Taking Criticism 101

Something happened this week. Someone said something that offended some other people. There was a reaction. And then a reaction to the reaction, and so forth. (I know, shocker. As if we’re not all constantly shouting into the void of 1 and 0’s that make up the internet. I mean, that’s essentially what I’m doing right this very second, isn’t it?)

This particular instance stirred up a lot of emotions for people, including me. I’m not going to comment on what was said exactly, because it’s been covered by people who were ground zero for the actual event, and then others who were hit with the ripple, and they’ve got a better grasp on what went down than me. Besides, it’s not like it’s an isolated incident. Similar situations crop up often, both online and in meatspace.

While I was hashing out my own emotions internally, however, it got me thinking about a larger issue. I thought I might talk about that, instead.

Criticism, constructive or otherwise, is something every single author is going to have to deal with throughout their career. A lot. Whether it comes from complete strangers in the form of reviews–both solicited from reviewers, and from readers–or as notes from beta readers/editors, it’s something we need to learn to deal with. To handle with grace & professionalism.

It’s not easy. No one likes hearing that they didn’t do something well, or that they screwed up. It’s frustrating and embarrassing. And that’s even when the criticism is offered in the best possible way.

Defenses go up. It’s a natural reaction.

But, as an author, it’s really important we learn to push past that first, knee-jerk response. In fact, it’s imperative. Because it’s often that reaction that indicates an area where we can stand to learn and grow.

The stronger the reaction to the criticism, the more likely it is that, deep down, we know the other party is right, that they’ve struck a nerve.

As distressing as that feeling can be, it’s a good indicator of an opportunity.

If you’re an author or aspiring to be one, I’m sure you’ve heard more than once that you need to develop a thick skin. It’s not bad advice. If every critique or rejection cuts you deep, you’re going to bleed to death real quick.

However, you can’t just let it all bounce off you either.

There has to be a balance, a happy medium, between bleeding out and being impervious. You have to let the criticism affect you. You have to. Don’t let it kill you, but let it in. It will make you a better writer.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to do that when the person offering the critique isn’t a jerk about it. But, on the flip side, just because someone is a jerk doesn’t mean they’re wrong. It’s not as simple as that. Sometimes jerks are right. And sometimes nice people are wrong, too. Even when they agree with us. We need to be able to see past our first blush of emotional atavism and decide which is true.

When it comes to beta reading, it is especially important that you find people who not only can express their views to you in a way you can process, but who will not hesitate to tell you if something isn’t working.

beta notes1 - Edited

beta notes2 - Edited
Some notes from Beta Team Voltron on one of my recent novellas.

As nice as it might be to have a beta who constantly tells you how awesome you are, if that’s all they do, they’re doing you a disservice. Ideally, they will both point out bits that they really like and highlight the areas that aren’t working for them. And, when you balk, they’ll challenge you.

I can’t tell you how many times one of my betas has called me on the carpet. On everything from the overarching storyline not being believable, to a character’s name being repetitive, to use of a single word that sours a sentence for them.

Not going to lie, sometimes their comments frustrate me.

I have, more than once, thought, “Grr! They just don’t get it!”

Which, if this were a silly movie, would be the moment for a record scratch. Because you really need to pay attention to this.

“They just don’t get it!” is not an acceptable response.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s okay if that’s your initial reaction. Totally understandable. But that’s when you need to take a step back and ask yourself an incredibly important question:

Why aren’t they getting it?

As authors, it’s our job to make sure our readers ‘get it’. If they’re not, then we’re not doing our job. Of course, this is a general statement that doesn’t apply to every situation. If only one person has an issue grasping something you’re trying to convey, it may be an issue with their knowledge base or perception and not your writing. But if several readers are telling you there’s a problem, then you need to figure out where you’re going wrong.

In the same vein, if a bunch of people are telling you that something is problematic, you need to fight past your instinctive defensiveness and figure out how to do better.

Let me tell you about an experience I had. When I was working as a ghostwriter, one of my clients was a really sweet, older, white gay man. We got on well, and even had a bonding moment over the “inspirational” image he sent me for the hero. The story he hired me to write, however, wasn’t a gay romance. It was interracial. Or, what is often referred to in the vernacular as ‘BWWM’ (Black Woman, White Man).

He dictated the outline of the story, a sort of modern twist on the Cinderella story, but within his parameters, I was allowed to write the characters as I wished.

I ended up really liking the characters I created. I grew a bit attached to them. Though it wasn’t a story I would have chosen to write on my own, I did my best to make it a good one, and in the end, I was quite proud of it.

My client was nice enough to let me know when the story posted, so I could keep track of how it did. Even though I have no claims to it after handing it over, I sometimes like to check in and see what people have to say. Since no one has any idea I wrote it, I figure they’re going to be pretty unbiased.

When I checked it on this particular story, I was shocked by what I discovered.

Several African American women had posted reviews pointing out some problematic areas in the story. There weren’t a ton. In fact, they weren’t even the majority of the reviews. But there were more than two. A small handful. And they all mentioned variations of the same thing: despite my best attempts, the story perpetuated some hurtful stereotypes.

I didn’t mean to do that, and I hadn’t seen that I had. In fact, I thought I’d written a pretty kickass female protagonist, and when I read these reviews, my first reaction was to be upset. Really upset.

“I didn’t mean it that way! They’re taking it wrong!”

But they weren’t. They had just experienced the reality of being a Black woman, and I hadn’t. I couldn’t, no matter how much research I did or what care I took or how much I might sympathize with that group. And because of that, my client and I both failed to see how the story I wrote could be construed. It wasn’t malicious, but we had still screwed up. We didn’t respond to the reviews, of course (‘don’t respond to reviews’ is a universally accepted bit of advice, and an overall good one) but it took me several days to get over my initial defensiveness.

When I did, I remembered something one of the members of Beta Team Voltron had told me once.

Anna and I met in a Facebook readers’ group, and our first interaction took place during a debate about fetishising POC. I grew up in a really liberal area, but it was predominantly white, so my experiences with POC were limited. As open-minded as I like to think I am, I wasn’t getting it. I didn’t mean it that way, I said. It doesn’t make sense to me, I kept pressing, explain it to me.

But Anna said to me something along the lines of, “Look, when people from a marginalized group tell you how something feels, you don’t need to understand why it feels that way. Maybe just listen to what they’re saying and believe them.”

(She’s a smart lady and I’m lucky she’s my friend and beta.)

I can’t do anything about that story that’s already out there, unfortunately. But when I write characters now, I think of what stereotypes I might be perpetuating, and how their actions might be construed as representative of their demographic. And I think all of my characters–no matter their age, gender, ethnicity, or sexuality–are the better for it.

Fighting through my hurt and embarrassment and anger to internalize those criticisms, letting them affect me, made me a better writer.

I think perhaps a big part of my conditioned response to criticism comes from my history working in customer service fields. Both in hospitality and as rental car agent, I’ve had people quite literally scream invective in my face telling me something is fucked up and it’s all my fault. And sometimes it even was. Either way, I wanted to curse those people out for being mean, hateful people. But I couldn’t. I had to handle them professionally. I had to listen to what they had to say and then try to salvage the situation. To make them happy. That was my job. And I was pretty good at it.

Only rarely could I not turn the situation around. But if I had let my anger and defensiveness get the better of me, it would have been a lost cause.

How do I apply this to writing? Well, when it comes to my beta readers, I go through all their notes slowly. I first address and accept any notes/changes/suggestions where it’s immediately apparent to me they’re right.

When I get to something that makes me bristle, I take a breath, read back over the bit in question and their comment again, and then I leave it. I sit on it for at least a day, let it ferment in my brain. I may ask for clarification, or tell them what I was going for so they can offer some suggestions on how better to convey that, but I make no decisions right then. I think it over.

Sometimes I debate them on it (note: this only applies to Beta Team Voltron, not any other betas or editors or reviewers, because I know BTV well and they know me and my writing and we can debate each other without burning bridges) and then I think about what they’ve said and whether or not I feel strongly enough about what I’ve written to keep it despite that.

Sometimes, I don’t make the changes. But that criticism was still helpful, because it challenged me and made me think about my writing and the choices I made. When it’s done, I feel more confident in my writing. I know it’s better than it would have been otherwise.

Now, remember how I mentioned the universally accepted wisdom ‘do not respond to reviews’? Well, I’m going to tell you a little secret.

I’ve responded to reviews before. Negative reviews, even.

I would not at all recommend you do this. Especially if your response is going to be to tell the reviewer how wrong they are about something.

DO NOT DO THAT.

I can’t stress that enough. Don’t argue with your reviewers. If you feel tempted to argue with them, step away from your device, get yourself a glass of wine (or drink of choice) and vent to your friends or betas.

However, I will tell you what I did and the results, because I think they are apropos to this post.

One job I had freelancing, I actually got to interact with readers. It was a pen name owned by the client, and I wrote the stories based on the client’s specifications, but I got to ‘be’ that author while I was writing under that name.

So, when the first novella came out, they were the first bad reviews that felt like they were actually mine. And I did what you’re not supposed to do. I responded to them. All of them. Publically.

Here is the gist of what I said: Thank you for reading & reviewing _______! I really appreciate it. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the story. Hopefully, you’ll like the next one better.

Sometimes I asked them follow-up questions, like what it was about a characterization, etc, that they didn’t like, if they mentioned specifics.

Most of the time, the reviewers didn’t acknowledge my response, which I considered the best case scenario. But a few of them did, and were surprisingly very nice about it. Even ones who had been harsh originally. I ended up getting some good feedback. And I thanked all of them for their answers, even when I didn’t agree.

A few of them actually gave my writing a second chance because they felt I was really listening to them. And a couple ended up becoming fans. All because I took their criticism seriously and responded with sincerity and respect.

The TL;DR is… Here’s what I learned as a restaurant hostess that I apply to taking criticism as a writer:

  1. Take a deep breath. Blow it out. Repeat this a couple of times until your lungs don’t feel all squeezy and your heart rate slows a bit.
  2. Mentally go back over what the person has said, trying to understand the crux of their problem.
  3. Figure out what, if anything, you can do to address it. (Side note here: sometimes the answer is nothing. You can’t fix everything, for various reasons. Examine those reasons and make sure they’re valid and not just stemming for your stubbornness, though.)
  4. Be sincere in your response. Being dismissive or defensive isn’t going to help you, or anyone.

There are caveats, of course. When it comes to reviewers, unless and until you’ve mastered the calm, respectful, open response, it’s best not to respond at all. ‘DO NOT RESPOND TO REVIEWS’ became an axiom because it’s a failsafe way to avoid causing more problems. It is good advice.

Again, to be really, crystal clear: don’t ever argue with a reviewer. Not ever. It will not do anyone any good, least of all you.

But in pretty much any other instance, when you receive criticism–whether it’s presented in a constructive manner or not–if you follow these steps, I guarantee you (and your writing) will be better off for it.

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3 thoughts on “Taking Criticism 101

  1. I think you should write the flip of this as your next post. I think a lot of people are scared to give criticism. We live in a world that makes people instantly defensive and from that place is not where we can accept or give anything construction.

    You’re brilliant btw. I wub you.

    Liked by 1 person

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