Three Tips for Surviving Story Critiques

Criticism is hard to swallow. 


No matter how it is worded, us writers want to guard our prose babies and protect them from the harsh words of others. But it is also how our written offspring grow from helpless first drafts into published members of the literary world.

You see, us writers seem to think that our work can be good on its own—and it is possible. But do we want our stories to settle for just being good, or do we want them to be great? I personally, want to give readers the best story I can give them, and I know that will require help along the way. I will need to have my story critiqued in order to learn where it is not working. Unless, of course, I want my readers to fall head-first into the pot holes I left behind while paving my prose into a road my readers could follow. 

But that doesn't mean it is easy to share our most intimate, heart-beating stories with others; especially if we know they will tear it apart so we can learn how to make it better.

In my honest opinion, critique is the most difficult part of the writing process. But if I want to be a brave writer instead of one that screams mediocre, I will need to place my work into the hands of someone else; whether it be a critique partner, an English professor, an editor, or peer workshop. 

So what are some ways we can deal with criticism in order to write a better story? Here are three tips I have learned. 

1. Grow thick skin.
We cannot defend our work! The point of seeking corrective criticism is not so we can be praised for writing such a great story. It is so it could become the story we are trying to write. If we defend our work, we will be selling ourselves short. We will be wasting our time and that of others, and it will not profit anyone. So let's take a deep breath, grow lizard-thick-skin (or maybe dragon scales if we are awesome like that), and hear what our readers are saying about our work.

2. Listen to the majority.
If one reader states an issue, we need to consider what is being said. But if many readers state the same problem, we need to change it, remove it, or figure out a better way to communicate it more clearly. After all, if what we are writing seems clear to us but confusing to readers, our story won't be understood as we are intending it to (and we aren't trying to write a foreign language, right?) But if our prose is being read that way by the majority, the issue is not with their understanding; it is with the way we are communicating.

3. Recognize what is constructive criticism and what is hateful feedback. 

There is a big difference between the two, and in order for critiques to become helpful to us writers we need to understand what each of these are.

Here is what construction criticism looks like:

"This character is flat. Give him a flaw he could work through and overcome." 
"This part of the story does not make sense. Can you please clarify what is happening here?"
"There is a lot of telling in this story. Add more sensory detail to show us what is happening while keeping us in the moment."

Constructive criticism is truth--which we need--but it has the purpose of tearing down and building up behind it. If there are cracks in our foundation, the whole house will come tumbling down at some point, and the last thing we want is for our readers (not our fellow writers, but the public) to notice those cracks. The goal for constructive criticism in writing is to discover what is broken so we could fix it.

But some critiques are not helpful at all. In fact, they aren't even critiques! If there are no suggestions for how to improve a story (or the writing in general), and only negative remarks, they are nothing but hate-mail. Those comments only tear down a story, and leave it roofless and broken with no plans for repair. Here are some examples of hateful feedback:

"You spent so much time writing about things I don't care about." 

(Okay, is it the content you don't like? Could you please specify what you don't care for?)


"This story was stupid." 

(Okay, could you please give me some reasons why, and more importantly, how I can make it better?)

"I hate this character."

(Okay, what about them don't you like? Do you have any suggestions for how I could create a more likable character?) 

As you can see, these statements are not helpful. However, before we set the comments aside, we need to take the time to consider if we are being sensitive and defensive (which could blind us from seeing the truth). Then we should compare those comments with what the majority of readers are saying. Do they agree with those comments? Or not?

If the majority says otherwise, we can discard those comments as hate-mail and address the other critiques for our next draft. 

Now let's recap. What are the three survival tips for story critiques?

1. Grow Thick Skin 
2. Listen to the Majority 
3. Recognize the Difference Between Constructive Criticism and Hateful Feedback

What have been your best and worst experiences with criticism related to writing? What have you taken away from those experiences? Don't be shy. Be brave. Sharing is part of the writing process. ;)

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