Last article on critiques was about process. This one is about how you relate to other people.
Before I start in on this article, which is all about how to handle being criticized, I would like you to know that the vast majority of the time you get critiques, they’re probably going to be a pleasant experience–especially if you take the right attitude about them and you make yourself a pleasant person to critique.
When someone gives you a critique, thank them like I’d said in the previous post. They spent time on your project and you do the bare minimum to reward them.
Thank them even if they did a shitty job.
Thank them even if they insulted you. (Never use them again if they did so, but still.)
You do this because you want to be seen by the world around you as a gracious, professional writer who will be pleasant to work with. The more you make the habit of being gracious even when you don’t feel like it, the easier it will be when you’re sitting on a panel of published authors some day and someone goes to the microphone to tell you, in public and before everyone, how much they hated your book.
Think it won’t happen? Maybe not in front of a microphone, but every writer who ever makes it big has someone who very publicly states how much they hate that person’s work and what a hack they are. In print. Nationally distributed. Or on talk shows. So practice for that day, if nothing else.
Then open a Word document and write out your feelings. Use as many swear words as you want. Tuck it away somewhere and never, ever, ever publish it.
Next: No matter how much you desperately want to, and you probably will, do not answer the questions your crit partners raise unless they really do want to know the answer and they tell you so. 80% of the time or more, they will be asking the question in order to let you know that there’s some confusion you should address, not because they are in burning need of the answer themselves.
These are critique clips from my WIP’s second “chapter.” My critique partner has asked questions; they’re in green highlighting. He also highlighted the stuff in yellow, which is what his first question references. I didn’t answer these questions because they’re not meant to be answered by me to him, but by me to my readers, which means that what I really need to do is go back and make my writing more clear.
When a crit partner asks you a question, it means your writing isn’t clear. Fix your writing. You’re not going to be going home with your readers, answering their every question as they read. Make sure your writing isn’t confusing in the first place.
If you’re a normal new writer, you’re probably going to want to talk for a very long time to anyone who will listen about your story. Sometimes this is appropriate. Sometimes it isn’t.
It’s never appropriate to go on and on about your story, your plot, or your characters if you’re boring other people or taking unfair advantage of their good nature, patience, or your crit partnership. Pay attention to their expressions, their body language, and the tone and words they use to respond. If their feet are pointed away from you, they don’t want to hear what you have to say. They want to walk in the direction their feet are pointing. (Really.) Online, if their responses are monosyllabic and there are big pauses between them, that’s a good sign they’re more invested in something else at the moment.
Some crit groups (the best ones) are places where you can bring up problems with your story and your crit partners will discuss those problems with you and help you hash them out. This is a workshopping thing, and it’s fun and awesome. You must be as willing to help them with their stories as you expect them to be willing to help with yours, or you’re being an ass. Don’t be an ass. If you want to do that, here’s how you do it.
You: “You guys kept asking what my main character’s motivation was for assaulting the tavern. She really wants the cash box under the till because she knows the tavern makes a lot of money on Fridays and the staff is lax about money drops, so it’s a great time to rob the place. She even made sure that the bouncer would be distracted by slipping a little laxative in his lunch when he ate at her diner earlier that day, remember? I said in Chapter 1 that she was broke, and in Chapter 2 I said that the tavern staff was lax, and in Chapter 3 I mentioned the laxative, so why didn’t you get it? And you said you didn’t understand the magic system I’m using. It works like this …”
You: “Hey friends! I’m having a problem with Act 1 and I want to talk about what you all brought up in your critiques. Do you have a moment?”
You: “Joe [crit partner 1] said that my main character’s motives for assaulting the tavern were a little vague, and Katie [crit partner 2] agreed with him. I’m having trouble seeing it. Can you explain a bit more? Also, can you please help me figure out how much I need to explain about the magic system for readers to understand what’s going on without being bored? I’m stuck.”
People love to talk about how they feel and what they think. It makes them feel smart and valued. Give your crit partners the chance to feel smart and valued, not like you think they’re stupid, ignorant, and bad at reading.
What if your crit group meets offline?
Some crit groups are set up so that people hand out their 10 pages of writing (typed, double-spaced) during the first meeting, then get their crits back the following week. Some people focus on one person and their story a week. However you do it, this is the process for receiving your feedback.
I’m not kidding. The best, most useful, and probably most personally difficult way to accept a critique from your offline crit partners is to let them give it. Some people will speak directly to you. Do not reply. Do not answer their questions. You may write their questions down, but don’t say a single word unless they desperately need you to in order to continue their critique. Other crit groups will do a panel thing where they all sit around and talk about your work with each other and you shut up and write everything they say down and do not say a single word unless they beg you or they’re done, at which point you say “thank you.” I know I’m being repetitive here, but I cannot stress this enough. If you want people to want to crit your work, this is what you do.
Besides, you do get to speak.
Your crit group’s mores may mean you get to reply to your critique partners individually, after each person is done. You might reply to them en masse when they’re all done. That’s up to your crit group, of whom you’re a part and can help make those decisions. I prefer to reply to everybody, because sometimes more than one person will have the same basic criticism, but each will have their own spin on it.
Do your absolute best to avoid explaining what’s going on in your book, what they missed, or answering their questions unless they ask you to. Instead, ask them the questions you wrote down. Then your group can, with you as a part of it, have a productive conversation about your WIP. Write down stuff from that too. What you’re getting is a gift, and you should appreciate it.
If your group has time limits for feedback, respect them. Don’t talk over, through, or for another person in your crit group whether you’re the recipient or another critiquer. If you can’t stick to a time limit, write down what you want to say and hand it to the person it needs to go to. If your group has four writers and each of you submits something each week and receives crits the next week, then it’s going to take time to get through each critique, and if you hog all the time, people will get irritated at you. Take all the time you’re allotted, but don’t go over.
If you think that the members of your crit group are just plain wrong, or are expressing their personal irritation with you through your crits, then you should meet with them outside of your writer’s get-together and hash it out, or leave and find another group. Don’t try to resolve your personal problems with a crit partner (or theirs with you) in the middle of the meeting. All that does is make everyone uncomfortable, and then you get people who make excuses and don’t show up.
Now all of this advice is on how to behave well and on how to resolve problems with crit partners. This is because if there are no problems between you and your crit partners, then there’s no need for the advice. That said, even friends sometimes run into trouble, and it’s good to think about what to do ahead of time.
Most of the time the critique process is pleasant. I usually experience a bit of an endorphin high when I read a critique because someone actually read and replied to my writing! Most everyone I know couldn’t give a shit about my writing, which is a common problem for new writers. On top of that, I get to find out what they liked / what I’m doing right! And I get to find out what I can fix to make it so that even more people like what I’m writing, which means maybe some day someone will give a shit about my work and I get to learn something. That seems like a win-win situation to me.