How to Handle Harsh Criticism in Context: 3 Questions to Ask After a Rough Critique
Criticism comes in many forms. If a critic gives a comment that feels hurtful, incorrect, personal, or underwhelming, responding with language full of fire and brimstone can be tempting. Before responding to a less than stellar remark about your work, consider the context. Asking these questions can save you from giving off a negative impression to potential readers and valuable writing friends.
Asking for opinions opens the door to any and all comments. When asking for feedback, there are effective ways to ensure the contributors are helpful, not hurtful. Keep in mind the forum in which the comments were given, and the rules of engagement for the specific arena.
Unguarded forums are places in which anyone and everyone, whether they know writing or not, can submit their comments. If submitting a work in progress, be very cautious about submitting to these types of forums (in person and online). Shelling out hard copies of a half-finished work to coworkers for their opinions can return very uncertain results, especially from those who are not in a position to offer creative advice.
In a writing group, online or in person, there are often rules to guide the discussion toward productive and positive interaction. If the giver of the comment broke these rules, report them. If they are well within the rules, see the questions below before losing all composure.
“Who is this person?”
Consider asking this instead of “Why would they do this to me?”, “What did I ever do to them?”, or “What hole did that guy crawl out of?” Really, though, there’s a person behind that critique. In order to help decide whether or not to take what they said seriously, ask yourself a few things.
First, do they know you? A “yes” isn’t always a good thing. Supportive friends and family are wonderful, but their comments should be taken with a grain of salt. Do they know what they’re talking about?
If they read extensively in your genre, have an informed perspective, and genuinely want your project to match your vision, then really give their comments weight and consider them carefully. If they rarely read, don’t like your genre, are non-specific, and/or don’t appreciate how much the project means to you, then get some distance between you and their comment.
Second, is theirs the opinion you need? A major critique issue is receiving feedback from the wrong audience.
Writers of all genres should take some time to ensure they are openly labeling their work even in the development stages. Asking a fan of romance to read and comment on a science fiction dystopian work will produce a skewed response.
Before asking a specific person or group for input, be well aware who will have the background/taste necessary to appreciate the genre or style of the work. This will provide advice both applicable and informed, rather than feedback that’s inconsistent and confused.
Finally, do they do what you do? Getting a critique from another writer, or (even better) an editor, is a double-edged sword. Yes, they know how important it is to get feedback, which can make their comments specific and effective; but there are other things that can influence their feedback.
The main rule for seeking aid from others in the writing field is vet vet vet! Verify who they are, what they do, how long they’ve been doing it, who they’ve worked with, and what they have to offer.
If possible, look at comments they’ve shared with others (in the case of editors, ask to have a sample done first as well as samples of work they’ve done in print) to ensure they have both the skills and perspective you want for your work.
Do this retroactively for anyone who leaves comments you find disagreeable. You may find you actually have a master sharing sincere and well-seasoned experience for your benefit… even though it may sting. Other times, you find the person you took seriously is actually someone who has no right to talk. Better to know before hating them or your own work.
As a final note on keeping critiques in context, be very aware of what was distributed.
If you shared a scene to be reviewed, know some people will have no idea where it fits in the book and be aware what confusion may come up.
If you shared a full manuscript, know it will take time to read and they may write all over it and/or share only a general impression (since it may have taken them a few days to read it).
If they purchased the finished book, read it, and left an online review you disagree with, mentally recall that this project is what it has become because of hard work and diligent revision from worthwhile input. It is finished, and you don’t have to (and sometimes can’t) change a word for that person. No use wallowing over it or getting into a yelling match.
More importantly, ask yourself how much power you will give to those who comment on your work. Whether the feedback is requested or unsolicited, the author decides what advice gets used or discarded. They even decide which gets printed out and burned in the backyard just for their personal satisfaction (in lieu of damaging their public image by starting a fight on the internet).
Seek advice often, from the right people, at the right time, in the right way. Always know who people are and what they have to offer in making your work the best it can be. And never forget who has the final say.