she comes across something that doesn’t read right to her. She gives me what I need without influencing the developing story and without trying to get me to change anything. She basically reads for the enjoyment and flow of the work.

My chapter reader, and most writers don’t use one from what I’ve read (I just happen to have someone who meshes well with my process), gives me feedback in the general sense, not the subjective.

Subject criticism and feedback pertains to the individual only, no matter how they may phrase their comments. If you look at the following four sentences you’ll see what I mean:

“I like Erica in this story, but I think she needs more of a brassy attitude.”

“Erica is an interesting character. That thing she does with her finger before she kills someone is a little harsh, though. I’d get rid of that if you don’t want to offend people.”

“I don’t like your story.”

“Your story isn’t any good.”

These are subjective comments and they reflect the emotional and experiential life of the person giving the criticism. The last two have nothing to do with you as a writer or your story. You should dismiss those comments out of hand.

The first two comments reflect the person’s desire to have the story written his/her way. This is a wonderful thing for a person, but wanting to have a story your way and doing the work of actually writing the story are two different things. They are free write any story they wish, and you should encourage them to do so. As for your story, hands off.

Objective criticism generally doesn’t have an emotional context attached. The following are objective criticisms:

“When Erica killed that second man, she didn’t do that thing with her finger she usually does. Was that on purpose, or an oversight?”

“I like the flow of the scene with the train wreck, but I wasn’t able to tell if the victims were in the first car or the second. Is there a way to make that more pronounced, or did I miss something when I read that?”

“Easy flow to your writing. I was through it in a day.”

Objective comments like these help you recognize sticking points in a story—and give you the location where the sticking points occurred. They are immensely helpful in getting your writing to a more finalized and professional product.

When looking for critiques on your work, try to find a broad segment of the population who enjoy the genre you’re writing. Except for an editor that is only going over your work for grammar or punctuation, you need to have people who enjoy reading the type of work you’re producing to give you accurate feedback. That will help polish your work for that demographic.

I have sent to my first readers—a small group of individuals who get the relatively cleaned first draft—my stories from different genres. Some of them simply aren’t able to get into them and decline; others find they have a love for a genre they would never have picked up on their own. The latter is wonderful thing to have happen to someone.

The weeding out process of finding first readers can take some time. People who claim they are voracious readers become not so when you tell them you have about a 2-week span for them to get comments back to you. Others will tell you they’d love to be a first reader for your work; you send the the manuscript with your requirements, and then you don’t hear back from them for months. Those kinds of well-meaning readers aren’t people you can use if you have deadlines.

When I finish a novel or short story, I send it to my editor for grammar and punctuation and those parts of the sentence or paragraph she suggests might be written a different way to sound better to her ear. We both understand when those comments are subjective or objective. The objective ones get attention quickly; the subjective ones are something we discuss.

When she’s finished, I then send it off to my first readers for them to let me know of any continuity or reading flow problems. When inviting a person into the circle of first reader, I usually send an email similar to the following for agreement:

“Dear x, I do have some qualifiers. You have to be able to read the novel or short stories within a 2 week time span and be honest about your feelings after reading. I understand the subjective nature of readers re the stories they come across, and I won’t be offended by your feedback. I just want to get a general feel for whether you liked it: did it move you? scare you? etc. Did any characters stand out for you or lay flat on the page? Please be honest with me about what you read. Answer any questions I may have to the best of your ability, and—if you happen to find any glaring errors or inconsistencies—just copy and paste the surrounding text and point it out for me. If you can meet these requirements, then I would welcome you and appreciate greatly the time you make for this in your busy life.”

I do make acknowledgments in the novel for these people, as anyone should. They help shape a cleaner story for the rest of the world to see, and their differing perspectives help you realize a few things you may not have noticed.

And, of course, when a person tells you they loved the story and can tell you why, that’s powerful.

Just remember: don’t take personal comments personally—unless they are accurate and help you be a better writer. Throw out anything less.

Value yourself first, your writing second, and those people who help you become a better writer as some of the most wonderful people to have in your life. This applies to more than writing, but you get the idea.

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