Coping with Crushing Critiques

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. While the other comments on this section of my novel-in-progress had been filled with compliments, this reader hated what I had written. No goals, no point, desultory, she said. (I had to look that word up later. It means sluggish, pointless, marked by a lack of progress). The heroine is too whiny, she said, and the problems aren’t bad enough to care.

Seriously? But the others thought it was great. I thought it was great. We’re two-thirds of the way through the book. It’s too late to change anything. Isn’t it?

It’s a good thing we have a rule that the person whose work is being critiqued must remain silent. You can’t argue or defend your work. You just listen.

The tough critic handed me my pages covered with notes. My first reaction was: she’s crazy. She doesn’t understand what I’m doing. She’s just being mean. She’s been to too many workshops.

The next day, when I spread the critiques across my desk, opened the file on my computer and got ready to revise, I discovered that the harsh critique was the one I used the most. All those compliments and smiley faces felt good, but they didn’t give me anything to work with. The penciled criticisms scrawled all over the margins offered something to think about. Taking them one at a time, I saw what my friend was trying to tell me. I made some changes, not as many as she wanted, but I did make changes, and I think the story is stronger for them.

There will be more crushing critiques before this novel is done. They will hurt. They will make me mad. They will force me to tear into sections of the book I thought were finished. But better now than when it’s in the hands of a publisher. Better now than not at all, leaving me to hear it from unhappy readers and reviewers.

Critiques are hard, but they’re necessary. We absolutely cannot view our own work the way the reader will. It’s sort of like the physical therapy I’m having on my injured elbow these days. It hurts. I dread these sessions. But I know I have to go through the pain to make my elbow strong and fully functional. And I need to go through the pain of having someone else read my book and tell me what they don’t like or don’t understand so I can fix it and make it the best book it can be.

When I was in grad school, my mentor used to give me manuscripts so marked up with his comments that I couldn’t see my own words. I cursed and cried and threatened to quit. Every time. But I had to do the rewrite. I wanted my MFA degree. So I got to work, and it made my writing stronger.

So how do you handle a tough critique? You nod, take notes and put it away. Let it simmer. Let the initial pain subside. Cuss a little. Cry if you need to. Then take the comments one at a time and consider them. If one person in a group says something negative that nobody else agrees with, maybe they’re wrong. If only one person finds a passage confusing, maybe they’re idiots. You’re welcome to ignore their comments. It’s your story. But maybe there’s some wisdom to what they’re saying. Maybe it is a little confusing. Maybe that character is a bit whiny and self-centered. Maybe that clever dialogue is not moving the plot along. Maybe it is desultory. But now you have a chance to reconsider what you wrote. You have a chance to fix it. Now you can thank your friend for making you a better writer.

Finding the right people to critique your work isn’t easy. I have been in other groups that weren’t nearly as helpful. You need to have similar skills and goals. A year ago this month, I was having dinner with two friends before a meeting of our local Willamette Writers chapter. We discovered we were all looking for a critique group. We looked at each other and said, hey, let’s form our own. We started meeting every other Tuesday at the library. We soon added another friend. Our critiques are tough, a lot like my physical therapy sessions. I come out needing a drink. But at every meeting they save me from my mistakes, mistakes I would never have seen on my own.

If you’re writing articles, you probably won’t have time for critiques, but in creative writing, it’s essential to have someone else read your work. You can’t see your own words the way a reader will.

You can’t critique what isn’t written.

So now go write.