So You've Just Had Your Heart Ripped Out
Critiques are some of the best and worst things for writers. Sitting down in front of someone so they can tell you what’s wrong with your work can be an emotionally exhausting process. It doesn’t have to be, though. Our initial reaction is a defensive one. I received feedback once on a story where the editor said I needed to make something more clear. But to me, the writer, it was perfectly clear and also there was a tiny subtextual clue for the reader, but they’d only get it if they were careful readers and had read it more than one time. My editor was telling me that I was making the reader do too much work and would lose their interest, but rather than present it in the abstract he told me exactly where the issue was. And that’s what a good critique does. It shows you what’s wrong. What a critique also tends to do is create a knee-jerk emotional reaction in us. It can range from feeling like your heart has been ripped out of your chest and you’re a hopeless failure to mild annoyance at being misunderstood or worse, casually read. In my experience reality is usually somewhere in the middle.
If you want to stand out as a writer you better be ready and willing to hear what’s wrong with your work.
You can’t truly sense the size and scope of a thing while standing inside it. Forest for the trees and all. This is true of your work as a writer. You aren’t qualified to know if it’s working. If you thought it wasn’t working you’d still be working on it. We are blind to our own work. We do not possess critical eyes to turn on our own work. We just don’t. We can try, and we all do when trying to critically analyze our own writing, but we’re too close and we can’t gain the necessary objectivity. This exact reason is why seasoned writers tell newer writers to find a writing group. You can’t write well in a vacuum. You must have as many uninvolved eyes on your work as possible. It’s the only way it ever improves. And as a writer improvement is what you strive for. It what makes some stand out and others go nowhere. If you want to stand out as a writer you better be ready and willing to hear what’s wrong with your work.
And this is where most people get their feelings hurt. Your work is what’s being critiqued, not your person. Not even your ability as a writer. A critique is a valuable tool for a writer. You have to be able to frame it that way in your head. Not only because it’s true, but because you’re going to get a lot of them as a writer and some of them will be fairly harsh (due or not). When writers critique other writers’ work they are, more often than not, going to be careful and thoughtful and point out areas that aren’t working for them. They’re going to do this because they want the same done to their work. Who as a writer doesn’t? There are always exceptions and you’ll find them and learn to dismiss unhelpful criticism, but more often than not what you’re getting will have value to your work even if you vehemently disagree with the reader.
Your work is what’s being critiqued, not your person.
The first thing to do when you get a critique is to read it. This seems obvious, but I mean really read it. Don’t skim through it, just read. Start to finish. If you disagree with something, then disagree and drop it, move on, get to the end, but read the critique. When you’re done your heart might be pounding, your face might be flushed, you might think unkind things about the person, a lot of reactions can happen, especially if you’re new to having your work scrutinized in such a way. Let them happen. Feel what you’re going to feel. It will pass. Give it the opportunity. It might take days the very first time. When it has, read the feedback again. You might still disagree, you might still feel flushed and have a pounding heart, but those feelings won’t be as sharp. Give them time to pass. Read it again. Do this until you can read the critique with no emotional reaction. Once you’re there you’ve gotten past your emotional brain and into your rational one and now you can truly digest the feedback with a clear mind. Is this a comfortable process? Not at first. But over time it gets easier and easier until you’re not really reacting emotionally to critiques at all. You’re able to rationally ingest them from the jump.
What about live workshops where the critiques are hashed out over the table? It’s not much different. Generally (at least in fiction workshops) the one being critiqued is under a ‘dome of silence’ while the ones who read and critiqued the piece discuss it. You, as the writer, can take notes, but you can’t argue or talk. Once that time is up the ‘dome’ is removed and you can address the points raised in the critique discussion. You will also receive a marked up manuscript or letter with the same points from each reader. Live workshops can be very lively and energetic, but those emotions can feel exactly the same when faced with a table full of people spiritedly arguing over what’s wrong with your story. Let those feelings wash over you, don’t let them get behind the wheel. It feels awful to be told we’ve done something wrong. But how can we fix something we’re not aware of? It will only feel awful for a little bit. And only at first. A fair price to becoming a better writer, no?
A tale of warning about reacting badly to feedback: I recently heard a story from a friend about a friend of his who isn’t a writer by trade but wrote a screenplay and entered it into a contest being judged by (unnamed) people in the movie industry. This friend’s screenplay didn’t win, but he got back good feedback on it. Valuable feedback, especially for a new screenplay writer. This person, rather than sit with and digest the feedback, let his ego take over and they wrote the judge back and argued that there was nothing wrong with the screenplay. The judge replied that the writer had unwittingly made a mistake. The judge thought the screenplay had real promise and that was the only reason he’d taken the time to offer notes at all. The judge signed this last email with his name—Ben Affleck.
It’s unlikely you’ll ever face stakes this high, but feedback is valuable regardless. Don’t let your ego blow your chances to improve.