Criticism is a necessary, but uncomfortable, part of the writer’s life. In order to improve your craft, you will need to subject your work to criticism. You’ll need to find out what your strengths and weaknesses are. If you want to be published, you’ll have to cope with rejections as you seek an agent or a publisher. And once you finally reach the promised land, there will be reviews to bring you back down to Earth. So how do you deal with writing criticism?
Constructive or Nonconstructive Criticism?
The first thing to distinguish is between constructive and nonconstructive criticism. If you’re published (self-published, traditional, or hybrid), your work will get reviewed in public, like on Goodreads and other places. This is reader feedback, not for you, but for other readers. This isn’t constructive criticism—even if it’s flattering. This is the world having a one-way conversation about how they received your work. Your book is published; none of this feedback will help you at this point. Advice? Unless you’re particularly thick-skinned, ignore it. Above all: don’t clap back. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion (even if it’s wrong, lol).
Constructive criticism comes from people who want to see your work improve. Constructive criticism is feedback that you could possibly use to make your novel better. These are comments that are directed at your work, not you. Constructive criticism isn’t personal, even if it’s hard to hear that your baby still needs work. Let’s talk more about constructive criticism.
What is Useful Criticism?
Ultimately, the writer makes the final decision about what works in his/her book. However, we writers get blind spots about our writing. The personality of our main character might be perfectly clear in our own minds, but it could not necessarily be translating to paper. We might be planting billboards in our twisty plot and not realize it. Our dialogue could be stilted, our heroine unlikable…there are countless issues that we might be unable to see. A skilled editor or critique partner could reveal these truths before the manuscript is rejected.
However, just because a critique partner doesn’t like something you wrote doesn’t mean they are correct. That’s just one opinion. And while you want to be open to constructive criticism, you also don’t want to blow in the wind. If you have a vision and someone else doesn’t get it, you’ve got to know when to press on or reconsider. But how?
Law of Large Numbers
Generally speaking, if more than one trusted reader has a problem with an element of the story, you might have an issue. Often, the law of large numbers applies. If everyone thinks your main character is one-dimensional and boring…well…guess what? Your main character? You should have a look at him again.
This is why I think it’s useful to seek the advice of more than one person, especially if the feedback you receive is unexpected. Let’s say you love that main character and thought they were the most dynamic person you’ve ever written about. If your critique partner still thinks that character is boring, get a second opinion. She could be the only one who was struck that way.
Not All Critiques are Created Equal
This is something you’ll have to learn through trial and error. Some critique partners don’t want to hurt your feelings. Others aren’t close readers. Still others might be bad editors. Some have good ideas but can’t express them effectively to you. The best advice will be from a professional in the industry who can really help you improve (whether you pay for the services of an editor or seek it through a conference, etc). The next best is from someone who’s got a strong sense of what makes a good story. You might have to kiss a few frogs in this process.
My final thoughts on criticism are that you shouldn’t be afraid of it if you seek it and it’s constructive. We all need feedback. There are always areas of our work to improve. Just realize that it might hurt a little to find that not everyone thinks your baby is adorable. It’s okay. Your precious manuscript can get better with a good polish. Don’t let writing criticism get you down. Remember: you’ve come this far. You wrote an entire book, for heaven’s sake. What are a few more revisions going to hurt?