A few years ago, I sent a novel out to some beta readers, smug in its excellence. Normally, I’m a total mess when I have novels out, but I was pretty sure this one was flippin’ fantastic. In another week or two, the raving praise would start rolling in.
Not quite. One beta liked it, another was meh, several didn’t even get back to me- and one darling boy tore it apart, front to back. He said it was cliché and meandering, the characters petty and unrelateable, and that I was lazy. Lazy. But thank goodness he told me. After a few weeks of smarting, I realized he was right.
Giving someone negative feedback isn’t the funnest thing you’ll ever do, and neither is receiving it. We get awfully attached to our stories and sometimes a critique of our work can feel like an attack on ourselves. Rest assured, it’s not. As we talked about last week, it’s important to know when there are problems with our story, especially the kind of problems that we don’t notice ourselves.
When someone gives you feedback, any feedback good or bad, it’s the greatest kindness they can do your story. Letting you know what works helps you figure out what your strong points are, and by extension, how to strengthen the whole document. Letting you know what doesn’t work gives you a heads up to problems before the stakes are high. Remember, you only get one shot to impress an agent/editor/reader/whoever. Once they decide to put your book down, they likely won’t pick it up ever again- or anything else you’ve written.
Still, favor or not, it stings a bit. Here are three tips that might make taking criticism a little easier, and help you to use your feedback to its fullest.
Don’t argue. Especially don’t argue if you just got the feedback two minutes ago and are hot to defend your honor. Negative feedback takes a little more time to process than positive, so be sure to give yourself ample opportunity to do it. Thank the readers graciously for their time, take a little time yourself, and then address the feedback directly only if you need clarification- if you’re not sure what a note means, if you have specific questions that the reader didn’t address, if you think the reader missed something important that would change their opinion. Explain things, if you must, but learn to accept that some parts of your story just won’t tickle every reader’s fancy, and that some parts just suck (temporarily!).
Listen carefully. Listen especially carefully if multiple readers are saying the same thing. I know that all of us writers are sensitive introverts and unappreciated geniuses and all that, but we goof up sometimes. We rely on clichés, or we mess up a fact check, or we get too focused on a neat world mechanic or a fun side character, or we hinge our entire plot on a choice that completely flies in the face of all our character development to that point. It’s far easier for an unattached reader to pick up on those oopsies than the person who wrote it over and over so many times they want their eyeballs to fall out. So when your readers have a problem with something, especially more than one of your readers, give it the attention it deserves. Because chances are, editors and paying readers would have the same problems.
Trust yourself. Remember that you are the author and you know your setting and your characters and your story better than anyone else in the world. If a reader insists a change be made that you just aren’t comfortable with, don’t feel like you have to do it. Authors get things wrong sometimes, but so do readers. Don’t let your story become somebody else’s in an effort to please them. Be pliable enough to recognize and accept good advice (even if it means a ton more work, oh my gosh), but strong enough to be true to your own vision. Work to clarify the point, massage the prose into better form, whatever you need to do- but don’t warp your work into something you don’t love.
Negative feedback can hurt like the dickens, but so can exercise. Exercise with an actual training coach is often more painful- but also a lot more effective. Let the coach do her job, and get your sore butt to the gym. You’ll be better for it in the long run, just like your story will be better if you accept the help your beta readers are willing to give, and then put in the work to make your story the very strongest it can be. If you can do these three things, contradictory as two and three may seem, you’ll be well on your way to whipping your story into its very best shape.
How about you, lovely readers? What do you do when you get negative feedback? Any tips for the rest of us?