Handling a Bad Critique (Without Becoming Homicidal)

You’ve just written a bangin’ chapter for your novel. You’ve looked over it for typos and grammatical errors. You even waited, sleeping on it before reading again in the morning. Everything seems to be in order, so you put yourself out there.

And putting yourself out there feels a lot like walking naked into a busy city street, all your goods exposed to the speculative eyes of strangers passing by. Will you get appreciate glances, nods or raised thumbs?

Or will people sneer, whisper to their partner, and cackle?

You know it’s a vulnerable feeling, but maybe this isn’t your first rodeo. You know your privates chapter is kickass and people are going to love it.

But then the first critique comes in and… the critiquer hated it. Their suggestions amount to more words than you even submitted. 

“This style just isn’t doing it for me,” says one stranger.

“I’m used to a higher standard from you,” says someone who has been dutifully reading since chapter one.

“It’s very interesting,” comments a writer you look up to and admire.

Interesting. The dreaded, “It’s interesting.”

What now? How do you proceed from here?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve gone through a veritable hurricane of different emotions. One moment you’ve considered putting away the proverbial pen and paper for good this time. The next, it’s a minor setback, and you know you’ll do better next time. And soon, you’re considering whether or not to start the whole novel over from scratch. Maybe under a different pen name this time.

What you’re feeling is normal. And, better yet, a perfect opportunity to learn and grow as a writer.

Here are a few things to consider about the critiques themselves:

1. If the critiquer is a stranger popping in at the center of your novel, you can disregard most complaints about the chapter being confusing, or something being unbelievable, and probably any plot-related suggestions. They don’t know your work. They don’t know your life! Still, pay attention if they have anything to say about phrasing, grammar, etc. In these areas their concerns are as valid as any other.

2. If the critiquer is someone whose writing you adore and consider excellent, it’s a good time to take their negative critique to heart. What is it they don’t like? If they weren’t completely specific, ask. “I really love your writing, so I trust and value your opinion. Could you tell me more about what you didn’t like about that chapter?”

3. If it’s someone to whom you are close, be upbeat and polite, but annoying as hell. Send them a message if you need any clarification or advice. “I see what you’re saying about ____. What do you suggest I do?” Or, “What would make ___ more enjoyable for you to read?” And return the favor for them whenever they need help with their writing!

4. And, if it’s someone whose writing you have read and found to be… less than wonderful, take their advice with a grain of salt. Anyone is capable of giving bad advice, but the unseasoned writer is bound to give a little more of it. Some of the advice I have received over the years has been ludicrous. Such as, once, “Your story would be more interesting if the main character was female.” Even so, don’t stop reading. You may find a nugget of wisdom, yet. 

Everyone is worth hearing out, and remember; they took the time to read what you wrote. Respond to each and every one of them and let them know how much you appreciate them.

And never be above laughing (privately) as needed. One of my favorite scathing reviews comes from someone I apparently scorned when critiquing their work. I told them, as gently as possible, about some angsty clichés in their writing, and I don’t think they took it too well. The writer, a teenager I believe, returned the critiquing favor by giving me the harshest critique I’ve ever received. It was all a bit silly; they said my attempts to use vulgar language were “just not working” and that I should keep writing if it brought me joy, phrased with a veil of politeness while still screaming, “Don’t quit your day job.” There was no constructiveness in the critique.

Had this come out of the blue I might have taken more offense, but instead it served as a reminder that people’s writing is precious to them, and not everyone is ready to get a negative critique. 

So, if you do get burned, please do not passive aggressively assault the critiquer with another bad critique; especially when you have no intention of actually helping them improve.

Be kind and courteous instead, and take time to consider the critiques before you edit or rewrite your chapter. In the end, you only have to take the advice you think is best for your work. And sometimes, that means not changing a thing. 

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