Critiques and Cultivating Self-Awareness

I’ve written about critiquing and revising several times before. There’s a reason for that—in the last two years, I’ve personally had to come to terms with how critiquing works, how it feels, what I should take from it, and what role it plays in an author’s career. I’ve also watched how those around me have learned to deal (or not deal) with critiques, from casual one-time crit acquaintances to long-term crit partners whom I adore and still work with. You really do go through the five stages of grief when learning to accept critiques, but successful writers eventually make it to the acceptance stage: critiques are helpful and healthy and the best way to ensure your story does what you want it to do.

But how do you get to that point? How do you eventually make it through the hurt and come to a place of understanding and acceptance? That, dear writer, is the million dollar question. And sure, there’s the usual answers of time, perseverance, blah, blah, blah, but what can you really, actually do?

so much pain

Long answer: For me, the answer is self-awareness. By this point, I know myself, and I know my reactions. I know that when I first get a large critique I will be very sad, and I need to give myself a few hours (or even days) to process that. I know that I’ll have a lot of emotional reactions to the feedback at first. How can I not? It’s like getting up on stage and being booed. It’s a mixture of shame and humiliation over making mistakes, anger over people “misinterpreting” things or just “not getting it”, and sadness for having poured so much of my soul into something and having it criticized. These are honest, real reactions, but they shouldn’t dominate the way you react to feedback, and they absolutely shouldn’t dominate how you revise. Because ultimately, that feedback is what’s going to make your book shine.

Short answer: Don’t bullshit yourself. Learn to spot when you’re bullshitting.

My common bullshitting reactions include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • But I like it this way
  • But I did it that way for a specific reason
  • But I worked so hard on that
  • But this scene is essential for Reasons
  • But does that little thing really matter?
  • But changing that will require huge changes in these twenty other places
  • I don’t get how they see it that way
  • NO. *growl*
  • This is terrible, I am terrible, there is no hope, I should give up

Other things to look for in your own reactions (mostly compiled from the #PitchWars class of 2015, thanks y’all):

  • A different crit partner didn’t have a problem with that scene, therefore I’m justified in not fixing it
  • I’m staying true to my art
  • They’re reading it wrong
  • Let me explain it and you’ll understand
  • That’s just the way I write
  • They just don’t get it

The answer to all of these is the same. It isn’t working for this reader. Their opinion is valid. Take a step back, take stock of what you’re feeling, and really think about what you’re hearing.

Next time you get feedback on a piece of work, try this:

  • Name the feeling you’re having. Anger. Shame. Embarrassment. Disappointment. Allow yourself to feel it. Don’t say or do anything to react to it, but specifically acknowledge it and let yourself feel it.
  • Let the feedback sit. A few hours, a few days, a few weeks, however long it takes for you to feel less emotional and be able to approach it more objectively.
  • What is it specifically about that one piece of feedback that bothers you? Is it the work required to fix it? Does it change something you’re particularly proud of? You can be proud of your writing and still acknowledge that it’s not right for the story.
  • What’s at the core of the feedback? Maybe you don’t agree with the specifics, but you can see that there’s something wrong. You don’t agree that the chapter should be cut, but you do agree there are pacing problems, etc.
  • Is it a grammar rule you’re having issues with? These are probably the easiest to let go of. Learn the rule, do better in the future. You might feel some embarrassment over having messed up, or defensiveness because you’ve always done it that way and you don’t think it sounds wrong, but when it comes down to it there’s no need to feel prideful over an established, industry-standard grammar rule. Follow the rule unless you have a really good stylistic reason for breaking it that others agree works.
  • Change your attitude going into the critique. When you first deliver your MS to your critique partner, say, “Do whatever you gotta do to make it awesome,” or, “Tear it up, I can take it!”. When it’s time to receive the critique, mentally prepare for it. Go into it calm, sit down with your crit partner, and say, “Okay, tell me how I can make this better.”
  • Set yourself up to receive the critique however you need. If you need to be alone to process, ask your CPs to send their critiques as edit letters or with track changes in Word or Google Docs. However, I’d really encourage you to try receiving your crits over the phone or in person. It reminds you that the person you’re talking to is a real human who cares about your MS, not a nameless enemy out to hurt you. It also lets them explain a bit about the suggestions they’re making, so you don’t see them in a vacuum.
  • Go into it expecting changes. I’ve talked about this before, but lots of people go into a critique wanting validation. That’s not the point. The point is to make the story better. You’re never done making changes until the book goes to print. A good crit partner will give you some cheerleading too, but that’s not what it’s about.

If, after you’ve done all this, you still feel that a piece of feedback isn’t correct, feel free to disregard it. No one critique partner is correct 100% of the time—not even a Pitch Wars mentor! But make sure you’re rejecting that feedback for the right reasons.

Learning to accept critiques is one of the hardest parts of being a writer, but it’s absolutely essential if you want to be a professional. Better to learn now than to try to learn when the critique is coming from an agent or editor!

For more on the subjects of critiques and revising, see my other two posts:
On Receiving Critiques
It’s Not Selling Out!: On Revising From Feedback

How do you react to critiques? Any strategies to share? Let me know in the comments.

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