Embracing the Thorns: A Guide to Growing Through Criticism
Of all the things I’ve learned since publishing my debut almost four years ago, only one remains wholeheartedly, universally, absolutely true:
I am a better writer than I was. I am not as good as I shall be.
But here’s the thing: You cannot get better if you don’t listen to advice, and you can’t listen to advice that you don’t get.
I want my writing to be the best it can be—and that means listening to others.
I just laughed to myself and said, “fair.”
Because it was.
First off, someone being annoying is an entirely personal experience. What one person finds annoying, another person might find adorable, or relatable, or understandable. Secondly, even if you do understand why a character is written a certain way, you’re still allowed to be annoyed about it*. Thirdly—if I’m completely honest—she annoys me too! If I had a chance to write the book over, would I tone it down a bit? Probably, actually, yes. But no one told me before I published, and, if I’m really honest, four years ago I probably didn’t have the maturity to listen. (Much like Rose!)
There are very few people that naturally take criticism well. I’ve done my best to instill in my 4-year old that it’s fine to be wrong, that we’re all learning etc… and I still have him constantly screaming at me that I’m “bossing” him. For most of us, like everything else, taking criticism well is a learned art. But, if we want to get better as writers, learning how to take criticism is essential.
Of course it’s not easy to take. Most writers excel at reading through the lines, and a simple “this ending feels a little rushed” can easily translate as “this sucks, you suck, throw the whole book away!”
What is key to accepting criticism is reminding ourselves that this is not the case. The book we’re writing is a good book. It’s going to be brilliant. The criticism is just a recipe helping us make it so.
I was never good at giving or receiving feedback until I became a teacher. In my first year, students would hand me work that was so far off the mark it seemed impossible as to where I could even begin to advise them. I thought about how demoralising it would be if I just told them “do it again.” And how is that even helpful? They misunderstood once. They need instruction to improve. I had to learn how to give helpful, inspiring, relevant feedback, and I had to learn fast.
There’s a few general tips to giving good feedback:
Find something to compliment. It can be anything. “Creative adjectives” “Intriguing opening” “Great job with the full stops.” There is always, always something.
Limit the number of things you’re commenting on. For students, it’s usually 1-3 things; any more is overwhelming. For writers, perhaps 5. Don’t tell them they need to work on absolutely everything (unless they’ve asked for that explicitly!)
Give helpful advice. If someone is struggling with pace, point out where specifically it seems too fast or slow. Suggest something to add or take away. Recommend an example. Show them the difference between good/bad adjectives.
In learning how to give feedback, I also learned how to accept it. I finally saw that criticism wasn’t a bad thing. It was designed to help. It allowed me to look at my own work and see the flaws, accept them, and grow from them. I started to think, “Gods, this would be so much easier if someone had just TOLD me I used too many adverbs five years ago!”
And that’s what criticism is about. Doing the work for you and helping you to grow more quickly.
Some criticism, of course, is going to be wrong, but if you’re going to ignore advice, you need to think about why, and try not to fall into the trap of “x needs to happen so that the story can happen”. If that’s the case, brainstorm with your writing buddies and see if you can find a more organic way of making x happen, because if you’re only say, speeding up the romance because you need them to be in love before Jonny is kidnapped, you might want to slow it down so that we care that Jonny is kidnapped in the first place.
When I published “Forest of Dreams and Whispers” I knew that some people weren’t going to like the non-linear narrative. It was something I discussed at great length with my betas. I considered telling it sequentially, but the problem with that was partly how young the MCs would have been throughout most of the story, and also how long it would take the story to “begin”—not until over 60% of the way through. The flashbacks were essential to understanding the relationship between the MCs and keeping up the momentum of the story and not one beta disagreed. Naturally, some people didn’t like this after publication. Others have praised it. It’s the nature of storytelling; it’s never a one size fits all policy, but you should be ready to justify your decisions whatever they may be. You think this is a super-romantic scene when others say it’s cheesy? Where is it romantic? What are the characters saying or doing that make you think that? You think that a scene is action-packed whilst others say it’s too slow? What’s going on in the scene that keeps it punchy? You think you’ve written the “best bear scene”? What makes it the best?
If several of your betas—or, if you’re capable of reading your reviews with a sensible, logical head and not even for a second thinking of commenting on a negative review—are saying the same thing, you really have to listen and remember that this feedback can help you and your writing. I once heard someone say, “I never explain anything to my betas, because I won’t be there to explain anything to my readers.” There might be some rare exceptions, but honestly, that’s sound advice. If your betas are confused, double-check they’ve not missed a vital piece of info, but otherwise you really need to consider acting on their advice.
You can be both your own greatest cheerleader and your biggest critic, and I encourage writers that are looking at improving their writing to be both. Love the parts you love, and tell us why! And the parts you don’t? Those are just your future favourite scenes, waiting for some beta to help you make them so.
As long as you’re prepared to listen.
*I also recently read something that said, “If you’re annoyed at the character, the author has done a good job. If you’re annoyed at the book, or the author themselves, then they have done a bad one.” That made a lot of sense to me. A character’s actions can annoy you, but still feel true to the character. If they don’t, you’re more likely to be annoyed by the writer’s decisions, not the characters. Further food for thought!