You’re ready to put your work out into the world. Whether you’re sending it to your editor or beta readers, uploading it to a writing platform, or finally publishing it, this is a big step. Once your manuscript is out there, it’s open to criticism. Some of it you will have asked for, and some of it will be totally unsolicited. Some criticism will be helpful, some useless, and some downright mean.
We all want to become better writers. I really hope my first novel isn’t the best thing I’ll ever write. With each new project, we want to improve our craft and improve as storytellers, and part of that process means opening ourselves to criticism. But how do we sort through the noise? How do we determine what’s constructive and what’s personal opinion? When do we know we’ve got a lot of work still left to do, and when do we know our story is in the best shape we can make it? Here are some tips to help:
Where are you in the process?
- If you’ve just finished a first draft, be prepared to revise. No one gets away without editing! Plan to sort through the feedback and incorporate anything valuable into your revisions.
- If you’ve already published the work, and the manuscript has been through an extensive editing process, don’t read the bad reviews. My personal policy is to read three-star reviews and above. Not everyone will like my story, and that’s okay. I don’t need to hear about it. On the other hand, I am interested is the overall response to my novel. There may be something that bothered enough of my readers for me to take notice. If they’ve given the work three or more stars, they liked it, and their opinions, collectively, may help me with future writing.
What should you look for in the feedback you’ve received?
- Pay attention to things you hear more than once. Is there a particular place in the plot that just doesn’t ring true for readers? Are they confused by something? The reader experience matters, and early feedback will help you gauge it. If several people are reacting the same way to something, it’s worth fixing.
- Are readers responding to something in a way you didn’t intend? I often tell the story about the male protagonist in my first novel. He was my hero, and half my early readers didn’t like him! My writing didn’t translate into an appropriate reader experience. That reader experience matters, and early feedback will help you gauge it.
Whose opinion is it?
- My editor’s opinion always counts. She’s a professional. I trust her judgment. Every novel or short story we’ve worked on together has been better for her input. If she says something needs fixing, ninety-nine percent of the time I fix it.
- Trusted beta readers can be helpful. I only have a few beta readers, and they fall into one of three categories: widely-read readers who can give coherent feedback, fellow writers who enjoy my genre, and subject matter experts. When I send them a manuscript, I ask for very specific feedback. For example: Are there places where the story drags and you find yourself flipping pages? How do you feel about the main characters? Are you ever confused? Is the end satisfying? I pay attention to their answers.
Does the criticism ring true for you?
- Often times I know the weak spots in my manuscript before I receive any feedback at all. With my last book, I knew the first three chapters weren’t very compelling, and of course, my editor agreed!
- If you think it will make your story better, fix it. Maybe it’s a plot point that’s too confusing, or a character who needs more development. Whatever the case, if you, and/or enough critics think this needs work to make it better, then do the work!
- Ignore the nasty. My favorite bad review, before I swore off reading bad reviews, said my book was “as boring as a bowl of tepid oatmeal.” My first book may be a lot of things, but I’m pretty sure boring isn’t one of them! Another reader thought I must be using Disney names for my characters. Um. No. Some commentary is totally useless or just plain old nasty. See it for what it is and ignore it.
It’s hard to have your work critiqued, whether you’re writing your first novel or your tenth. But by the time we’ve finished drafting our manuscript, we’re too close to see what’s wrong with it. Remember, critiques should identify the rough spots in your work, not tell you how to fix them. That’s for you to decide. When sorting through criticism, consider where you are in the writing process, who is giving you feedback, and if that feedback will improve your story. Constructive criticism is part of the writing process, so use your own best judgement and embrace it!