Your writing is precious. In many ways it’s a part of yourself. So it’s understandable that when people want to criticize it and try to tell you to do it differently, many of us get defensive. But defending your writing is not going to make it any better. In fact, the mentality that defensiveness comes from is only going to make your writing flat-line. As someone who has been through countless creative writing courses in college and beyond, I feel I can offer some helpful advice on how to accept critiques of your work.
Your Writing Must Speak For Itself
This is the most important point to remember when listening to or reading a critique. Many authors want to step in and say, “well, actually. . .” Actually nothing—when someone critiques your story, they are doing exactly what readers will do. They are reading the story, sometimes missing details that are there, sometimes skimming parts, sometimes misinterpreting other parts, and then making a judgment based on how they read your story. So maybe a reader claims that it didn’t make any sense when Character A sacrificed himself for Character B. You might be tempted to point them back a few chapters to when Character A gave some hint that he cared more deeply for Character B than it seemed. So what’s the problem with that? Didn’t you do your job as a writer and plant the evidence? Isn’t it the reader’s fault if they missed it?
The answer isn’t “yes”, it’s “maybe”.
Why? Because storytelling isn’t black and white. Maybe you did technically include a detail or allude to something, but if one reader missed it, more will have missed it. That leaves you as an author with an important question—are you willing to let a portion of readers go through your story with the same confusion your critiquer had? Whether you decide to keep the portion as it is or not, the most important distinction to make is that no one who critiques your story can be wrong. You almost have to imagine you’re back at that minimum wage customer service job. “The [critiquer] is always right.” However, just like in customer service, that doesn’t mean you have to believe them. It just means the right thing to do is to keep your opinion to yourself, take their feedback, and consider what to do with it.
What Do You Say?
The best thing to say to anyone who criticizes your work is “thank you.” You may want to elaborate on why a specific piece of advice they gave you was really insightful or comment on how you plan to implement their advice into your work. Maybe you even want to offer to take a look at something of theirs to pay back the favor—because that’s what a critique is, it’s a favor. But what shouldn’t you do?
Never defend your work to a critiquer! Someone’s opinion can’t be wrong. A sure sign of an amateur writer is when I get a response to a critique that is a long list of the points I made, and why they will be addressed later in the story (and are therefore invalid) or why I just need to look at something differently to see that it is actually working very well. Personally, that’s also a great way to discourage me from offering future critiques.
Think of it this way. There are many different types of feedback. And people ask for feedback for many different reasons. Sometimes we ask for feedback because we want a confidence boost: “Does this make me look fat?” No one actually wants to hear you tell the truth. But when it comes to feedback on your writing, you really should want to hear the truth. It would be like deciding what you were going to wear for the next five months. Wouldn’t you want to actually know if that was going to make you look fat? If you’re going to be working on a story for hours and hours of your life, it’s a good idea to ask for and expect honest criticism.
What Do You Do With Feedback?
So you know that your story has to speak for itself. You know that you’re just supposed to be polite and appreciative of someone who offers you a critique. But then what do you do with the information? Do you take every suggestion as golden and re-work your story to fit everbody’s desire? Absolutely not! The point is to consider every criticism. Maybe someone suggests that your story should start with a sex scene. Okay. . . Some suggestions will take less time to consider than others. However, maybe you can look at a suggestion that seems completely off target and ask yourself if the critiquer is actually trying to say something else. Are they saying your story’s hook is too weak? Are many people suggesting you do something else with the beginning of your story? When you go back to edit, that’s a serious consideration you should make. The fun part is that you get to fix it however you want to. That’s why it’s still your story and not the story of your critiquers.
The key is moderation. There will inevitably be good suggestions, and there will be bad suggestions. There will also be suggestions that are really tough to consider. The easiest kind of good suggestion is when someone points out a continuity error. Those are obvious fixes. The harder kind are when someone lays down a difficult truth, like that your main character is flat and uninteresting. Tough considerations often would require major reworks.
At the end of the day, feedback is golden. It doesn’t matter if it’s bad, good, or ridiculous. Part of your job as a writer is collecting those viewpoints, putting them through your filter, and deciding which ones you want to act on. But if you take nothing else away from this post, don’t be the guy who writes a thesis defending his story when someone criticizes it. Even if the criticism is so off-base as to be laughable, just nod your head, say thank you, and move on with your life. Jokes and writing are similar in that neither have succeeded if they have to be explained.