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Monday, December 24, 2012

Five Ways Writers Should Approach Criticism

Perhaps the worst part of writing is the criticism that will come.  It's inevitable. Publish something and someone's bound to not like it. Social media only compounds the issue, empowering reviewers with star ratings, Likes, and Top Reviewer statuses. You invest blood, sweat, and tears in your novel only to have someone you've never met pan it to 1K-plus followers. So if you're planning on lasting very long in this writing gig, learning how to approach criticism is a necessary survival skill.

Statistically speaking, for every complaint a business receives, another 24 unsatisfied customers never call. They just stop frequenting that business. The same is true for writers. You will never hear from the majority of readers who have an issue with your stuff. Most of them will probably just tell their friends what they didn't like and, perhaps, opt out of reading anything else written by you.

Which is why criticism offered can be a valuable thing.

Several years ago, I was contacted by a multi-published author who'd seen that I was reading their current novel. They wanted my honest feedback. As one with no shortage of opinions, I graciously outlined what I felt were pros and cons of the book. My critique was very balanced and measured; anything but a harsh, one-sided appraisal. However, the author took it hard. They bemoaned their sales and became defensive. I felt bad. I mean, Why ask if you're not prepared for honest critique?

The takeaway from that exchange was not that writers can be thin-skinned, but that navigating criticism is essential to longevity. And mental health. It is not within my power to control how readers will respond to my writing. It IS within my power to control how I respond to their opinions and criticism.

So how should writers approach criticism? Here's 5 suggestions:  
 

ONE: Appreciate those who take time with your book and who write a review or offer a critique – Treat criticism as a gift. I know, that's hard. But for every criticism you receive there's probably a dozen other readers who felt the same way. Even if you feel the criticism is unfair or mean, give the reviewer points for investing some of their precious time to read your novel and to write a review. Hopefully, no one's forced them to do either. Be thankful, at the least, for the time (and money), they spent on you.

TWO: Make it easy for people to offer suggestions and observations to you in the future. One way to do this is to not mope around, feel sorry for yourself, get defensive, or make the individual who offered their opinion feel guilty. It’s not easy to correspond with folks who think your book is flawed or slow or a waste of time.  Nevertheless, grit your teeth and thank them. One customer research firm found that customers who complained and their complaint was honored by the business, are up to 8% more loyal than if they had no problem at all. In other words, you may actually win some fans by not blowing off someone's criticism.

THREE: Even if a criticism seems inaccurate or is offered poorly, act like there’s some truth to it. In fact, there probably is! We call them "blind spots" for a reason. Every author has them. Don't be sidetracked by a reviewer's snark or poor choice of words. Try to see past the two-stars to the essence of the dislike. Sure, you don't have to agree with it. Neither do you have to be brought down by immature feedback. And unless you believe you and your story are perfect (see point number Five), there may be something instructive in the criticism that can, if applied, ultimately make you a better writer

FOUR: Discard what you can't use... without holding grudges. We writers have long memories, often in the worst ways. We keep mental ledgers of critical things written and said about our stories. This is cancerous! More than one novelist has failed to appreciate positive reviews given because they're too busy stewing over negative ones. If, after thoughtful, dispassionate consideration of some criticism rendered, you conclude it is without merit... can it! It's hard enough cranking out good stories on a regular basis. Why make the process more difficult? Some criticism belongs in the trash can, not the compost bin.

FIVE: Remember, you’re not perfect yet; there's always room to grow. I hate to break it to you, but sometimes your writing SHOULD be criticized. There's only one Man who walked on water. And last I checked, even He was criticized. A good rule to follow: When praised, don't crow; When criticized, don't croak. (Perhaps if we crowed less about our successes, we'd croak less often when criticized.) Even if you're criticized unjustly for something, you could be criticized justly for others.

Criticism is an inevitable part of writing. No author is immune from it. Which is why learning HOW to approach and handle criticism is so important. It is not within your power to control how readers will respond to your writing. It IS within your power to control how you respond to their opinions and criticism.

Question: What are some other ways that writers can constructively approach criticism?

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Mike Duran is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket, and is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike's novels include The TellingThe Resurrection, an ebook novella, Winterland, and his newly released short story anthology Subterranea  You can visit his website at www.mikeduran.com.

7 comments:

Kat Heckenbach said...

I'd say the biggest thing an author can do is *step away* for a day or two before responding. Don't just knee-jerk react. I've given some critiques before that were responded to immediately with defensiveness. And I admit I've responded to reviewers without giving enough time to process their comments and my response, let's say, had an edge :P.

What I've found is that when I *go back* and look at those same reviews later, I see a lot of good things. When we first view a critique, generally what stands out the most is the BIG RED PEN marks. But when you step back and gain some perspective the positive comments have time to come forward, and the negative ones don't seem so daunting.

Morgan L. Busse said...

Great post. It is definitely hard to navigate criticism, especially when it seems people are more opt to point out what is bad rather than what is good. Criticism brings a chance to grow and to be gracious.

Keanan Brand said...

Good advice!

I've been on both sides of this--giving critiques, and receiving them--and neither are pleasant. I take no joy in telling a fellow writer where he's failed, but I have an obligation to be honest (and kind) if I expect anyone to be honest in critiquing my work.

There's implied respect in honesty. If we could view criticism in that light, perhaps we'd be more apt to embrace it.

thequietpen said...

Good words, though hard to take. In the end though, I'm grateful for criticism as well. It's better than the "nice friends" who don't want to hurt my feelings. I'd rather my feelings be a bit beat-up than submit something awful to a magazine or publishing house.

Julie Garmon said...

Good stuff! And if our readers/editors/critique partners picks up that we're ultra sensitive, they won't tell us the truth. Horrors!!

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Great post and some great thoughts in the comments, too. Yes, distance from the crits does work wonders. Bottom line is that if you plan to work with an editor at ANY POINT in the writing process, you have to be ready to accept and incorporate criticism. Take the good advice and jettison the stuff that won't strengthen your vision for your book.

Katherine Scott Jones said...

Excellent ideas. Thank you.