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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Handling Critiques Without Getting Defensive

When I was in high school, I had an art teacher who liked to espouse the importance of "constructive critiques."  I quickly learned to hate the term, because as far as I could tell, what it really meant was "rake the poor artist over the coals."

Though in retrospect I have no idea whether I was really being raked over the coals by someone who was emphasizing the critique over the constructive or whether I was just hypersensitive and it felt that way, I do know two things.

First, it's never easy to have your creative work critiqued.  Few things are as personal as our writing, especially our fiction. We pour our desires and dreams, fears and vulnerabilities into our characters and plot points. It's hard to share those things with others; it's even harder to have people react with anything less than mountains of praise.

Second, for better or worse, critiques from trustworthy crit buddies who genuinely want to help us improve are crucial to both our growth and our success as writers. In other words, having problems pointed out is tough, but that's the only way we're going to build a great story.  This is even more true if you hope to publish, because both agents and editors will ask you to make (often tough) revisions to polish your story into a salable state.  (And don't forget about the reviews after your book is published!  You'll need a thick skin for those!)

Before we go on to how to deal with the actual criticism, let's get the problem right out there in the open.

1. Take a good hard look at yourself -- are you getting defensive and undermining yourself?

A lot (make that A LOT) of people ask for honest and even brutal criticism, but respond defensively when they get it...no matter how it's given.  How do you know if you're doing this?  Give yourself a point for each of the following:
  • You respond to the crit buddy's comments with "But...." and explain why s/he's wrong.
  • You say (or think) "That's going to be too much work" and try to make a case for why the changes don't need to be made.
  • You decide your critique partner just doesn't understand your brilliance and declare him or her an irredeemable idiot. (Yes, you get a point for this even if you eventually decide maybe the person isn't an idiot.)
  • You get angry at the critique partner. Check this one twice if you fire back an angry email, text, or phone call.  Check it three times if you've lost critique partners this way.
  • If you've ever sent a nasty response to a literary agent for any reason following a query, just go ahead and give yourself 20 points.
  • You don't take other people's advice...ever.  (Also give yourself a point if you only take advice that tells you how to make something that's already brilliant better, eschewing advice that targets things that aren't working.)
  • You make a big deal about how bad you feel about the advice until your crit partner backpedals or tells you s/he was wrong....about any and all negatives.
  • Your crit partner/s used to give you advice that was hard to take, but now it's all vague, halfhearted, and generically positive.
The more of these you answer yes to, the more defensive you are.  Give yourself a break if you only do one or two of these once in a while -- we all feel defensive sometimes.  But the more of these you're doing on a regular basis, the more defensive you are, and the more you're probably undermining yourself, your growth, and your ability to reach your writing goals.

2. Decide -- honestly -- what you really need: praise or growth.

Some writers genuinely need praise and attention from other writers more than they want to grow as an author.  That's okay.  If what you really need is praise, then focus on communities where the feedback is mostly positive.  You probably won't grow into someone who's regularly selling your work, but that may not be what's most important to you.

Sure, publication is the brass ring, but the more people who read your work, the more you're opening yourself up to potential negativity.  Because no matter how good you are, there are always going to be people who hate your work...and are happy to tell you so.  So if what you really need is praise, focus on enjoying the writing and getting praise!

If you decide that growth is really what you want most, move on to the next point!

3. Admit to yourself how hard it is to take criticism.  (I know, it sounds like we're in AA here.)

Often, we try to sweep unpleasant feelings under the carpet to avoid dealing with them.  But experiencing them can help us deal with and get past them.  So go ahead and admit to yourself -- and your crit buddies, if you need to -- that sometimes it's hard to take even constructive criticism.  I bet they'll tell you they feel the same way!

Now that we've established the problem, let's look at how to deal with it.

1. Realize that a critique of your work is not a critique of you.

Like I said above, it can be hard not to take crits personally.  But nobody -- and that includes people like, oh,  Stephen King -- started out as a brilliant writer.  Yes, some folks (like King) have a definite head start when it comes to raw talent, but everyone needs some work to get it right.

For example, King was determined to get published from the time he was a teen.  He began sending short stories out and, like the rest of us, started racking up rejections.  He put a nail in the wall, and each time he got one, he stuck it on the nail.  Pretty soon the nail fell off the wall and he had to put up a big fat spike instead.  But when he got feedback from an editor or a mentor, he didn't feel sorry for himself or swear to give up writing -- he buckled down and figured out how to be a better writer based on that feedback.

And we all know how that turned out.

So separate critique of your work from a critique of you.

2. Even if you can't help but take critiques personally, realize that the criticism (and the bad feelings that can accompany it) won't kill you.

People who choose to pursue clinical or counseling psychology need to be aware of their own biases and the messages they're sending others verbally and nonverbally.  But when you start grad school, you're rarely as self-aware as you need to be.  So guess what happens when you get there?  That's right -- they start pointing out every little mannerism, bias, and trait.  Worse, they videotape you so they can point to the behavior and say "That is a problem."  If you can't see it, they play it over and over -- often in front of a crowd -- to force you to acknowledge the problem.

It's enough to make anyone want to crawl into a corner and curl into a fetal ball.  But you know what?  Even in such a situation, you start to realize that you can survive it.  Eventually, you realize that the fear of taking in constructive criticism is often worse than actually facing it head-on and dealing with it. Sure, you might have some mannerisms or vocal tics that need work, but that doesn't mean you're a failure as a person.

The same thing is true with writing.  You may have a lot of trouble not feeling bad when someone doesn't like your character or the twists your plot took. You may want to throw everything out the window when someone believes you need a major change to make the story work. But that doesn't mean there's something wrong with you as a person. It just means that your vision isn't coming through as clearly as you'd hoped.

Still, sometimes we need to feel the sad and frustrated feelings before we can look at things more clearly. So if you need to, go ahead and feel sorry for yourself for a day or two, but then it's important to pack up your pity party and get down to business.

Criticism can be tough to take, but you CAN take it.  And the more practice you have at taking it gracefully, the better you will get at it.  Promise!

3. Rather than getting overtly defensive, ask questions and find ways to improve clarity.

Now that you know that it's okay to experience the bad feelings -- they won't kill you -- you can have them and then move on.  One of the best ways to move on is to look at places your crit buddies see problems and find out more so you can make good changes.  Try asking questions like:
  • What made this [plot point, character motivation, etc.] confusing?  What would help me make it clearer?
  • Is this a problem you're seeing consistently through the story/novel?  What skills do I need to hone to correct that problem?  Can you recommend any resources that might help me/have helped you?
  • Could you suggest ways I might fix this problem?  Examples might help me see possibilities.
Remember, the goal in soliciting crits is to make your story better -- so follow up on anything that's unclear!

4. Keep your eye on the goal.

Remember, growth and change are usually difficult.  But if they get you closer to a treasured goal, it's all worth it!

So...what have I missed?  How do YOU deal with constructive criticism?


Unknown said...

Great post, Carolyn! I had to laugh at the clinical psychology program analogy because I honestly found getting a Ph.D. easier than writing a book. I love my critique partners and they are TOUGH, but my book is so much better than it was before. I've told my readers that I want them to be brutal -- I care much more about producing a quality book than having my ego stroked. :)

Dana Elmendorf said...

YAY! I do none of those listed in your first #1! I love my crit partner and sometimes I kick myself but every time I agree with her.

Candyland said...

This is a great post. Especially since I just received some feedback yesterday that left me crying!!!

Stephanie said...

I think a good way to overcome the "critique blues" is to do more critiques. Doing crits can help writers improve their own work and also show the writer the intention behind critique, what critique is useful, when unqualified praise is in order, etc. Then when it comes time to receive critique, it can be easier to receive.

Matthew MacNish said...

Great advice Carolyn, thanks for sharing. It is hard sometimes to keep in mind that real feedback has only one purpose, to make your writing better. An astute, constructive critique is truly a gift.

Unknown said...

I forwarded this email to my husband (my #1 fan) and asked him "Is this me?"

Of course, he delicately said yes, but it's hard to escape when you see yourself in bullet point form. Thanks for the article, it is very insightful.

Wendy Swore said...

I find that when I get a harsh critique that stirs defensive feelings in me, I have to put it aside and let it sit for a day. Then when I pick it up again, I can look at it with more honest eyes, and see the value of what advice was given.

Sometimes you can't help but take things personally, but you can help how you react at that point. Spitting a negative reply is never a good idea--especially when the critiques usually have good merit to what they say.

Excellent Post Elena.

Wendy Swore said...

Woops, I followed Elena's facebook to this post, but I see it's Carolyn that wrote it. So good job Carolyn. THanks for sharing. :)

Suzette Saxton said...

What a wonderful, essential post! I like how you've broken it down. Well done!

Erinn said...

Oh... so punching my crit partner in the throat every time she fixes a grammar mistake is the WRONG approach. Got it!

Seriously this is a great post. Very informative.
I find it's best if you let your work sit for a long time before you hand it over to someone to read, this way you're less emotionally committed to the work and characters.

Julia Phillips Smith said...

I really enjoy watching Evan Lysacek receive comments from the judges on Dancing With the Stars because he's ready to hear what will help him refine and grow. And I aspire to that in my own work.

Really enjoyed how you laid out typical responses with practical steps to avoid snags in the future.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Thanks for all the great comments!

Kristi -- I think it's good when you can pick out something (PhD programs included!) where you had to deal with tough criticism but got through it. And I think we all have experiences we can look back on and say "yeah, I dealt with this even though it was hard." We can draw strength from that memory and apply what we learned to our writing. I agree, critiques of our writing can be much harder than any other critique (ever!), but we can learn to deal with that, too. Eye on the prize, kids! :-)

Stephanie -- great point! - being a good critiquer can help you appreciate the intent and feelings behind a good critique!

Phylicia -- Wow, that was a brave thing to do, to ask your husband. Good for you, you've taken the first step toward being able to take critiques better. You were able to hear his "yes" on this, and that takes a lot of courage!

Wendy -- Another great point -- set the crit aside and let the feelings simmer down a bit so you can take a more honest look in a day or so.

And Erinn -- Yes, I think that punching your crit partner in the throat might be a leeeeetle aggressive when it comes to responses. Thanks for the chuckle! ;-)

Stina said...

Great post! I feel worse when critters don't point out mistakes in my writing and I query it like that. Not cool.

My writing has improved because of honest feedback, and because I'm willing to push myself harder as a result of it. The trick is finding the right individuals to do that. Not all critters are created equal.

kathrynjankowski said...

I think it's most important to remember that the purpose of a critique group is to make each member a stronger writer. Yes, you need a thick skin, but it's also true that some people simply never learn how to give or take feedback without making it personal.

Bethany Wiggins said...

Brilliant post. Criticism and writing go hand-in-hand.

Anonymous said...

Excellent, excellent post. I truly believe it does get easier to receive a critique, the longer you're with a strong, respectful group, but, boy, it can be painful for a while! Nice thoughts on how to deal with it. :)

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Super post! I think the first critique I got almost killed me, but I learned...Now, I hope to get real criticism.

I try to document my emotions when I'm reading someone else's manuscript. I know I want my writing to evoke emotion in the reader. I figure it's nice to tell the writer when I laughed and cried in his/her ms. :)

Anne Gallagher said...

Excellent post Carolyn, thank you for this.

Kim Batchelor said...

I agree, these are great reminders about how we can learn from critiques and how to approach criticism. I would also like to see a post on how TO critique; one example, I submitted a novel excerpt and synopsis in a fiction writing class, clearly labeled that it was a novel excerpt. One of my classmates wrote in response: "You should read lots of short stories so that you'd learn what makes a short story successful." Not helpful at all.

Unknown said...

A fantastic post. I shudder to think about all the deconstructive criticism I gave when I was new to the critique process. I hope those writers were able to make their writing better in spite of me.

Greta said...

A great article. It's something every writer needs to learn.

However... not all advice is good advice. We have to sift what we get. Things some people hate, others love. If more than one person makes a similar comment, maybe you've got a problem. If one person 'misunderstands' - maybe they always would.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great post. Sometimes I do get depressed when I get criticism from a critique partner. But with my good partners, who read the same genre as me, I usually come to that they are right.

I'm trying to grow my thick skin because you're right, we all need it once we start submitting. I think I'm making progress in that regard.

Jil said...

Thank you! This is perfect for me as I am about to join a new group which I'm sure will be harder on me than my old bunch who have become much too gentle.
When I feel myself getting riled at some criticism I just tell myself that the person is not touching my computer, that it's still up to me to change things or not. That calms me down and the next day I can think calmly about what to do.

Carolyn Kaufman | @CMKaufman said...

Good suggestion -- I will make a note to write an article on how to be a good critiquer!

I love all your thoughts and suggestions -- so many good ideas here!

Sage Ravenwood said...

I had my critique partner nip my defensive attitude in the butt right off the bat. How? He asked me point blank, what do you expect from me praise or an honest opinion. Then he went on to say if you think I'm harsh, wait till an agent or editor gets a hold of your manuscript.

Trust me, I got it. He did make sure I knew he felt I was talented, however I'm not perfect.
Now I look at it this way, it's fresh eyes looking at something and seeing what I may not. (Hugs)Indigo

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Super post!
I'm much thicker skinned now, but still, sometimes I just get emotional. Rejections do that too.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad that you posted this! I'm about to start editing my MS, and I'm sure this post will come in handy!

Eric W. Trant said...

I probably rank real dang high on the "don't take advice" list, and I've shaken my head at a few crits that were too full of likes and dislikes.

Why? Because I don't usually get the feedback I want.

When I ask for a crit, I ask, IN THIS ORDER:

0) Is this an interesting topic, did you want to finish?
1) Is the writing clear?
2) Do you understand the story?
3) Do the scenes flow? How is the structure?
4) Is the writing clear?
5) Did you like the voice? The POV?
6) Is the writing clear?

Many crits -- especially from other writers -- focus on STYLE and TONE and NITPICKING GRAMMAR, rather than story-interest and structure and clarity. Note that style on my list is pretty far down.

Note that GRAMMAR isn't even on there.

FIRST the work must be CLEAR.


Then you can focus on style and address stuff like this, actual feedback I've received:

o Too dark
o Too flippant
o Boring
o I can't read stories about dead puppies (But they LIVE, I said to him)
o Has no place in this sort of book
o Not relevant
o Sounds too Baron Munchhausen
o Dude, this stinks. I couldn't read it. (my brother)

"But was it clear? Did it flow?" I asked my brother.



Because if your writing is CLEAR, then you can begin to focus on grabbing the reader and shaking them for a few hours.

- Eric

Silke said...

In response to Eric's post:

There is a difference between a critique and a beta read.
The nitpicky, grammar, sentence structure and style concentration has a place in a critique - but not in a beta read, which should concentrate on story elements. (Goal Motivation Conflict (GMC), to be exact.)
Though in essence I agree with you. :)

I did a beta read for one of my critique partners yesterday.
It was harsh. I essentially told her to scrap the first 50 pages and start over. It was boring. I forced myself through the first 25 pages and made a note there that I want to give up.
The story picked up later, and turned out very well, but those first 50 pages were just... rubbish.
I said so.
I got a defensive email - but I understand that. We went over it, and later last night, I got a revision of the first scene -- and it rocked.
Then I got an email saying "I just reread the beginning again and... you were right. Damn, it's boring! I'm so glad you kicked my butt."
That's what it's all about. It's hard to take (and I got those crits myself before) hard to swallow, sometimes hard to act on - but so worth it.
BUT... you have to be able to trust your critique partner's judgment.
I actually hate critiques which consist of one line, praising how well the story is written, how nuch they liked it... because it doesn't help me.
I especially hate it when I *know* something is wrong, but can't put my finger on it.
Give it to me straight, right between the peepers. I like that. :)
So there you have it, there are two sides to receiving a critique - those who like people getting tough, and those who don't.
(Of course, there is harsh, sometimes brutal, critiquing -- and there's pure malice. One does not equal the other.)