Getting critiqued: How to find (and accept) the right feedback – M.J. Pullen

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By M. J. Pullen

It’s finally done. The book that’s going to let you quit your day job, or at least pay for some of the shoes you bought online while you were supposed to be writing. And it’s good. Your mom likes it. Your boyfriend says it’s amazing. Your best friend can’t believe she knows a “real writer.” ♥

Part of you feels ready to start querying agents, or maybe even bypass the agent-editor thing entirely and go straight to self-publishing. The other part is… not so sure. You’ve got this nagging feeling that something is missing. Maybe the plot drags a bit in the middle, or maybe you shouldn’t have named the hero Eugene.

So, how do you get objective feedback (from someone other than your mom) to make your book everything it should be, and get you ready for the next step? The answer, of course, is critique.

“Critique” is a French word that either means “constructive criticism,” or “excruciating, soul-rending torture by red pen,” depending on whose dictionary you’re using. And no matter the stage of your writing career, critique is one of the most important tools in a writer’s repertoire. There are two big questions to resolve regarding critique: where to find good feedback, and how to accept it when you do.

There a lots of answers to the first question. Most often writers get critique by trading or sharing feedback with other writers. This can happen in a large group setting, small group or one-on-one; in-person or online.

Many cities have writers’ groups or clubs that offer critique options to members. Local libraries sometimes sponsor critique groups that are open to the public. If you can find a creative writing class or seminar, it’s often a natural next step for the students to continue on as a critique group after the class. I recommend starting with large group critique as a first step, and then narrowing to a small group or partnership with writers who have similar skill levels and styles.

If you live in a rural area or the idea of face-to-face critique seems too intimidating, there are plenty of online forums where writers can connect and find critique partners, often in a specific genre. Virtual critique is just as useful as in-person critique; I will say, however, I think all writers should find some opportunity to practice reading their work aloud to others.

Marriage Pact - Macmillan - final coverNo matter how you connect with your critique group or partners, the most important criteria for good feedback are: knowledge, trust, objectivity and reciprocity. While skill levels vary, especially in big groups, you’ll want to make sure that at least a few of the people who read your work are knowledgeable readers or writers or both. You must be able to trust your partners with your work and know they won’t belittle or attack you; but will give you objective feedback without worrying about hurting your feelings or alienating you.

If you don’t have a reciprocal relationship with your critique partners, make sure to give clear guidelines about what kind of feedback you need and make it worth their while by buying them dinner or bartering with other favors. Some writers prefer to use a professional editor or critic for this reason: to ensure they get objective, thorough feedback, without having to worry about payback.

Once you have found someone(s) to critique your writing, the challenge of accepting that feedback begins. This part sounds easy enough, but the reality is that you’ve put your heart and soul into your writing. Hearing what’s wrong with it is an awful lot like someone telling you that your baby is ugly or you have toilet paper hanging out of your skirt. It can make you feel defensive, embarrassed and sometimes, completely discouraged.

Because of those very normal feelings, the most important skill to have when accepting feedback is the ability to listen without reacting. Seriously, duct tape your hands and mouth if you must, but don’t say a word. If you defend or explain your work to the person providing critique, not only will you erroneously explain away the problem for yourself, but you will also send the signal that your fragile ego can’t handle all this honesty. That, in turn, may cause your critique partner to mince words, or even skip important feedback, just to avoid hurting your feelings or having to listen to your long-winded explanations. Resist temptation.

After you’ve politely and quietly sat through the initial feedback, say thank you and then try not to make any hasty decisions for the next few days. Allow your brain to absorb what’s been said, and if you have feedback from more than one person, to integrate the perspectives together. Sometimes the problems pointed out by two different readers may share the same solution. Allowing the feedback to settle gives you time to sort through which feedback is valid and which is just one person’s subjective opinion.

This down time also allows your subconscious to work on the problems in a way your frazzled, ego-driven mind cannot. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought a certain bit of feedback was ridiculous and beyond my ability to fix, only to wake up days later at 4:00 a.m. with a solution that not only fixed the problem, but also made the whole story better.

However much feedback you receive, and from whatever source, always keep in mind that your work is your own. It’s important to listen with humility and an open mind, but at the end of the day only you can decide what changes work with your vision.

Manda (M.J.) Pullen, former therapist and marketer, is the author of complex, funny contemporary romances. She was raised in the suburbs of Atlanta by a physicist and a flower child, who taught her that life is tragic and funny, and real love is anything but simple. She has a weakness for sappy movies, craft beer, gossip, and boys who talk baseball. After travelling around Europe and living in cities like Austin and Portland, she returned to Atlanta where she lives with her husband and two sons. The Marriage Pact was released this month by St Martin’s Press.

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