Your Ego is Not Your Friend – How to Take Criticism

23 Sep

or,

How to Avoid Hysterical Fits of Sobbing/Rage

by Vanessa Di Gregorio
~~~

Since Kat and Vahini both wrote wonderful articles about critique partner relationships and how to provide useful critiques respectively, I thought I would talk about – in further detail – how to deal with criticism (which Sarah talked about here; and how to get over yourself… which Sarah also talked about here). Because for me, the most difficult part about being a critique partner is being critiqued.

Not everyone reacts to critiques the same way. Some people get insulted; others become so sad and dejected that they lose all desire to even continue writing; and there are people who are indignant and think their critique partner has no idea what they’re talking about.

If you’re new to being critiqued, you’ll find yourself feeling INCREDIBLY nervous. Heck, even if you ARE used to receiving all kinds of criticism from others, you’ll probably still be a bit nervous about sharing your work with others.

Take me for example. Having been an art student, I’m used to receiving criticism – and art professors and fellow art students never hold back from telling you what they really think of your work. I’ve also taken a couple of creative writing courses and have had to share my work. So I should be used to receiving critiques, right?

HELL NO.

I mean, in a way I am; I’m much more apprehensive about myself, actually – and how I’ll end up responding. But I will always be nervous when I hand my work over to someone else for their opinion. I know myself. I get hurt as soon as I start seeing red everywhere. It’s just the type of person I am; though I know it’s silly of me, I want EVERYONE to be pleased with my work. Even though I know that it’s unrealistic.

I sometimes get so bummed out that I just sit in a slump at my desk, unwilling to continue working on my MS. Or I find myself looking for comfort food; ice cream and cookies and hot chocolate to devour as I sulk (and thereby also avoiding any and all writing). Or I scribble down angst-filled poetry. And other times I feel FURIOUS! I think, “How is my writing melodramatic?!? It is LYRICAL, dammit!”. Or, I think to myself, “Well, our styles of writing are SO different! Idiot.”

Harsh, I know. But I HAVE thought things like that; about people I respect and admire, close friends, and near-strangers. And chances are you’ll probably feel like that sometimes too. Sure, you’ll tell your critique partner, “Be honest! Tell me if something doesn’t work, if there’s something off. I want your real opinion! Don’t hold back!” – but once you see all the comments they’ve made, and read them pointing out all the flaws in your story, you’ll find yourself getting defensive. EVEN if you know you shouldn’t.

If you’re having this problem (and don’t worry – it’s only natural!), take a step back. Don’t respond right away. If your CP is using the track changes feature on Microsoft Word, don’t go through the entire MS in a fury rejecting all the changes your critique partner has made without even looking to see just what changes they’ve suggested.  It has actually happened to an editor I know – she just got on the wrong foot with the author, and he ended up even rejecting her corrections of spelling mistakes. So remember: your CP has done a WHOLE lot of work for you. They’re trying to help you improve. They WANT your MS to be the best it can be; they want you to get published.

So, here are 10 tips to help you throw your ego aside and take criticism from your critique partners – or anyone, really – gracefully.

1. As I said before, never respond right away. Don’t write a scathing email to the agent who has just rejected you and offered a few suggestions for improvement. That’s rude, and unprofessional, and you can bet that agent will never look at any of your future works. Likewise, don’t freak out at your critique partner if they think a character serves no purpose and should maybe be cut from your MS (or further developed, if you want to keep them). Read their critiques and do nothing – at least not right away. Let it sink in.

2. Take a step back. Wait a few hours; or better yet, wait a day or two. Distance yourself and try to be objective. Let their critiques sink in before you go back to reread your CP’s comments. And then read your work. Chances are, they might just have a point.

3. Don’t take it personally. It’s hard, but you’ll have to keep reminding yourself that they aren’t telling YOU that you lack personality – they’re saying your MC does. Find out why they’re saying that (and a good CP will give you reasons as to why your MC lacks the qualities of a great character). And even if they don’t give you reasons, you should always…

4. …ask. If you’re not quite understanding what they mean and need clarification, email them (when you’re NOT upset, of course). Or call them. Or meet up and talk about it over coffee (just don’t go if you think there’s a chance that you’ll throw your coffee in their face. Cause that’s a sign that you’re still pretty upset). Being good critique partners means that talking about one another’s work – in depth. Have a conversation.

5. Never confront your CP if you’re upset. Yes, I’m repeating myself – but this is important. Don’t tell them that they don’t get you or your work. They probably do. But they aren’t as emotionally invested in your work. It’s YOUR baby; your sweat and tears. And as a result, you’ll be blind to a lot of the problems – and get pretty upset when confronted with those issues. Especially if your CP has something to say about the one character, or one plot arc, that is your absolute favourite.

6. Read all the good things they have to say. A good critique partner will always mention what they really liked/enjoyed. They’ll highlight lines/paragraphs/bits of dialogue and say, “LOVE this!”. So if you find yourself getting upset, read only the good things they had to say. Chances are, you’ll start to feel better (not only about your work, but about yourself).

7. Be open to new ideas. Don’t automatically ignore what someone says because it’s not something you’ve ever thought of. Your CP is trying to push you to becoming an even better writer; and that means they’ll push your boundaries.

8. Embrace change/ have multiple drafts. I probably should’ve made this the first on the list. If you can’t bring yourself to revise your first draft because you think it is THE shit, you might not be ready for a critique partner. Your first draft WILL NOT be perfect. It will be flawed. If you understand that and are okay with the thought of changing your MS, then you’re ready to be critiqued.

9. Critique your fellow CP. Put yourself in their position. It’s not easy, now is it? You’ll probably feel terrible pointing out things that you feel don’t work. You’ll feel as though you might be overstepping your bounds by offering suggestions. And the last thing you want is for them to get really hurt by what you say. So try to understand both sides.

10. Don’t lose yourself. While you should never brush off someone’s critique, you should also remember that it’s okay to have differing opinions. You don’t HAVE to agree with everything they say. But if you do disagree, you should discuss it more in detail. And if you still feel that you’re right, get a second (or third) opinion.

So, think you have what it takes to be a critique partner (and take criticism yourself)? Then head on over to our Critique Partner page and find yourself a CP! And if you’re already a CP, remember to always give your reader credit. Be respectful, take a few deep breaths (and maybe eat some ice cream), and you’ll be on your way to earning the status of awesome-critique-partner (and maybe even earn this snazzy “Accepting Criticism” Writer Merit Badge):

~~~

Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.

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15 Responses to “Your Ego is Not Your Friend – How to Take Criticism”

  1. Lydia Sharp September 23, 2010 at 7:14 AM #

    Excellent advice. 🙂

    • Vanessa September 23, 2010 at 10:19 AM #

      Thanks Lydia! 😀

  2. Rowenna September 23, 2010 at 8:51 AM #

    Great points–I think part of it is just practice in dealing with it–this kind of critique isn’t something that most of us encounter on a day-to-day basis (heck, even performance reviews at work are a walk in the park compared with an in-depth manuscript critique!). This might sound weirdly philosophical, but I think you have to learn to take criticism before you can learn to use it and reject it–because some ideas from even the best CP won’t be right for your project. But you have to have the thick skin to hear the harsh advice before you can pick it apart and use it! So–awesome post!

    • Vanessa September 23, 2010 at 10:24 AM #

      Thanks Rowenna!

      I think it’s incredibly hard for any writer (or artist of any kind, whether they be actors or animators or designers or artists) to take criticism – especially in the beginning. Which is why I think waiting a day or two is incredibly helpful – you have to wait until all the hurt and anger passes before you try to rationalize why someone is saying what they’re saying.

  3. Savannah J. Foley September 23, 2010 at 10:31 AM #

    I love the merit badge… put on your big girl/boy panties!

    Fabulous article, V. These days I don’t get upset when I receive criticism, I get embarassed, like, ‘oh, I should have thought of that.’ Shout out to Kat for finding all my mistakes!

    • Vanessa September 23, 2010 at 12:24 PM #

      I definitely get embarrassed all the time!!! EVen if they DO like it! As soon as I hear, “I liked it a lot! But…”, I start to panic a bit and get all flustered.

      (And I just HAD to add the merit badge!!)

    • Kat Zhang September 23, 2010 at 7:42 PM #

  4. Kristy September 23, 2010 at 12:30 PM #

    I find myself getting stuck on #10 a lot. I have no issues with someone giving me their honest opinions because the reality of it is that they would be the one buying the book. So, to my way of thinking, what they have to say is valuable in that agents, publishers, and other readers may have the exact same thoughts. But what I find myself doing is taking their suggestions and losing part of my own voice in the process. I usually find I’ve done this rather unconsciously. I won’t even realize it until I’m part way through a revision and I’m stuck at a place I shouldn’t be, but because I changed something earlier, now that section doesn’t work. So, what I’ve sort of adopted as a general practice is to take that line of critique and start a new page with it. I list the reasons I agree and disagree (sort of like a pro/con list) and then I notate what other sections I might need to change if I were to incorporate a suggestion. I realize this seems like a bit of work; however, I think the benefit, for me anyway, is that I see the value in the suggestion, but I’ve worked through it in my mind and can keep my voice consistent, even by changing the MS.

    • Vanessa September 24, 2010 at 10:03 AM #

      That’s great that you’ve found a way to keep your voice intact (while accepting critiques!). I think a lot of people worry that they’ll lose their voice/style (or, like you, actually do start to lose it).

      I worry about that as well. Everyone has a different style, so often critiques reflect one person’s stylistic preference.

      A pro/con list is absolutely brilliant. I think that’s a wonderful way to go about analyzing the critiques you receive. And sure it’s a lot of work – but anything writing-related is, and you need to be willing to put in that a lot of work if you’re serious about writing.

  5. Kat Zhang September 23, 2010 at 7:42 PM #

    Great list, Vanessa! There are few things I love better in an article than a good list, lol.

    The merit badge at the end just cinches it 😀

    • Vanessa September 24, 2010 at 10:04 AM #

      Thanks Kat!

      I must say, I’m a fan of lists myself! 😀 And I just HAD to include the merit badge! (I actually specifically went looking for it, ahaha).

  6. Julie Eshbaugh September 23, 2010 at 10:40 PM #

    Great post, V! And LOL – I needed to read Savannah’s comment to understand the symbolism of the briefs on the merit badge! I’m so clueless. 😛

    • Vanessa September 24, 2010 at 10:07 AM #

      Thanks Julie!!

      Actually, on the Merit Badger site, it says this:

      “Having your work criticized is kind of like getting underwear from your great-aunt for your birthday.

      Maybe you don’t want it, but you really do need it.”

      But I love Savannah’s take on it! 😀

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