You don’t know what you’re talking about. (Or, how to handle criticism.)

I was telling a friend the other day that you have to be a little bit arrogant to make it as a writer. Not a lot arrogant (the world doesn’t need more of those), but at least a little. It’s true: with the amount of rejection writers face, you’ve got to have the cajones to keep putting yourself out there.

Being a writer is not for the faint of heart.

But what if it’s not just rejection? What if it’s criticism?

I’m the first one to admit, I’m a competitive person. When I was in high school, if I wasn’t the first student to finish a test, I’d get upset. I went to an all-girls high school, but if it had been co-ed, I would have been one of those girls crusading to do everything the boys could do. Not because I have any desire to play football (as if), but because I love competition.

So when you’re competitive, you’re doing what you love (writing), and someone says, “Yeah, this part right here, it’s just not working for me,” that hurts.

There are a lot of levels to this.

Trust.
If Tamar (my agent) tells me something’s not working, then I know it’s not working. I trust her implicitly. When I was outlining my sequel, I wanted to have two brothers fall in love with the same girl, thinking it would create conflict between them. She shot that down, and I’m so glad she did, because now the conflict will be more about the brothers growing apart as one finds a relationship, and it doesn’t feel as cheap-and-easy as the first idea did. It’s more subtle, but in the end, I think it’s going to be a lot more powerful.

If my husband tells me something’s not working, I take it with a grain of salt. (Sorry, honey.) Yes, I trust him, and yes, I value his opinion, but he doesn’t read YA, and he doesn’t understand the craft of writing. If he reads a scene and says, “Hon, no guy would ever say that to another dude,” then I know I need to make a change. But if he says, “Why can’t you just add a monster?” (or some completely random guy thing), then I know to smile and nod and keep on writing my way.

If a friend tells me something’s not working, I slow down and think about it. 

Here’s where a lot of people get tripped up, I think. If the person is truly a friend, it’s easy to get offended. You want your friends to love every word you write. It’s very, VERY hard to accept criticism from people you love. By nature, we want to impress our friends and family. We want them to think we’re great writers. It’s a blow to the ego to hear something didn’t work. Do you know how hard it was to tell my family that my first novel didn’t sell, and now we’re on to the next one? You know the looks. The ones that say, “Maybe Brigid isn’t a good writer after all. Aw. What a cute little hobby. She thinks she can write.” Here’s where that little bit of arrogance comes in handy. Those looks are enough to make you curl up and cry.

If a critique partner (or a random beta reader) tells me something’s not working, I have to trust my gut.

I’ve been doing a lot of beta reading lately. I think I’ve looked at 10 manuscripts over the last two weeks. (No, I don’t have much of a social life. Why do you ask?) I throw my advice out there, for what it’s worth, and if the person wants to take it, great. If they don’t, that’s completely fine, too. I’m okay either way.

But when critique partners tell you something isn’t working, you really have to step back and see if there’s some merit. Complete strangers are going to be the most honest. Conversely, when it’s a complete stranger, that’s when the knee-jerk reaction of “This lady doesn’t know what she’s talking about” starts to kick in.

Control the knee-jerk. Control it. Step back and listen. Since this person is a complete stranger, I always have to remind myself that it’s not a personal attack. They don’t know me! Why would they spend hours going through my manuscript just to tell me off? But since it’s writing, it’s personal, and it hurts.

I always read my crits in two pieces if they’re coming from a complete stranger. First, I read through all the comments, let my blood pressure fly off the meter, and then close the file and have a cup of coffee. But then later, I start to think about the comments. Maybe she was right, and the hero was a little too wussy right there. Maybe he had a point, that I needed a little more oomph to that fight scene. Maybe this character is a complete bitch, and I just didn’t see how she was coming across.

Here are my rules for handling criticism:

1) Do the gut check.

This is absolutely the number one rule. If your initial reaction is to reject that idea, but you have a feeling in the back of your head that it’s right, it’s probably right. With the first novel, the one that landed me an agent, people kept telling me that it took too long to get to the action. I needed to condense the first five chapters. I didn’t want to do that — I loved those chapters. But I had a feeling in the back of my head that they were right, that I was going to need to fix them.

When I signed with Tamar? I had to condense them.

This works the other way too. If someone recommends a change that comes out of left field, let it roll off your back. 

2) If it’s a matter of clarity, fix it.

No matter what. If one person trips over your phrasing, someone else will. This is such an easy place to dig in your heels and refuse to fix it. (“What kind of idiot doesn’t know that I’m being funny?”) But it’s also a silly place to dig in your heels. Rephrase. My issues of clarity always get fixed, no matter who’s criticizing.

3) Consider the source.

This is a tough one, and it goes along with the gut check. Like I said above, when my husband reads my stuff, I know where he’s coming from. When a fellow writer reads my stuff, I know where they’re coming from. But you never know if someone is having a bad day, or if they have a bone to pick or a chip on their shoulder. Take criticism with a grain of salt.

4) Say thank you.

If someone gives you their time, appreciate it. Even if they’re an idiot. It’s still their time, not yours. (All my recent beta partners have been awesome. But some people aren’t so lucky, so I had to throw this out there.)

5) Don’t be afraid to discuss!

When I send my critiques out, I always tell people I’m happy to talk out the changes I recommended. I love discussing what’s working (and what’s not) and brainstorming new ideas. It’s rare that people want to discuss anything, which is a shame. I never critique to be cruel or mean, and if an idea isn’t working, I’m happy to learn where the writer is coming from, and maybe brainstorm ideas to make the story stronger. I love writing, and I love the whole process. I’m always happy to throw ideas back and forth. It’s one of my favorite parts of this whole writing gig.

How about you guys? I know there are thousands of writers out there, cringing from criticism. Do you have any tips for how to handle it?

4 thoughts on “You don’t know what you’re talking about. (Or, how to handle criticism.)

  1. This is a great post–it’s important to be discriminating in the face of crit, but I’m often surprised at how much better my work is when I carefully consider each suggestion. Not that I always change it–depends on the source–but I always take a breath and think about it.

  2. Flawless points! I tend to put a lot more faith in complete strangers, even after checking my gut, and especially if they read/like a lot of YA. It’s all about subjective/objective, and the balance between the two.

    And at the end of the day, of course, we still have to like what we wrote and what we’re left with.

  3. Thanks, guys! I’m so glad you liked it. Sorry to track back so late — the office where I work blocks blogger, so sometimes I come back to comments a few days behind!

    And Becky, there’s no blog stalking! 🙂 Take your coat off and stay awhile!

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