For something as integral to the writing business as criticism is, I’ve spent very little time talking about it. I don’t really know why it’s never come up before. Maybe because it’s such a sensitive subject, giving and taking criticism.
When we write, we bear our soul on the page. It can be, Hell no, it is incredibly daunting to show those pages, then to other people. I’ve published two novels, three novellas, two collections of short stories, one collection of essays. I also post blog posts here twice a week. Even so, I had a moment of complete panic just the other day, when I sent the newest Science Fiction book to my beta readers. I mean, it’s one thing to put books out on the internet. I won’t ever meet most of you, but my beta readers are different. I know them intimately, and now I’ve given them a bit of my soul to judge and then give me feedback on.
On the other hand, I’m also being asked for the first time in my rather short career to critique the work of other authors. It’s a privilege that I don’t take lightly.
Now that I’ve seen both sides of the coin, I want to share my thoughts with you. I want to talk about taking criticism gracefully and giving it well.
When someone agrees to critique your work, be grateful to them. We all have limited time, and a thousand places it needs to go. Time a beta reader or other critique partner spends reading your book is time they could be picking up their house, spending time with their family, or working on their own passion projects. Maybe they’re going to really enjoy your book and it’s a pleasure for them to read it. But honestly, you’re not giving them your story because you think they’re really going to love it. You’re giving it to them because you know it’s not ready for the world yet and you’re asking them to help you get it ready. This is not pleasure reading their doing. This is the literary equivalent of asking your friend if they can see your underwear through your leggings when you bend over.
But what if we’re dealing with someone who’s opinion you didn’t really ask for? I mean, I know I go on and on about reviews on social media, but not all writers do. And all writers, eventually, get that one bad review on Amazon or Goodreads. In those cases, be courteous. It does you no good as an author to lose your temper and get into an online fight with someone who didn’t like your book. If it’s appropriate, thank them for taking the time to read your book. If not, don’t say anything at all.
I’ve been listening to Skimm’d From The Couch a lot, and one of the interviews that hit me most was a COO who used to work for Hooters. (Which is actually a great company for women, by the way. Who knew?) But she said, when receiving criticism, come from the position that they’re right first. You can always correct that later. But if you start out saying, maybe they’re right, and actually listening to what they have to say, you run far less of a risk of coming off as an asshole if you’re actually wrong. You might learn something you needed to know. And if you are right, then you have a way better leg to stand on. You’ve heard, really heard, their concerns. And that makes someone far more likely to hear your response.
Don’t always assume they really are right though. At least not all the time. Look, I know I just wrote three paragraphs about being nice to people and listening to their opinions about your work. But sometimes an opinion is just that. Unless you’re writing nonfiction and someone points out a factual error, or if someone noticed that you changed a character’s name halfway through the story, they are giving you their opinion of something you wrote.
Maybe they don’t like your genre. Maybe they don’t like your naming structure. Maybe they’re offended by your word choice. That’s fine, that’s their opinion. Maybe it’s something you need to consider.
And maybe it’s fucking not!
There are people who want to help you be a better writer. There are people who make whole careers of critiquing work, like the Nostalgia Critic, and their good people doing a cool thing with their time. Then there are trolls. There are also failed writers, and wannabe writers who haven’t put in the time and dedication to put a few books out there. There are people who have never gotten past the hurdle of writing a book, or of publishing it. Maybe they even got that far but got some negative feedback of their own. Whatever reason they have for being an asshat online, you might be their target today. Learn to weed out the trolls, and listen to the critics.
One way to learn the difference is to read reviews of books you like, and books you don’t like. You’ll start to see a pattern with the trolls, and you can spot them better when they come after your own work.
Avoiding trollish criticism is one reason to get multiple opinions if you can. There are a few others, though. If you’ve got five pairs of eyes on a piece, they’ll catch more than just one pair. You’ll also be able to overcome the biases of just one beta reader. Stephen King talks about this in his book, On Writing. If you have three people reading your book, and they all say chapter eight sucks, it probably sucks. If some liked it and some didn’t, you’re probably good.
Giving Criticism to other authors.
All writers need to be generous with criticism when they can be. I for one am always looking for beta reading buddies. (Seriously, reach out if you want to swap manuscripts. I’m not hard to find, there’s literally a contact me page.) Critiquing other writers work is a learning experience worth your time to start with. And, you’re helping your fellow author. We should all be looking for ways to help fellow writers in this business. It’s one of the nice things about writing. So if you can offer honest criticism, please do.
I would advise any beta reader or critic to come first from a place of kindness. We might all love reading or watching a review of something bad, but that’s not how we come to a criticism for a friend or fellow author. That’s how we come at someone who has put out a poor piece into this world who either hasn’t done the work the research properly. We do that, in short, to entertain an audience with something that failed to entertain us.
A fellow writer asking you to beta read a book is doing the work. They’re putting in the effort to not put out bad writing. So be kind to them. Assume they are doing their best.
Always praise what should be praised first. There is rarely if ever a piece that is just pure trash from start to finish. Maybe someone’s descriptions are shitty, but they have great dialog. (Me. That’s me.) So start with what’s working. Because most authors don’t think anything’s working.
That doesn’t mean we’re not going to talk about what’s not working, though. I mean, that’s really why someone asked you to beta read. Criticize gently but honestly if you don’t know the person well. “This piece here, it doesn’t feel honest. This dialog doesn’t sound realistic.” These are specific issues in specific areas that, ideally, can be approved upon.
You’re not doing a writer any favors by ignoring things wrong with their piece. And, if you know the person, you probably know the level at which they can take criticism. So you know what level of honesty they can handle. You might tell an acquaintance that the description needs work. You might tell your best friend that they were obviously watching American Horror Story while they wrote this because they weren’t paying any attention.
You remember earlier we were talking about how little time everyone has? Don’t agree to critique someone’s work unless you honestly have the time to take. This is going to vary wildly with the seasons of your life. I would never, for instance, think to take on a beta reading project when I’m getting ready for a launch, or already working on multiple books and just had edits dropped on my lap. This is going to take time, and you’ve got to commit to it. The worst thing you can do to someone is agree out of courtesy, then never get around to actually reading the piece.
You can also tell someone, “I’d like to read your piece, but it might take me a week or a month to get back to you. Is that alright?” Be honest about what you can and can’t commit to, is what I’m saying. That can really go for anything in life, but especially when your timetable will impact other people’s timetables.
Finally, when you’re beta reading, understand that maybe a piece isn’t meant for you. Sometimes you’re just not that into a piece. Even a whole genre. I, for instance, don’t like westerns. I will probably not agree to beta read a western because I will inherently not enjoy it. If I’m already irritated, I’m not going to give the book a fair shake.
I hope that this has helped you with giving and taking criticism. If you did enjoy it, please feel free to like and share this post. It’s greatly appreciated. And feel free to tell us in the comment section what you think about giving and taking criticism.
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