Monday, October 15, 2007

Criticism sucks. Get used to it.

Patty here…

Last Wednesday I was trading spit with a bunch of writer friends when the topic turned to the subject of reviewing other people’s manuscripts. We agreed that too many writers ask for a critique but they really want to hear that the book is brilliant and the cabal of agents who’ve turned it down are part of a wide conspiracy to suppress the “next big thing.”

Here’s the reality. Criticism sucks. If you don’t know that by now, you’ll grasp the concept when your book is published. Once the book is out, the criticism doesn’t stop. It just gets louder.

I’ve been in a critique group for eleven years and I’m beginning to understand criticism. Criticism can mean merely to evaluate without necessarily finding fault, but the purpose of a writer’s group is to expose flaws before agents, editors, and the reading public can. Criticism is not all good but it’s not all personal either. It’s about the work. The rules of etiquette in my writing group are: (1) Don’t interrupt the critique; (2) Don’t try to explain what you really meant or trash the critique as inaccurate; (3) In fact, don’t say anything except a polite “thank you” at the end. As tough as it is to hear that my writing lacks perfection, I need the feedback. Sometimes I'm too close to the work to see what’s wrong with it.

Except for my writing group, I no longer read manuscripts from the works-in-progress of hopeful writers for four reasons. One, I now have higher priorities and more pressing deadlines. Two, somebody might accuse me of stealing his/her ideas. Three, negative criticism pisses people off. Who needs more enemies? Four, it’s a thankless job.

Case in point: A while back I agreed to read the manuscript of a friend who told me he was ready to send his novel out to agents. The first thing I noticed was an unwelcome batch of typos, misspelled words, and punctuation errors. I started correcting them but realized by page ten that I’d likely run out of ink before I ran out of misused commas.

The book’s message was appealing but there were some issues he needed to address. I devoted hours to an editorial letter before mailing it and the manuscript back to him. Weeks of silence passed. No “thanks for your time.” Nothing. When I finally asked him if he'd received my letter, he said, “Yes, but I didn’t read it. I decided the book was fine as is.” Really? He never found an agent or a publisher.

Criticism sucks. Some people will never "get" your writing, but if they've taken the time to read your bloody manuscript, at least express your appreciation even if you don’t agree with the feedback. And if you set aside your ego, maybe—just maybe—you'll find something useful in the comments.

I'm off on Thursday to teach a couple of workshops at the Surrey International Writers Conference in Surrey, British Columbia. I hope to come back with photographs. Until then, Happy Monday!


  1. 2) Don’t try to explain what you really meant or trash the critique as inaccurate;

    A hard lesson to learn. My 13-soon-to-be-14-year-old wants to be a writer--is a writer, as a matter of fact,and sometimes he'll ask me to read something. Typically I just say, "It's good," but sometimes I'll comment about something along the lines of, "That seems a little confusing there," or "they got from the sun to the space station awfully fast, is it around the sun or the Earth?"

    Anyway, a lot of times he starts explaining his rationale. And again, mostly I just listen, but from time to time I'll suggest gently that his explanation may be worthwhile, but it doesn't change the fact it was a little confusing, so maybe he should re-think it.

    What I'm saying, is, perhaps, the adult writers who do this haven't progressed much past a 13-year-old writer.

  2. Thanks, Patty, for this post - and thank you, Mark, for your comments.

    Good, well-considered criticism is a gift to a writer. It doesn't (usually) mean, "this is trash" but instead, "this is how it could be better." And we could all do with "better," couldn't we?

    The process you describe, Patty - just saying "thank you" in the writers' group, is, I think, quite empowering in its way - you sit there and listen, take note, absorb and thank the person who has taken time to read your work and think about it enough to comment.

    In the non-fiction class that go back to time and time again at UCLA, Barbara Abercrombie, the instructor, employs that process. The comments of the group pushed me to go into a given issue in greater depth than was comfortable for me -- and illuminated the fact that I could only write that particular story as fiction. The result is that over the summer I crafted the bare bones of a new novel - not part of my series, but something different. Had that criticism not pushed me, I might not have had that "ah-ha" moment, I might not have pushed myself, and I might not have the fabric of story that I'm now working with.

    As I said - great post (can't get over that friend who set aside your hard work and insights). And have a terrific time in British Columbia - I'm envious, it's one of my favorite places.

  3. I lost a friend because she asked me to critique her manuscript. Granted, I didn't really critique it, knowing she really just wanted praise, but I did say perhaps she should take a tour of her local police station. That did it. And I won't ever do it again.

    I was in a writers' group for six years, but left it because only two of us were really writing anything at all and the critiques ceased to become helpful. I do have readers now who are extremely helpful, but it's not a structured thing.

  4. Mark, I'm so glad you mentioned this. Some writers don't realize they don't have the luxury of explaining what they meant. The reader will simply abandon their book and not pick up the next one.

    Our J, a new book? Omigosh, that's so exciting. Can't wait for the details.

    Karen, too bad that friend didn't accept your advice. Her loss. I'm fortunate to have a talented group of writers in my group who produce beautifully written pages and offer sage advice.

  5. You're right. People hate to get real criticism. Yet I know, much as it hurts, when I can embrace criticism that is focused on making the story better, my writing and the story improve. Now if only I could learn to truly enjoy that part of the process :-)

  6. Mark, I agree that style is everything in getting your criticism accepted. Ben Yagoda makes this point in his book (2007), "When You Catch An Adjective, Kill It." State the good, and leave "BUT" out of it when you call attention to the bad. To quote his example, page 124: "If I say, 'I love you BUT I don't want to talk about it,' the listener tends to hear the last part of the conjunction and miss the first part....[the author] favors substituting AND whenever possible."

  7. Bill, couldn't agree more with Yagoda,AND, thanks for posting that tidbit.
    A mind is like an umbrella, it only works when it's open.


    PS: have a blast, Go-Lo, in the way, they DO have moose in BC--- you might be able to make up for not seeing them in Anchorage.

  8. Your friend sounds like a Noel Coward fan, Patty:"I love criticism just so long as it's unqualified praise."

  9. Great post, Patty! You've captured the joy of receiving and the perils of giving criticism.

    Good to hear from Bill--no ifs, ands or buts about it.

  10. Great post, Patty. I am so thankful for my writing group. Somehow we all learned together how to be constructive in our critique and how to listen to each other. Without them, I'd have an unpublishable first draft , if that.

    And it makes me very nervous to have someone ask for critique. It's rare that someone has really gone over their own stuff even to get the typos out, much rarer to have someone who wants an honest appraisal.

    Have a great time in BC!!!

  11. My critique group has dwindled to six (nice size, sort of) but only two of us write regularly. We've seen each other through brain surgery, a cancer scare, a flooded home, two new grandchildren and a daughters wedding. (mine)
    We like each other, but man, the critiqing process can be rough, mainly because of the 'argue until they agree with me' mentality.
    And the flip side; "Did you do the rewrite according to my instructions from the last meeting?" Yes, there are critiquers who take offense if you don't take their advise. So its a balancing act, eh?
    Well, Patty, have a great time in Surrey. I have relatives there. In fact, you can hardly throw a dart at Canada and not hit someone I'm related to. Vancouver is my favorite.

  12. Cara, I don't think any of us ever "enjoy" the process. I just strive to accept it.

    Jon, Oh YAY! Moose. My wildlife experience was sadly lacking in Achorage--except at the bar. Go-Lo appreciates the reminder.

    Louise, love the Coward quote...

    Good to here from you, Mims. No ifs, ands, or buts about that, either.

    Carson, I love Vancouver, too. Such a beautiful city.

    Ah, Bill. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    Miss C, I agree. The perils of giving criticism--contructive or not...

  13. Well put!


  14. I trust that writers paying to hear your comments at Surrey will have the good sense to listen with an open mind.

  15. Thanks, Groupie. And Paul, I'm pretty sure they lock the doors in those workshops so nobody can leave once they're in. I'll pretty much have a captive audience.