Getting Punched in the Gut

How do you feel when you offer your writing for examination and it gets torn apart? For me, it would depend on the motivation of the person who is doing the criticizing. Since I would be looking for an honest evaluation I would expect to hear about weaknesses in the manuscript. What I wouldn’t appreciate is to have large chunks of the story deleted or rewritten because “it sounds much better than the way you wrote it,” or to be told the work is unredeemably bad. That would feel like a punch in the stomach.

It’s painful to get negative critiques on one’s writing but how do you deal with them? I’ve discovered several recent posts on the topic and would like to offer a few excerpts for your consideration.

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In mid-September on the Geek Goddesses site Phoebe Kitanidis blogged about “The jerk in your critique group,” but with an unexpected twist – she referred to herself as the jerk! In an effort to avoid any negative feedback from her fellow writers she found she wasn’t submitting anything for critiquing that hadn’t first been polished to perfection. Having others not find anything negative to say about her work felt good. It made her feel superior, and in turn she offered arrogant opinions on the work of the other members.  She ended up discouraging others and not learning very much herself at the critique sessions.

In retrospect she saw herself and others like her as “people invested in the idea of themselves as writers—but not especially invested in the craft of writing itself.”

On the Writer Unboxed website Anna Elliott says, “There comes a point for every writer, published or not, when you have to let others read your book.  It’s a scary moment, because however hard you’ve worked, however much you love your beloved manuscript, there are never any guarantees that your reader will love it, too. … When I’m still in the writing/revision stage, I try to remember that my first loyalty is to the story I’m telling, not to my own feelings.”

So if we steel ourselves to turn in less than stellar writing for peer critiques, how do we handle the emotions that erupt at the inevitable criticisms and suggestions?

Kristen Lamb on the Warrior Writers site  says, “I would like to point out that a good critique might very well make you angry. But, before casting judgment, take a break, calm down, then ask yourself why this person’s comments so upset you.

“A really good critic is highly skilled at finding your greatest weaknesses. That is a good thing. Better to find and fix the flaws while a work is in progress and changes can be made. But, it is normal to react. Thus, the best advice is to breathe deeply. Listen. Calm down by breathing deeply some more. Ask questions. Check your ego. And then grow. Trust me. One day you will thank these people for having the courage to be honest.”

One reaction on the Writer Unboxed post: “I’ve heard so much about rejection in the industry, but I wasn’t expecting it from my friends. I know this is going to sound bitter, but when you get your manuscript back, you’re going to find out who your true friends are. They’re the ones who will give you the bad news with a soft touch, and the good news with a big smile.” [Tamara]

There are always tactless people who feel superior and need to prove it by tearing down others, but Kristen says,“they were born little creeps who just grew into larger creeps.” Perhaps we have to accept that, and, if we truly want to grow, put aside the hurt and carry on.

It’s good advice if you can follow it. Have you ever had to deal with tough or unfair critiques? How did you cope?

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21 thoughts on “Getting Punched in the Gut

  1. e6n1 says:

    THe best revenge is to become sucessful- you can wave it in their faces!

  2. Cathy says:

    Great post, Carol. I’m sure we’ve all had to go through a less than kind critique and it’s not much fun. Character building, as they say! We lick our wounds and try to learn from it as we do from negative experiences in life when people are mean to us for no reason. It does happen.

    For the most part, I’ve been lucky to mostly encounter well meaning writers who offer helpful criticism without making me feel diminished. I thank them all for helping me grow as a writer!

  3. Dave Ebright says:

    I’ve only had 2 partial critiques – yours being one. In both cases, the suggestions were positive & helpful. “Finding” someone willing to read a YA MS isn’t that easy, which is one reason I’m not involved in a group. (I, for instance, wouldn’t want to review Romance or Fantasy – so I understand the reluctance.)

  4. Erica Vetsch says:

    If I think a crit is particularly harsh, I let it sit for awhile. When I come back to it, hopefully I’ll have a more objective eye. But I’ve also learned to go with my gut, too, and if the crit isn’t resonating with me, I toss it out. :)

  5. elderfox says:

    Ahhh, criticism…I am NOT a person to go to when it comes to giving a critique on someone’s writing. I know when something doesn’t read well to me, but to tell the author why…that’s a whole different ball of wax. I’ve (unfortunately) been in a writing group where my writing was always “wonderful”, and that, for me, was as defeating as being told it was “crap”. In fact it shoved me into a “block” that I’m still trying to break out of. Can anyone explain that?

    • LOL! That’s a great plan, e6n1. Thanks for the suggestion and for stopping by to comment.

      Thanks, Cathy. I guess if there is nothing to be learned from the criticism looking at it as a character-building experience allows us to at least take away something positive.

      Dave, it never occurred to me that it would be difficult to find people willing to read YA because several bloggers that I interact with are YA writers. But I do know how hard it is to find people with compatible interests in a particular adult genre. I would like to find a real life crit partner or small group where I live, but after three years of trying I’m no closer to locating one.

      Is that related to the “count to ten” principle, Erica? I think it’s an excellent idea. :)

      Elderfox, as Phoebe Kitanidis discovered, when other writers offer only praise, it suggests our work is too good to be improved and, while that might temporarily stoke our ego, we know it’s not true. It can leave us thinking that nobody wants to interact honestly with us. Then, as Erica said, it’s time to trust ourselves and toss out the useless comments. I’d say getting past that block might need some one-on-one time with other serious writers. ;)

  6. Paul Greci says:

    A couple years ago I had one critique that I felt was more a critique of me than my writing. I haven’t sent that person any more work to critique yet but I have critiqued for them since then. I might give it another try b/c the person’s comments on the book were helpful, it was the other stuff that bothered me. Still undecided.

  7. Lynn says:

    I haven’t written many stories yet to be critiqued, but I did submit one for that purpose. I can’t say that the critique I received was unfair, but since it was my first on such an attempt I didn’t take it very well – at first. I even blogged about the experience – and if you don’t mind my boldness – you can read it here: http://tinyurl.com/2ucdnlp
    Critiques may be a little painful (read that as ‘hurtful to the pride’) but when delivered with good intentions they should be accepted gracefully. If possible. Right? :)

    You write such great posts, Carol. Thanks!

  8. I don’t think I”ve had many unfair or harsh critiques, unless you count a few from my husband–HA! But he doesn’t enjoy my style of writing to begin with, so…

    The times I’ve become angry at a critique is because I was too enamored with my baby to see its faults. And that’s called pride.

  9. Tricia says:

    There was a jerk in my critique group who never marked up our work because it took an extra effort. Instead, he gave us verbal critiques that were more like attacks, e.g., once throwing the pages at a writer and telling her it was garbage. He rarely submitted anything due to the fact he could dish it out but couldn’t take it. He got extremely defensive and combative to critiques of his own work.

    He’s an extreme example, but he does go down in the worst critiquer Hall of Fame.

    p.s. I no longer attend that group. He has a high turnover from what I hear.

    • When a critique attacks the writer instead of the writing (or “attacks” at all) I’d say you’re wise to steer clear of future encounters, Paul. That person has the wrong idea about their responsibilities as a critic.

      Lynn, when we first start sharing our writing with others it’s hard to put aside our vulnerability. Everyone advises writers to develop a thick skin, but it isn’t easy to do, or at least it takes time and experience. When we pour so much effort and emotion into our creations it’s hard to hear that they are less than perfect. But if we’re serious about our writing, about improving and growing as a writer, we have to accept that there will always be both negative and positive reactions to our work. Unfortunately some can be unduly harsh but in my experience most fellow writers intend to be helpful. (Now I’m off to check out your post.)

      Pride can be hard to swallow, for sure, Jeanette. When it comes to our families, they’re usually too biased to provide anything but positive feedback and that’s less than helpful. My husband doesn’t offer an opinion of my style or genre, but gives practical comments about credibility or inconsistent details, which I appreciate.

      Tricia, it sounds like that guy needed a lesson in proper critique techniques. Our group has a printed sheet that is given to the membership and sets out a few group basics including guidelines for effective critique sessions. If he had pulled that in our group the chairperson would have sat on him!

  10. Jordan says:

    I’ve gotten the “let me rewrite this for you” from a stranger who was not a critique partner. This person read the part of the first chapter I had posted on my site at the time and wanted me to use certain elements to greater potential. However, the idea for and example of a rewrite ended up taking out sensory elements, losing clues (not that he could’ve known, of course), ignoring plain-faced facts stated in the scene, and best of all, killing the murderer.

    The rest of the advice also killed the internal conflicts and romantic tension inherent in the setup. I was trembling with fury, to be honest. You can’t “fix” something you obviously haven’t read carefully in the first place. Ultimately, I know my story better than anyone, and I can see when advice is just completely wrong for my story.

    I thanked the person (who’d spent a lot of time on it) and eventually moved on. A few months later, that unchanged chapter won first place in a prominent (possibly the preeminent) conference in this regional/niche market.

    (Graciously, the person reached out to congratulate me on the win—even though my re-posted chapter reflected none of that person’s influence.)

    My best critique partners have helped me dig deeper and reach further. Naturally, that means they point out flaws and weaknesses.

    You know, even a good critique partnership sounds like a dysfunctional relationship!

  11. joylene says:

    I can take pretty well any criticism if it’s constructive. If I’m directed to change my style to fit the person, I’m immediately suspicious and subconsciously not paying much attention after that. Which can be a shame. Today I don’t care if the person is arrogant or not, I pay careful attention to every comment or suggestion. It doesn’t take much to see if their interests are for me or a’gin me. If I get one great suggestion from their critique, it was worth it.

    On the other shoe, I hope I’m careful and don’t push anyone to give up writing. I can’t help but have personal opinions, so I reiterate that all this is only my opinion; I’m no expert.

    But despite the pitfalls, I would encourage all writers to get feedback from experienced critique writers. You get more than one commenting or suggestion similar things, then you know they’re on to something.

  12. Wow! I’ve not had many people read my writing except short stories and poetry on my blog. When my novel manuscript was in its raw form, one friend, and an editor whom I didn’t know personally, and an author whom I also did not have a relationship with critiqued my work. Their criticisms helped me. Without their input, I’d have not known what I needed to do next. Their honest but kind suggestions and their encouragement were as important as their advice. I am grateful for not having experienced a negative, mean-hearted critic. Such a hurtful encounter may have ended my pursuit of publication and any further work on my manuscript. Don’t let that happen to you. Criticism shouldn’t be painful. Remember that no one likes every kind of writing. Your mean critics may be reading what doesn’t interest them to begin with.

  13. I always appreciate it when people take time to read and comment on my work–even if I don’t always agree with them. Unfortunately I’m not a member of a writing group, so I don’t get many critiques.

    • Hi, Jordan. My “rewriting” comment was generic, but I know it happens. I’m not sure why people like that think their unsolicited advice is desired. I’ve occasionally asked someone how they might say something that I’m having trouble with, but even then, if the response doesn’t work for me I don’t feel obliged to adopt it.

      Joylene, it’s obvious you have the maturity and experience that I mentioned to Lynn, and have developed enough confidence in your writing to know when a comment or suggestion is important. That insight is invaluable!

      Carol Ann, like you, so far I haven’t encountered any mean spirited people such as Phoebe and Kristen described; most critiques have been positive and helpful. I agree that “criticism shouldn’t be painful,” but I think at times it can be hard to hear… for example, when some beautiful passage that we are proud of is pointed out as being unnecessary because it isn’t moving the plot along. :)

      I’m a member of a writing group, Carol, but it’s quite large and there is no time at meetings to critique more than 500 words, so it doesn’t allow for useful critiquing of novels unless I just want help with a single scene. The majority of members are content to write essays specifically for class sessions. I enjoy the people but don’t get a lot of benefit from the meetings. I think online critique groups may be a better alternative.

  14. This is a great post with great discussion. I haven’t had any hard criticism since college. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. If–no, when–I type “the end,” I plan to seek a paid critique. I might also invest in a small box of tissue and a big box of chocolate. ;)

  15. Judith Robl says:

    I have just now found two writing groups within an easy drive of my home. So I belong to both.

    One is supportive fellowship – not very long on the critique angle.

    The other is good company, but more importantly thoughtful suggestions:
    I couldn’t figure where we were;
    have you thought about x,
    what did you mean by….

    Those kinds of responses are valuable feedback. I doubt very much that I’ll get professional level critique from either group, but I find both groups stimulating and inspiring.

    Professionally, I mentor and critique. I try to supply both tissues and chocolate :-) Well, at least I try to come at it from the standpoint of helping the author polish their rough-cut diamond. I hope never, NEVER, to tear down a writer to the point of discouragement.

  16. territiffany says:

    Carol,
    First,thank you for your wisdom in your comment to me on my blog and then let me say, this is one of the best posts I’ve read about critiquing. When I get my work back from my critique partners, I always hope they have found something and will be kindly honest with me cause they wish the best for me. I am more disappointed if someone won’t share what my weak areas are–I’ll never grow that way.

    • Judith, you are so fortunate to have found two groups that meet your needs! That kind of support is such a blessing!

      I’m glad you found this post worthwhile, Terri. Much of the credit goes to those whose blogs I rifled for the information and I hope you had a chance to click over and read their posts.

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