By Lori Freeland
Edits. Suggestions. Comments. Recommendations. Advice. Assessment. Evaluation. Feedback. Constructive Criticism. Not-so-constructive criticism. A knife twisted into your gut that burns like a thousand suns and leaves you bleeding out and crying in a corner.
No matter what you want to label it, all those things mean the same thing—what other people have to say about what you have written.
Why is what people say so hard to hear?
Refer back to that last part about the knife and your gut and the crying and the corner. Oh, and don’t forget the burning suns. It’s hard to hear because it hurts. We’ve poured out who we are into each of one of those words someone else is critiquing.
- If they say, “it’s good,” we wonder why it’s not great.
- If they say nothing, we fill in far worse than they probably would’ve pointed out.
- If they say, “it sucks,” we die a little inside.
Artists are an interesting bunch. We tend to doubt our ability to be good at what we do, and that leads to a meltdown in our confidence.
In my post 12 Survival Tips for a Creative’s Anxiety, I talk about how the very things that make us good writers—empathy, sensitivity, being observant, and the power to picture everything in IMAX—also give us massive anxiety.
Sometimes what other people say becomes too much noise. And that noise drowns the creative voice in your head until you’re left in a writing drought.
Why You Need Critique
Here’s why you need to hear critique: fresh eyes. A different set of eyes can offer a new perspective and knowledge you may not have, find questions your readers will ask that you forgot to answer or something offensive you didn’t intend to come across that way and see the gaps you thought you already filled in.
Everything you’ve written makes perfect sense to you—because you created it in your head. Sometimes that means parts of it stay inside your head even when you meant to bring them to life on the page. Telling a good story is all about clarity. Readers have to hear your message to be moved by it. They have to see what you’re trying to show them. If you want to dig deeper there, check out Down With The Rules.
But all that being said, you shouldn’t just listen to anyone about everything. It helps to know when to tune in and when to tune out. To do that, ask the following questions:
- Who’s talking?
- What are they saying?
Someone in Your Audience
The world is not your audience. But there will be people out there interested in what you put out there. Your crowd might be big and eclectic, or it might be small and niche-y. It’s okay that not everyone will like or even want to read your stuff. Someone’s personal taste is not a reflection of your writing. Look up Harry Potter on Amazon. Even that got bad reviews.
You can’t appeal to every reader. And it will just drive you crazy to try. Be true to your heart. The heart wants to write what the heart wants to write. Yes, you want to have an audience. And maybe whales in space won’t get there. But that’s another post.
In a critique group, someone once pointed out a comparison I’d made in a story. She told me to take it out because no one was going to know who I was talking about. The “person” I referenced was Snow White. And because that lady had grown up somewhat secluded and not in the United States, she’d never heard of her. But she was not my audience. The women reading the type of book I was writing probably knew their Disney Princesses.
Someone Who Reads or Writes in Your Genre
Historical fiction has a much more formal style than a picture book. You’ll find different story issues in women’s fiction than in urban fantasy. And the expectations for a thriller are different than for romance.
I love to read and write YA (young adult). One of my characters, a smart and sweet girl, has a rocky relationship with her dad and acts accordingly. That bothered one of my critique partners. A lot. As a great dad himself, he didn’t understand why she couldn’t go to hers when things got rough. He wasn’t thinking about the genre. He was thinking about being a dad.
Teens typically don’t go running to their parents as a first option. And it’s not the expectation in YA. The idea is that they’re supposed to figure things out and “save themselves.” But that wasn’t on his radar because he writes something completely different.
Someone Interested in Representing You or Publishing You
This can be hard. Someone trustworthy who has experience, a good track record, and knows the industry is a great resource for feedback. At the same time, no one can see the future of what’s actually going to sell and what’s not. If you’re asked to change things for an agent or editor, weigh all the options. Only you can make that choice.
The kind of changes suggested can be a huge factor. Strengthening a few character motivations and scenes here and there to make the story better is one thing. Rewriting the entire thing because its set on the ocean in 1865 and someone asks for it to be set in space in 2054 is another. Especially if the odds of the rewrite getting you that agent or publisher are low.
In other words, think through the return on your investment. If someone’s really interested in you and your work, go for it. If not, you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons. Again, this is the place to follow your heart and decide what you really want.
“What are they saying?”
The Rule of 3 (or 5 or 7)
Back to Snow White and my conundrum. If one person has a problem with something, it may be their issue. If other people chime in, it’s your issue.
Here’s something to watch out for. Sometimes what people are trying to tell you doesn’t come across clearly. Sometimes they don’t know what they’re trying to say other than “this doesn’t work for me.”
If someone hates a character, don’t automatically assume you have to reconfigure that character’s DNA.
- Ask questions.
- Get specifics.
- Nail down a reason.
If you get feedback that “she’s not sad when her mom dies,” that’s the problem. That she’s not sad. That’s different than an overall unlikeable character. And all you have to rewrite is that scene. Even if she isn’t sad, and you don’t want her to be, there are ways to soften that by showing motivation and internal thought.
Find the Nuggets
There’s some truth to every statement. It could be 1% or 100%. It’s your job to figure that out. We can learn from everything even if we’d rather not. It might be that you learn never to say something to someone else quite the way it was said to you.
Similar to the “hated character” example above, I had someone say my main character was a brat who deserved no empathy. At first, I got mad. Because, of course, that’s our auto-response to criticism—go on the defense. But when I thought about it, I realized she was right. Sort of.
My character wasn’t a brat. She had a horrible mother who’d treated her terribly. But at that point in the book, that backstory was all in my head. Yeah, there’s where that clarity comes in. I forgot to put that part on the page.
To fix it, I had to do more than tell my reader that her mother was bad. I had to show it. Readers believe what they “see” for themselves. They like to come to their own conclusions. Once I showed the mom treating the daughter badly on the page, my character was no longer a brat.
Be Aware of Personal Bias
Everyone comes to the critique table with a past. Yep, agents and editors and your best writing friends too. Life experiences shape us into who we are and teach us how to see and react to the world. You’re writing out of those experiences and so I am I. But they may be vastly different. And that’s okay. Just factor that in when you receive feedback.
The book I have on Radish right now, The Accidental Boyfriend, would’ve scored an A back in its contest days—if it wasn’t for one of the five judges. It’s a YA romance, and the first time my main characters meet, the guy kisses the girl without permission.
That moment triggered that judge. Something must’ve have happened to her in the past because, starting with that paragraph and moving throughout the fifty-page entry, she only had bad things to say about the guy. He’s disrespectful. He’s untrustworthy. He’s a jerk. Not only that, but it was also underlined in red pen. Keep in mind, four other judges gave me a close-to-perfect score.
And . . . when that kiss happened, my characters were in a crowded lobby, there was an obvious reason and purpose to the kiss, and I’d made sure to give the guy internal thought to show his harmless motivation. None of that mattered. Nothing I changed would’ve mattered. This book was never going to be for her because of her personal bias.
Now that you have some ideas on tuning in and tuning out critique, be kind to yourself. When the noise gets too much and you’ve listened to those “fresh eyes” and figured out your issues, give yourself permission to blow off the rest. At least until tomorrow. Because sometimes your own fresh ideas will give you a different perspective.
If you’re looking for people to tune in and are considering finding some writer peeps, there’s some helpful hints in The Up and Down Sides of Critique Groups. In the meantime, I’d love for you to share the kind of feedback that’s put you on the sidelines and the feedback that’s helped you the most. Leave a comment below.
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An encourager at heart, author, editor, and writing coach Lori Freeland believes everyone has a story to tell. She’s presented multiple workshops at writer’s conferences across the country and writes everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels—YA to adult. When she’s not curled up with her husband drinking too much coffee and worrying about her kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head.
You can find her young adult and contemporary romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog and writing tips at lafreeland.com. Her latest release, The Accidental Boyfriend, is currently free on the Radish app.