Writers in the Storm

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January 21, 2015

Digesting Criticism & What To Do Next

Heather Webb

Heather Webb SmilingYou’ve been DYING to hear back from that critique partner, editor, agent, friend. You stalk your inbox. When the document finally arrives, you break into a sweat. What if they HATED everything? Then you think, naaah. That’s not possible. Your pages are so shiny you’ve gotta wear shades just to read them. So you open your manuscript with confidence only to find the page is bleeding, okay, SPURTING red ink. How do you deal with the mountain of criticism?

Most of us fall into one of these four categories:

If you’re this writer, you implode when you receive feedback. You’re paralyzed for days, weeks even, because you’re nothing but a phony anyway–the one who barely calls themselves a “Writer”. You don’t have any talent and now the critique has just proven that. You have a meltdown (possibly in public, though let’s hope not).

You ponder the comments for twenty-four seconds and then pull on your revision cape and x-ray grammar mask. You attack your manuscript with force, adapting everything. The critiquer must be absolutely dead on, right? You thank your reader and tell them they’re the smartest person on the planet. Your savior!

You’re insulted by the comments. WTF does this person know about your research, your characters, your method of madness? What do they even know about writing? Nothing! Not only that, but they don’t even have the experience you do. You tell that ingrate how massively intelligent you are, how stupid they are. You even consider degrading their reputation all over the internet so that others won’t be foolish enough to seek their help. (I doubt anyone will admit to being an anger-mongering infidel, but denial ain’t a river in Egypt.)

You read the feedback and calmly digest it. It flows over you, through you, and the important pieces stick to your subconscious. You digest it for as much time as it takes and make notes on how to fix the issues. Next you attack the draft with newfound wisdom and inspiration. You send thanks to your beta reader and offer something in return. GAME ON.

Recognize yourself in any of these categories? Once you know your strengths and weaknesses, you may better be able to shape and reshape the kind of writer you’d like to be. Knowledge is power. So what do you do with that knowledge?


  1. GROW A THICK SKIN. It doesn’t matter how you process feedback, this is essential in the biz. Period.
  2. TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. Don’t assume you’re inferior and that your critiquer knows everything. It’s your book, your characters, and your style after all. On the flip side, don’t disregard advice entirely just because you think someone doesn’t “get you”. There is ALWAYS something to learn. Always. Even if you’re Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or Phillipa Gregory. If nothing else, the feedback sheds light on how the manuscript affects readers.
  3. EMBRACE YOUR IDIOSYNCRACIES, but aim high! Work toward THE YODA. Ultimately it will make the writing and editing process more enjoyable.
  4. LET IT MARINATE Give yourself proper digesting time—especially if there’s quite a bit of feedback to work through. Take on one piece at a time to avoid becoming overwhelmed. You will get there. You’ll shape your novel into something beautiful, with one word at a time.
  5. TREAT CRITIQUERS WITH RESPECT. This is the golden rule. Someone has just spent hours of their time, paid or not, on your work. Their goal is to help YOU, the writer, improve both the story and your skills–not make you feel lousy. Don’t lash out, even if the feedback you receive is harsh. Show gratitude for their effort and be professional. You never know who that writer/editor/agent knows. The last thing you want to do is damage your reputation, thus your ability to sell books, because you were a hot head one day. Publishing is a small world, after all.

Tell us how you dealt with criticism and you'll be entered to win a signed copy of Heather's newest release, RODIN'S LOVER.

About Heather

Cover 1- hdHeather Webb writes historical novels for Penguin and HarperCollins,which have been translated to three languages and have been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Cosmopolitan magazine, France magazine, and Reuters News Book Talk. BECOMING JOSEPHINE follows the life and times of Josephine Bonaparte set to the backdrop of the French Revolution, and RODIN’S LOVER releasing Jan 27th, chronicles the passionate and tragic story of Camille Claudel, sculptor, collaborator, and lover to the famed Auguste Rodin. A FALL OF POPPIES releases in 2016. Heather is also a freelance editor and contributor to award-winning writing sites WriterUnboxed.com and RomanceUniversity.org. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.


55 comments on “Digesting Criticism & What To Do Next”

  1. "If nothing else, the feedback sheds light on how the manuscript affects readers." --- I think this may be my favorite takeaway from your post.

    Self-doubt and insecurity plague me, but the hardest thing for me to digest is when someone else "misinterprets" what I've written (LOL). I scratch my head and think "how did they get (or not get) THAT from what I wrote?" It usually takes me 24-48 hours to accept the fact that what I've actually written on the page may not match what is in my head. Guess that makes me a hybrid of the self-deprecating sniveler and the Yoda!

    Nice post. Great things to consider both when critiquing and being critiqued.

    PS Congrats on all the outstanding feedback on your upcoming release. Best of luck with it!

    1. I know what you mean, Jamie. I feel myself frustrated by that very thing sometimes. I think it's important to keep perspective--every reader brings their own set of experiences and emotional lens to a book so the way they view the characters, tone, and even the plot, will vary greatly. Still, it can be tough to see our messages misconstrued.

      The self-doubt...it's a very horrible, yet typical, sadly, part of being in the publishing world. Cling to those who hold you up! And focus on your love for writing--not the end result. It's really all that matters in the end.

  2. Excellent post, Heather! I think if all of us were brutally honest, we'd admit to being all those at one point or another (on the inside).

    We could also give you names of those we've seen do this on the outside!

    I think we move through the stages as we grow, and develop that thick skin. It's a process.

    Thanks for the wisdom. Onward!

    1. Thanks, Laura! Yes, I agree. We move through all of these phases at one time or another, if not from betas, from reviewers. I know my thick skin has grown over time. With book two out in the world soon, and I'm finding I'm not near as spastic and vulnerable as the first. Thank goodness for that.

  3. Great article! I loved this and I could relate: So you open your manuscript with confidence only to find the page is bleeding, okay, SPURTING red ink. How do you deal with the mountain of criticism?

    It would be awesome if every word I wrote was pure gold, but that isn't reality. I press through any critique or edit suggestion, even if it stings. Sure, I may have a face-scrunching-wince here and there, but I remind myself I'm on the receiving end of a reader's viewpoint. I give each suggestion careful consideration, and my novel is better for it too. Thank you for this piece.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Beth. It is difficult to see all that's "wrong" with our pages at first, but ultimately it's better to receive it from a beta than a reviewer. Those comments sting infinitely worse. You're so right--our novels are better for the feedback. 🙂

  4. Haha, these are all STAGES, right? I mean, I can go through all of them with Yoda being the final self-actualization of receptive criticism? I know I scan comments quickly at first, just to get it all over with and develop an overall impression. Then I find I can let it marinate and be much more yoda-like as I go back to it.

    (BTW, I wonder if we should use the expression "anger-mongering infidel" so lightheartedly these days?)

    1. I also read through comments quickly, Janet. I usually find that there are a couple of points that stick in my mind. Then when I go back and read with my Yoda glasses, those are the things that become my "a ha" moments.

    2. They are like stages, aren't they? LOL. Though I rarely get angry these days. My betas are my saviors! Like you, I scan quickly and then reread after some digestion time.

    1. I agree on the Yoda type ... may just have to print out a picture of him and put it above my computer. 🙂

      Thanks for the share, Rosie!

  5. I'm happy to report I am no longer a newbie writer, a.k.a proactive superhero, taking all critiques as law. And it's great for all of us to aim to be a Yoda, right? My favorite part of this post was that it helped me consider how my feedback could impact other writers--reminding me to be gentle, helpful and encouraging, even as I make suggestions for improvement. Thanks, Heather! Congragulations too--I can't wait for your release! 😀

  6. This is funny but oh-so-true. I've always been a strong believer that constructive criticism helps you be a better writer. Without it, you'll never know what you're doing wrong. I'm the type who usually mutters to myself a bit (in private!) and then gets down to work and quickly discovers that the other person is right and I do a lot of forehead-slapping at myself.

  7. Hey Heather, I hate to critique you, but having read you, I know what a pro, what a shining star you are. You say we fall into one of the three categories, but there are four. But hey, wait, maybe you mean we each get three of the four - is that right? Because I'm sort of the Sybil of critiqued writers, flopping from one of the top three, sometimes changing hour by hour, until (hopefully) reaching a sulkier, buried-grudge-holding and less profound version of Yoda.

    Thanks for the advice. I'm a few weeks from sending a draft to be read. Great timing! Wishing you the best for the upcoming release. Looking forward to the read!

    1. I'm staring at the big red circle around "Send to betas" at the end of the month and already whimpering. We can start a club for sulky Yodas. 🙂

      1. I love that idea, Orly! The Sulky Yodas, we shall be. 🙂
        Our new motto: Determined to succeed, we are, but brood about it along the way, we shall.

        Wishing you much insight and growth from your experience with your betas!

    2. DOH. Yep, a typo. I found another as well in my bio, but WHAT A MONTH it has been. Whirlwind-o-rama of promo. Maybe I need a Vaughn Roycroft to beta my posts. 😉

      And Sulky Yodas, Orly? HA!!!! Right on.

      1. Going to fix the typos!
        Vaughn, are you for hire? Looks like Heather and I could both use you. 🙂

  8. I hate to admit it, but I am "THE SELF-DEPRECATING SNIVELER" ... I definitely need to thicken my skin as I grow into this whole writing thing! Thanks for sharing; God bless!

    1. Hang in there, sniveler! As you continue to grow, your skin will thicken. 🙂 You want your books to be as beautiful and brilliant as possible. Soon enough you'll adore your critiquers for helping you make your books stronger.

  9. Good advice. I see a bit of myself in all of the categories, but always striving for the Yoda!

  10. Having just gotten a crit back on my MS, I can admit to being caught between the sniveler and the superhero at first with her general comments so I purposefully didn't look at the detailed ones for a couple days. By taking a little breather before I read the inline comments, I think I'm being a little more objective about what truly needs to be changed and I'm not as overwhelmed. I do have another person looking at the MS so I'm making notes and waiting to see where the crits agree before I cut or add too much.

    1. Excellent process, Melissa. I do the same. If more than one beta picks up on something in particular, I know I have an issue and go from there. Thanks for your comment.

  11. Hi Heather! This was a timely article for me as I'm dealing with revisions from my editor. I got a kick out your Yoda example. Thanks for the perspective.
    Also I want to mention I enjoyed your novel, Becoming Josephine. Fabulous research and it was superbly written.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Kathleen! 🙂 Compliments (on the flip side of criticisms) never get old! Good luck with your edits. I'm sure you'll rock them!

  12. I have discovered two, perhaps three, things.

    1. Unless I have put everything I want to into the manuscript I send out, even the gentlest feedback will make me feel defensive. This is something I realized about myself some years ago. When it kept happening, I sat down and reflected on why I felt like that. And I realized it was because I hadn't my vision wasn't yet on the page. Once it was, I had very little if any problems with feedback. Because I was on the page, not still hidden behind it. It's hard to explain exactly how this feels--knowing when I'm ready and when I'm not--but I am, I am about as objective as I can be in terms of listening to what works and what doesn't without taking it personally. And, in many ways, knowing what is important to take on board and what is someone else's subjective opinion that doesn't match what I'm trying to do.

    2. Being direct in life, I am also direct in feedback. But I do my very best to be kind. Being direct doesn't mean being ruthless. I understand how difficult it is to put oneself on the page, but someone trusted my opinion enough to share their work with me. And I am going to do my best to help them with whatever strengths they're asking me to apply to their work. The main thing I look for is what of the writer's vision does not yet appear in the work. All the great things that are already present speak for themselves. I acknowledge those upfront, and end with something encouraging. In the middle, however, I try to give the writer exactly what they asked from me--logic, continuity, plot holes, credibility, overall impression, whatever. My friend Julie Lamana said her editor at Chronicle calls this the sandwich critique, where the real benefit of the sandwich is the stuff in the middle.

    3. I never give my work to someone I don't trust, meaning, someone who doesn't understands what I'm trying to do, even if I admire their work, who doesn't know me well as a person or how that reflects in my writing in terms of what I am attempting to explore. I'm speaking here about beta readers not sending it out to agents or editors I may not know.

    1. Hi Sevigne!

      1. I know precisely what you mean. You want to have put your best foot forward before being told what's missing...especially if you know it's lacking something. I'm kind of in the same boat, here.

      2. I am also the same way as a critiquer. I try to be gentle and encouraging, but very honest. What's the point in spending so much time with someone's work if we don't want to help them improve?

      3. Yes, I wouldn't either. Our writing is so very personal and special to us. We want someone who will do just what I mentioned in number 2--be honest yet gentle.

      Thank you for your comments! Always insightful and thought-provoking.

    2. Sevigne - I have a version of your #1. I THINK I got it down on the page. When I get feedback about, 'Oh, your heroine should be feeling, X right now!' I look at it, and think, 'Well, duh, didn't you read it? Of course she's feeling X!' But what I read over what is actually ON THE PAGE, I see that most of it stayed in my head, and the 'duh' is on me.

      And I want in the 'Sulky Yodas Club', too!

      1. I have a feeling that knowing when you're "done" with the work is something that comes with increased awareness of oneself as a writer. As Harry Connick, Jr., said to a contestant on American Idol last night, "Some things about oneself as a singer (in this case writer) take time to discover." For me, it's a very specific feeling, even though I can't describe it, exactly. The main feeling is no longer being attached to anything I've put down on the page. So, if someone says my heroine should be feeling X, then either the person is right and I’ve missed that out altogether, or they have a different character in mind from mine, and I don’t have to do anything further with their comment. I mean, that’s a little exaggerated because there’s often some kind of nuance in every comment. The reader, if you trust them, has picked up on something. But what they’ve picked up on may be for the wrong reasons. That’s why it is so important to have implicit as well as explicit trust in your beta readers. And to have readers who have gone farther than you.

        At the point I know I’m “done,” I also know, when I hear or read it, which feedback is what the work needs and which it does not. If that sounds arrogant, I’m sorry, I don’t mean it to. But I do believe, if you are going to be a really good writer, even a great writer, this something very important to know about oneself and one’s work, which, at this moment, are inseparable. Later on, they are. It’s about as close to what I meant when I said in my earlier comment about being objective about my work.

        At this point, the people I trust can nitpick right down to specific words, and either what they say will ring true or I will feel, "No, the word or phrase I've chosen does what I want it to.” And that will be for a variety of reasons--not least of which will be the cadence, rhythm, and look of the sentence, as a whole. How those words visually, spatially, rhythmically and interpretively interact with other words in the sentences that surround them, how a specific word feels, looks, sounds, and "weighs" between the words on either side of it. And so on. A large part of writing for me has far less to do with how to plot something than it does the art of writing itself. Plot (as revealed through the characters) is important only as a device that serves the writing; in order to convey to a reader, through words, certain universal truths, conceits, and entertainments they would not extract from any other art or form of communication.

        I do know what you mean, though about "thinking" something is on a page when it is not. That is important feedback, when someone tells us that. And that's what I call the "writer has not yet put herself or her vision on the page," I literally tell that to the writer. Rather than telling them, “Your heroine should be feeling X." I tell them, "I have a feeling you know something about this character that you haven't yet put on the page, because it's missing--right here." And 99% of the time my instinct is correct. The writer knows exactly what that missing thing is, better than anything I could come up with.

        I find that by asking the writer certain questions, I discover that what's missing for me in the ms is usually absent in the ms because the writer knows somewhere inside her what she wants to do but hasn't yet figured out how to put it onto the page. As often as not, the solution does not lie in simply making whatever is missing "obvious," i.e., telling the reader what the character is feeling at that moment (or whatever the missing thing is), but in something else altogether more organic and subtle and, if I may dare to say it, mind blowing.

  13. Wonderful article! I tend to go through some of these stages until I end up as Yoda. My first reaction is What? You didn't fall in love with every single golden word? Then I think that the whole thing belongs in the trash. Why did I think I could write. Finally I pull it all back out and read it calmly and somewhat objectively. i realize some of what they said is spot on and I begin the task of fixing. I use some of their comments and some my gut tells me to disregard and I do.

    Thanks for the timely article, Heather, and goods luck with your new release!

    1. It's so interesting how we vacillate from one extreme to the other, but I truly believe it's part of the process of separating from our egos so we may improve. Thanks for your kind words about my book. 😉

  14. Heather, this is spot-on! As you and several of those commenting above point out, the feedback in the critique is going to help you see the places where the book in your head hasn't quite made it out onto the page yet, and that is invaluable for the writer.

    Happy book launch! (I just finished reading "Becoming Josephine" and really enjoyed it -- looking forward to the new one!)

  15. Hahaha! I'm totally the sniveler. It's not funny at the time but I can look back and laugh about it now. My skin is getting thicker, though. I think it can't help but get thicker after years and years of receiving feedback. After a while it just becomes, "Okay, here we go again."

    Great post! Thanks for the laugh this morning!

  16. You might as well have put my name in parentheses next to the Sniveler. I love my writer's group; I value their feedback and insight. They are not the problem, by a long shot. My new-found security to share my writing while I continue to develop skills is the path I'm finally taking. I'm too old to be thin-skinned, and too stubborn to give up. Thanks for the great post -- it's encouraging to know I'm not alone.

    1. "too old to be thin-skinned, and too stubborn to give up" <-- I love that! I'm with you there! Putting your work out for others to read is scary. I've learned not to take the feedback personally but I still cringe every time I hit send on a chapter for critiquing or a manuscript for a beta read. You're absolutely not alone!

  17. When it comes to critiques from beta readers, I'll take the legitimate flaws and weed out that which is personal preference on the part of the reader. For example, a beta reader recently looked at a horror novellette of mine and said, "You're trying to put everything and the kitchen sink in this story. I don't know if it's about zombies, ghosts, or demonic possession." She was spot on. I built no mythology but simply ladled on shock after shock. She also encouraged me to spend a lot more time on details and imagery (i.e, make it gothic), which is how she writes (well, too). But my fiction voice is very noir: short, choppy sentences, action driven, and built on dialog. As a reader, I find detail-heavy horror stories ponderous, so I'm not going to write that way.

    Most of the time, the criticisms and complaints from beta readers are things I expected subconsciously. I'm rarely surprised but I need that second and third opinion to smack me in the face sometimes.

    Tangential: Ultimately, I trust my instincts above everything else. Regarding the aforementioned horror story, it began as a dark coming of age drama but the ending felt like a whiff. My beta readers told me it wanted to be a horror story. I agreed and turned it into one, and then a second set of beta readers said is was too much horror and the characters got lost. It was one of those "I don't know what to do with this" stories. Since none of the iterations inspired anyone to say, '"Yes, this is it," I decided to scrap it. I liked a lot of it, but my ultimate instinct all along was that it didn't really work. One hopes the experience of writing it at least made me a better writer.

    1. I agree, Eric - I'm seldom stunned by feedback. Even though I'm great at deluding myself, some part of me knows about that junk I stuffed in that trunk in the back of my mind....

    2. Eric, this piece here I wanted to shout "yes" to that you said:

      "Most of the time, the criticisms and complaints from beta readers are things I expected subconsciously. I’m rarely surprised but I need that second and third opinion to smack me in the face sometimes."

      Happens to me all the time.

  18. I'm normally Yoda, but there's one time when I most definitely turn into the Sniveler. When I get feedback where it's clear the person hated it (or they only gave negative feedback, with no positive redemptive points), and they tell me everything they hated but not why they hated it. Then I feel like a failure because it makes it difficult for me to start to fix the problems and sort what's really a problem from what's personal preference of the reader. That kind of feedback is almost useless, and makes me doubt myself.

    1. Marcy, it sounds like you need some new critique partners!! Are you a member of WFWA? They hooked me up with a fantastic group of critters. Just sayin', no need to keep hanging out with the meanies who aren't helping you improve your story!

  19. Father's Day, 2013, I was having both sides of the family for dinner. Everyone was due to arrive at 12:00. At 11:30 I hear a "ding!" from my laptop meaning an email has landed in the inbox. I keep a spot in the kitchen as a work space, and so I strolled by, pan of chicken in hand, and looked to see who it was from. The FREELANCE EDITOR I use, and highly respect. Talk about timing. I'd been waiting weeks for her feedback on 100 sample pages of a new project.

    Maybe I shouldn't have read it right then, but I did. There was nothing to salvage from that work - at all. She did NOT the story as it stood. One sentence was a real scorcher. "You better wise up to the kind of submissions publishing houses are getting these days if you ever want to be published."

    I immediately transformed from bright hopeful writer to self-deprecating sniveler. The family arrived and EVERYONE said, "What's wrong? Are you sick? You look like you've been crying." Well. Dinner went on, and it actually helped to have the house full. Besides, the two Moms were there, so I definitely had soft shoulders where I could lay my pitiful self-deprecating sniveling little head, and tell them how much my writing sucked.

    Anyway, I always feel better after time has passed and at some point, I go from that sad little Sniveler to Yoda, usually skipping super-hero and infidel. 🙂

    1. Donna Eve, I'm a little appalled by that comment from the editor. I'm a freelance editor myself and I would never speak to a client that way. It's one thing to be honest and another to be hurtful and shaming. I hope you've taken your work elsewhere! ((hugs))

      1. In hindsight, I've often wondered about some of the statements made while I worked with her. She's been in the "biz" a long time, freelances for Harper Collins on occasion..., so I just assumed (most of the time) this was her trying to grow me a thick skin. Having said that, I no longer work with her. Thank you very much for the support - and the hugs! 🙂

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