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Monday, January 10, 2011

Cool Down Time: Handling Criticism Effectively

My dad had a favorite saying that I'm sure most parents have in their arsenal: "Think before you speak or act." I say the same thing to my own children. I also say it to myself-- every single time I receive a critique of my writing.

Writing is personal, but if you are pursuing publication, it's important to realize it is also a professional craft and a commercial endeavor. Sometimes, pushing aside feelings is essential in order to succeed.

You've labored on a project that obviously is dear to your heart or you would not have invested the time and effort to write it. Then, you turn it over to someone who does not hold it dear. Sometimes they don't even like it. The thing I always keep in mind is that just because someone doesn't like what I have written, it doesn't mean they don't like me. It is totally separate. Maintaining this separation is difficult for some writers.

Here is my strategy for handling critique.

1. Read the critique notes carefully without responding at first. Send a brief thank you note to let them know you received their suggestions. Nothing specific. Same with oral critique in a live critique group. Listen. Really listen. Say nothing. When you have heard them out, thank them for their suggestions. If you are unclear on a point they made, ask questions without any explanations or defensiveness.

Do not explain why they didn't like it or "get" it. If they were confused, perhaps it is a valid point. As a writer, I know exactly what I mean. If the reader doesn't get it, it is probably my fault.

2.  Give the information time to cure and your emotions time to cool down. This is the most important part. When I receive revision suggestions from my critique partners, agent, or editors, I read them several times and then set them aside for at least 72 hours before I respond or begin revising. (Of course, I send an immediate "Got it. Thanks!" but nothing else.)

This curing time enables me to recover from my initial reaction, which is always more dramatic than necessary. After 72 hours, I've had time to process the suggestions logically, rather than react emotionally.

My editor for Shattered Souls said that she has a client who puts the letter in the freezer after reading it so that it isn't sitting out. After a few days, she pulls it out of the freezer and is ready to go. Both letter and author have had a "cool down" period (the letter, literally).

I don't have to lock my revision letters out of view, but I do keep myself from responding or making changes right away.

3.  Consider the source.  Enough said, probably, but I'll elaborate. Who gave you the critique? Is this the first time you have received suggestions from this person? What is his or her professional writing status: new writer, established writer, published author, published author in your genre, agent, editor?  The way you handle your response should be the same, regardless (calm, genuine gratitude), but the weight you give to the suggestions will be different.

4.  Decide what fits your vision for the project and what is necessary to meet your professional goals. You don't have to make every change, even for your publisher, but your decisions should be logic-based and not emotion-based. Once again, as a writer, it's hard to step back sometimes and be objective about our "babies." I've made quite a few changes at my editor's request that I didn't object to, but didn't wholeheartedly buy into either.  After making the changes, I realized how brilliant the suggestions were--so for me, there is a bit of a cool off even after the changes are made.

5.  After cooling down and making the changes that resonate with you, send another genuine thank you. You don't need to explain why you didn't make all of the changes (Unless it is your agent or editor, then sometimes it's necessary).  You don't need to discuss the changes in-depth. I try to thank critique partners and beta readers for specific suggestions I found most helpful. Personalizing it makes the person who took the time to read and remark on my project feel the time spent on me wasn't misplaced or unappreciated.

I'm sure there are folks who can jump right in without a negative reaction to criticism, but most writers aren't like that. Those words in that manuscript came from deep inside and are personal. So, give yourself a cool down period. Rushing into revisions or reacting immediately when you feel defensive will not only make your revisions less effective, it will potentially alienate you from the very people trying to help you become a better writer.

Wishing everyone a fabulous week.



Shakespeare said...

All great suggestions.

If one is new to writing, though, one may have a very hard time EVER taking criticism constructively, unless one tries, time and again, to get it.

Without criticism, one will never know whether one has written a communicative and meaningful piece for someone else. My writing, in the end, is meant to move beyond my own sphere and reach readers. Criticism is the best way for me to test how well that is working.

Great post...

Mary Lindsey said...

Thanks, Shakespeare. It IS hard, veteran and newbie alike.

You are so right about criticism being essential to test the effectiveness of your work.

Beth said...

I must be weird, because I love constructive criticism. : )
As long as the person is meaning to be helpful, and not mean, I love hearing it.
It can only make my writing better.

kimysworld said...

I am with Beth. I was very lucky to have my sister act as my first beta. She was very harsh. It taught me to take it for what it is meant to be - help to improve my ms. When I get chapters back from my fabulous betas, I open my documents up right away and make most of the changes because they both make great points. I never take it personally. I know they want to help me as much as I try to help them. I also have a day job that forced me to let things drop and not take others words personally. Great post. I hope all writers, especially newbies like me, can find a great beta or crit partner and learn the value of such a precious thing!

Mary Lindsey said...

Thanks for the comments, Beth and Kimysworld. Kudos for fabulous attitudes. So essential in this business.

marissameyer said...

Great post, Mary, and good timing as I just received my first revision letter from my editor last week! It can be so hard not to get emotional and defensive over our writing, but for me I've found it helps to remember that everyone wants the book to be as strong and successful as possible, particularly your agent and editor who are also professionally invested in it.

Thanks for the sound advice. I'm already feeling more confident about getting started on these changes!

Mary Lindsey said...

Congrats on your sale, Marissa! CINDER sounds fantastic. Best of luck with your revisions. I look forward to following your success.

traceybaptiste said...

Excellent post.
I tend to be very emotional about my work, but I try to keep that in private. I will complain to my husband and friends, but to the person giving the critique, I only say "thank you" until I've had a chance to simmer down. The result is that people you're working with (editors/agents) regard you as a professional. This is very important for your career because if anyone perceives you as being difficult, it can work against you.

Another good idea for an oral critique is to write down as much of what the person is saying as you can. If I have a strong reaction to something, I often can't remember exactly what the person said, so what they're trying to help me with might be lost.

That's if you're a little over-emotional like I am. :)

Mary Lindsey said...

Tracy, I'm not so sure what you are describing is over-emotional necessarily. Lots of writers feel this way.

Sounds like you have it under control. :)

Tara McClendon said...

Cooling down is so essential. I always allow myself time to vent and rant and rave before I respond (for challenging crits). After I let a critique sit for a bit, I always start any comment with a thank you.

Mary Lindsey said...

Thanks for the comment, Tara. Excellent tactic.

Lois D. Brown said...

Nice job. I completely agree.