Friday, November 14, 2008

Taking Critique Without Taking It On The Chin

By Mary Margret Daughtridge

I recently finished the copy edits for SEALed With A Promise (coming Spring 2009.) I had to take my own advice more than once. :-)

Criticism—it’s right up there with death and taxes for a writer. Inevitable, and you ignore it at your peril, because the closer you come to being published, the more people there are who tell you exactly what is wrong with your book and expect you to fix it—if you want to be published, that is.

Unfortunately, most of the advice about how to take critique, like don’t take it personally is only useful if you already know how to do that. If you could not take it personally, you wouldn’t have a problem, right? As a Master Practitioner of NLR, for many years I’ve helped people make positive, permanent changes in how they think and react to criticism.

I’m not going to ask you to view a critique of your work unemotionally. That is so not going to happen. However, you can learn to shield yourself from being overwhelmed by hurt and anger.
So let’s talk about how put the skills you already have to work for you.

Let’s start with “don’t take it personally.”

You’re a writer. You live in your imagination. You can change point of view at will. Suppose you were reading a critique of somebody else’s work. Could you do it without taking it personally? Sure. So (step one) imagine you’re writing a scene in which a writer has received a critique. She’s with her best friend. The temptation will be to write the scene in the POV of the writer—after all, you’re already identified with her. But give yourself a challenge. Write the scene from the POV of her best friend who has been asked to read and comment on the critique. She laughs at the idiotic comments, gets mad at the insensitivity, commiserates with the pain of having all that hard work trashed. But remember you are not in the POV of the writer. This is the POV of the friend of the writer, a person absolutely on her side. Someone who feels for the writer. (Stop here and do the exercise now.)

Step two. Now rewrite the scene, nope, still not from the POV of the writer. This time in the scene the writer and her friend are going over the critique when a kindly someone, who doesn’t know the writer, drops in. They invite the visitor to read the critique and the point of view shifts. Now you’re writing what someone completely objective feels and says about the critique. That person feels compassion but also thinks the critique is wrong in some places but right in others. “I mean,” she shrugs apologetically, “that sentence is sort of awkward. And, too bad, but that is a dangling modifier. And maybe if you set the scene earlier, it would be easier for the reader to get into it.” (Do the exercise now.)

Step three. Now write your taking criticism scene from the POV of the writer. You’re identified with her, but she’s not you. She’s unusually honest with herself and also keeps her sense of humor. She admits she’s disappointed. She wanted feedback that her story is the most brilliant, most touching, most exquisite piece of writing since (choose one) Nora Roberts, Harold Robbins, Evelyn Waugh, Samuel Pepys. She wanted someone to express wonder at her gifts! Joy that a new star has appeared in the writing heavens! And to say publication was assured. She really, really wishes the manuscript glowed with accolades. She’s disappointed. But, hey, she knew all the time, it might not happen. Overnight success happens only after years and years of preparation.

You can stop the process here, if you want to. But is there a voice in your head when you read a critique that says things like you’ll never make it, you’re a terrible writer? Turn that voice into a character too, and let the best friend and the kindly observer take her on. She’s not only wrong she’s mean to attack you when you’re vulnerable. Nobody should be allowed to treat you that way. Use as many characters as you need to tie her up, gag her, and lock her in a closet.

For those who like technical terms this whole process is called dissociation. Imagining the POV of the friend who is reacting to the writer is one kind of dissociation, and imagining the POV of the disinterested, but kind, observer reacting to the entire situation is another. Finally, using the POV of a writer who keeps her sense of humor and proportion is another way to dissociate.

You have moved from taking it personally with all the hurt and anger that goes with that position, to having feelings but not taking it personally, to being able to view the critique from the point of view of someone who critiques the critique.

I can hear some of you objecting, “But all this is imaginary. What will happen when it’s a real critique?” College basketball players were divided into two groups. One group was assigned thirty minutes additional practice shooting goals, while the other group was told to mentally shoot goals for thirty minutes. The group who only imagined shooting goals improved as much, and in some cases more than those who physically practiced. Being a writer, you already have the fundamental skill of imagining someone else’s feelings. As with all skills, the more you practice the more you will improve.

Will you eventually become ‘thick-skinned?’ Probably not. You’re a romance writer. Sensitivity to your own and other people’s feelings is built in. But when somebody says “Don’t take it personally,” you’ll know what to do.


  1. Great info, MM. Criticism is definitely a big part of the writing business. Personally, I love getting a comment from my agent or editor that makes the book suddenly much better. There is that ah ha moment of seeing it from a whole new, and better, perspective.

  2. I agree. My agent has a gift for spotting what's wrong with a sentence that doesn't quite work. Her suggestions always make my writing better.

    Deb (our Casablanca editor for those who don't know) has the special genius of seeing what should be added. Sometimes it's a scene, sometimes only a sentence or two, but it's facscinating to see how much richer and fuller everything around it becomes.

  3. MM--very interesting ideas! I'm always one for constructive criticism. But as you point out, it is hard not to take things personally when it's your very own writing!

  4. Very good MM!

    Years ago I had an editor tell me to never take it personally and anything she suggested was to make my book better. That it was MY book, not hers and she wanted it to be the best one ever. Then she asked me if I put away my voodoo doll. :>


  5. Great idea, MM! I never thought of trying to remove myself from it quite like that. I've gotten much better at accepting constructive criticism (um, key word is "constructive," though!), and I really value it from my CP, my agent, and Deb, all of whom have an excellent eye. You hit the nail on the head about Deb's particular gift, too:-) I've never been unhappy about an added scene!

    I'll admit to be VERY bad at taking lousy amazon reviews:-)

  6. Kendra,

    Studies of people who say they're "good at taking criticism" distance themselves in exactly the way I've suggested--I've simply adapted the process to a writer's skills.

    Try reading some of those reviews pretending that you've switched identities with your best friend. Let me know what difference (if any) it makes.

  7. Very thoughtful and helpful. I am going to keep this in mind, but I usually find my critique group are spot on, and my book is always better for their insights.

  8. I think I need to carve this in stone and post it on the wall! Thanks, MM!

  9. This is wonderful advice, MM, and I will try to take it to heart. I just got word from Danielle that my ARCs are being sent out to long lead reviewers and I am nervous, to say the least. One thing I have had to learn is that an objective viewpoint can, indeed, show you something in the forest that you haven't been able to see for the trees.

  10. Excellent advice. Now comes the fun of putting it into practice, yes ladies!? Critique, proofreading, editing, whatever you want to call it is naturally essential to the publishing game, and I think we all realize it even if it does sting a bit. Deb, our friends, even agents do want us to succeed, so thier advice is probably going to be constructive and wise.

    But, there is a fundamental difference between what is offered by people who have our best interests in mind and the random reader reviewer who just wants to be mean or find fault for no reason. Sadly there are too many of those and I am not sure this philospohy applies to them. Just my thoughts. Be careful spending too much effort in considering it all.

  11. "But, there is a fundamental difference between what is offered by people who have our best interests in mind and the random reader reviewer who just wants to be mean or find fault for no reason. Sadly there are too many of those and I am not sure this philospohy applies to them. Just my thoughts. Be careful spending too much effort in considering it all."

    Actually, Sharon, it does apply. This strategy is your best protection against mean and spiteful reviews. "Best Friend" and "Disinterested Observer" won't be hurt by them, and will call them exactly what they are.

    I did have one reviewer who trashed Kiss. My Observer said, "Hmm. Wonder what the rest of her reviews are like?"
    I read a few and decided I was in pretty good company. When I think of the review now, I think it's funny.