February 20th, 2019

Sitting with Discomfort: Negotiating Difficult Critiques

by Tasha Seegmiller

Last month, I attended my first residency for an MFA in Writing from Pacific University. While there was some trepidation about going back to school at 40, and a bit about how the workload is all going to fit into my life, the main nervousness was surrounding how the instructors and members of my critique group were going to respond to my writing.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve sat live while people talk about my work – I have the good fortune to be a member of a critique group that meets in person every two weeks, each of us critiquing 15 pages for the others and receiving feedback in return. I’ve come to understand that logic and reality don’t always mesh.

Very quickly, it was clear that the critique I thought I was going to receive was not what the instructor wanted to talk about. And I’m of the very strong opinion that when someone takes time to talk about and work through your writing, your job is to listen, take notes, ask for clarification, and then allow time to process.

Still, sitting there, I could feel all the defenses within me clamoring to jump out, to rescue, to protect.

This is a lesson that almost all writers are aware they need to learn. They are probably also aware they have learned it. But I also think learning to sit with the discomfort of a critique is not a lesson we grasp after the first instruction. With that in mind, I’d like to offer a few suggestions on how to be okay with this difficult part of being a writer:

1. Try really hard to remember the critique isn’t about you.

I get it. You have put effort into creating something you feel strongly about, characters you dreamed up, a setting that feels just right, a plot that is balancing all the things. But when someone is talking about your work, they are talking about just that – the work. Not the creator, not the idea, but what they can read on the page in front of them as it has been presented to them.

Critique partners and beta readers don’t have access to how the whole story unfolded in our head, they can just see what is on the paper, and they are taking time to provide insight into their reading experience to help the story be better.

2. Take lots of notes

When a critique starts taking a path we didn’t expect, when we thought the story was just right and then it wasn’t, our bodies often perceive this as a threat and then we enter fight/flight/freeze mode aka the moment when our body is responding and our mind is no longer totally in control.

When this happens, just keep writing down what people say. Seriously, you’ll get to the manuscript a day or two later and not remember anything that was said, let alone what you might be able to do to fix it. Just remember that the way you feel will generally relax a bit as you step away from the situation and you want to still tap into those benefits.

3. Get back into your window of tolerance

This is a term I learned lately, which is a place where you can sit with things that you don’t necessarily like without amping up or checking out. This is the part where the passionate physical response we may have had gets a chance to recognize that we aren’t in danger, that we don’t need to be ready for a rumble or a run.

For some people, returning to this window is really easy. For others, deep breathing, a walk, or just time is necessary to convince all the systems within us designed to keep us alive that it’s a critique, not a sabretooth tiger, and we are okay.

4. Be objective

This is why the window of tolerance is necessary. After receiving a rough edit or critique, and getting back to a safe space, pull out those notes, revisit your own, and see the piece as they did.

You might have to chant to yourself that the critique is about the writing, not you. You might need to break out what a colleague of mine calls emotional-support Oreos. But then read, listen, study, and learn from your own writing.

5. A caveat

There are times when, good intentioned as they may be, a critique partner, beta reader, agent or even editor will make a suggestion that after you’ve gone through all these steps, still feels wrong. Okay. You are the writer. It’s your story. And just because someone suggests something doesn’t mean you have to do it. Honoring every single suggestion will lead to a story you don’t recognize. But I would recommend if you don’t want to accept a suggested change, you take the time to write or talk out why. Even if it is just to yourself. If you are going to write something a certain way, you should be keenly aware of the reason.

So what about that hard critique I got?

Surprise!

Just kidding, it’s not. The readers were right. Their complaint was that the story started too slowly, that they couldn’t see the conflict, that they weren’t sure how to connect with the character.

I needed to write those pages to get her in my mind, but the reader doesn’t need them to join the story where the book starts. So I opened a new document, did a quick outline of how I’d like the scene to progress, what I want the reader to feel about the character, and then I started writing it, pulling in some of the lovely images I’d created before.

Because of intentional feedback from others, I had my attention drawn toward a blind spot that (surprise) I didn’t know I had. A blind spot I might have continued crossing into, unknowingly.

And you know what?

The story is better.

How do you go about processing, editing or revising your work after a critique?

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Tasha

Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. She is the current president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and studying in the MFA in Writing program at Pacific U. The former high school English teacher now assists in managing the award-winning project-based learning program (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven and is the mom of three teens. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.

21 responses to “Sitting with Discomfort: Negotiating Difficult Critiques”

  1. Laura Drake says:

    Oh Tasha, I love this. And no matter how long you're in this business, tough crits don't get easier - but the time it takes you to see it objectively does shorten (thank God).

    The one thing that helps me be objective about it is backing up and realizing that the critters are giving me a 'cold read' - they know nothing about my story, characters, dilemma, or even in some cases, genre.

    And the great thing about that is they can tell me what's NOT on the page.

    And that's something I can't see (I think that's the 'blind spot' you referred to), so if they're wrong, look at what you know, but didn't put on the page.

    That turns a painful crit into a wonderful gift!

    • tashaseegmiller says:

      This is exactly the thing - whatever I think is clearly portrayed on the page is actually (often) super hidden or not actually there at all. Seeing those blind spots are painful and then we get to choose to embrace the pain and let it fester or understand why we have pain and grow from it.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      OMG, there are always a bazillion things that didn't go on the page. That's the part about novels that is amazing...how all the parts come together to make exactly the right story. It's a big job for one person, which is why we NEED critters. 🙂

  2. lrtrovi says:

    This is a terrific post and a topic not often addressed. We are inclined to slip into our armor when the critique starts to get challenging. I have practiced the "shut up and take notes" method, even if I don't agree with the person at the time. It also helps if the critique group allows you a short rebuttal time at the end. That way, you get an exchange going and can clarify what you hoped to achieve. Often, they will come up with good ideas for a fix. It is hard to be judged. I ride horses in competitions where we actually pay a lot of money to be critiqued, so I've gotten a big dose of it! ha, ha 🙂

    • tashaseegmiller says:

      This is a great approach. The people who are taking the time to critique our work are usually doing it with the intent to help our work be better. Especially when they are not paid editors and the like. Critiquers are invested in us and if we put aside how we thought they should react and listen to how they are reacting, our work is what will benefit from the process (and probably us a little bit).

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      lrtrovi, that sounds like an absolutely fantastic background for a writer!

  3. Wonderful post, Tasha! Sometimes the toughest feedback is exactly the feedback we really need, but you're exactly right---it isn't always easy! We all need to remind ourselves that this writing journey is a constant, never-ending learning curve, and sometimes those curves feel more like roller-coaster swoops!

    • tashaseegmiller says:

      They are exactly roller coasters, except at the end we aren't just let dizzy (okay, that might just be me - I really don't have a good relationship with roller coasters) 🙂

  4. Great post! I find when I'm writing a first draft reading anything negative about my work shuts off the creative part of my brain. Too many doubts creep in. When possible, I wait until I've completely finished the first draft of my WIP, then put my editing hat on, slide on the body armor and get to work. For some reason I don't find working on a second or third edit to be a problem while creating new material. Again, thanks for the post. A relevant topic for me as I begin my next WIP.

    • tashaseegmiller says:

      I know several people who have to work this way (just heard Margaret Atwood mention this in her Masterclass, so you aren't alone). We have to figure out what works for us, acknowledging that feedback has to be part of the process, but we can choose the timing.

  5. Eldred Bird says:

    Great advice. I've learned to love my critique group. They see things I've become blind to because I'm too close to the work or too in love with something that just doesn't fit. Good critiques can be a reality check that gets you back on the right path when you wander. And like you said, you don't have to make every change suggested, but know why you're not making it.

    • tashaseegmiller says:

      Finding a good critique group is an invaluable asset to the writer and the writing. And yes, if you are going to disregard a suggestion, at least you took the time to think about why.

  6. Excellent post, Tasha. Sometimes I can feel my primitive lizard brain amping up to flee when it's my turn in critique group, even though I have the most wonderful crit partners. I try to breathe through it and assure the little beast she's safe. (I picture her looking something like the Geiko gecko.)

    • tashaseegmiller says:

      It can be so tempting to run away or defend, but as soon as we do, all learning stops for us and the willingness in our critique partners/group diminishes as well. I also like envisioning components that are tricky, but I've never thought of a gecko!

  7. Tina Newcomb says:

    Love this, Tasha. I love my critique group, but we've had a couple of nasty meetings where things got out of hand and someone got their feelings hurt. Luckily, we've been together long enough that we can iron our the spats and go forward. We each have our strong points and those critiques are invaluable. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • tashaseegmiller says:

      I think you have described something that happens in all groups. Super impressed that you have all worked through it and been able to continue moving forward.

  8. Thanks, Tasha. Well-put, and it sounds like you have a good MFA program as well as a good critique group.

  9. Julie Glover says:

    Fantastic tips! Such practical advice for getting through a tough but necessary process. Thanks for sharing, Tasha!

  10. dholcomb1 says:

    you have to have the right person(s) critique--you don't want the person who's a kiss-up and you don't want the person who tells you you're the worst writer ever. you want the person with constructive criticism, and hopefully, the ability to point you in the right direction.

    I haven't found that person. I have found the other two.

    d

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