Critiques: they hurt so good

One of my (few) superpowers is taking criticism of my work in stride.  I think this is a byproduct of my years in graduate school and, later, academia.  In those worlds, receiving regular and blisteringly cruel assessments of your writing, ideas, and general existence is sort of par for the course.  If you can’t take in the crushing and often mean-spirited negativity, parse it for the useful stuff, and then roll up your sleeves and eviscerate your writing to accommodate the demanded changes…well, you won’t last long (heck, even if you CAN do that, you might not last long.  Academia is a blood sport).

Coming from this background, I found dealing with the stress of critiques relatively easy.  After all, most people (assuming you’ve found a good writing group) are actually rooting for you rather than delighting in your failure.  Their critiques, therefore, are meant to be helpful and are rarely mean-spirited.  So right there we’ve got a big improvement.  Also, as noted above, I’ve been preconditioned to expect my work will need improvement and that readers I ask to provide feedback will be critical.

But still…

Still, it can hurt.  Even someone with Supergirl Teflon feelings is going to feel the pain of a harsh critique now and again.

How to deal with it?  We all have our own processes.  When I get a critique that’s tougher than I expected, I find I go through several clearly defined stages:

First: 2-4 hours of disappointment.  Man, I loved this story.  I thought this was the ONE that everyone was going to think was great.  I really thought I wasn’t going to have to make very many revisions.  Sigh.  *eats chocolate*

Second: 1-2 hours of indignation.  *addresses the cat* Why am I letting this bum me out so much?  Reader X obviously didn’t see what I was trying to do.  *shakes fist at the heavens*  What do they know, anyway?

Third: 3-4 hours to accept harsh reality.  Yup.  Reader X was right – at least about some things.  Especially THIS.  This IS a big problem.  Why didn’t I see it when I was writing?  After all, I was trying to fix that very problem in this draft and I obviously failed.  Will I never get any better at this???

Fourth: 12-14 hours of rumination.  Okay.  This isn’t THAT big of a problem.  Actually, I can fix it pretty easily by doing X, Y, and Z.  Plus, this will make the characterizations stronger and the narrative less clunky.  *tosses and turns all night while rewriting things in her head*

At this point I usually achieve clarity about what to do, regain my enthusiasm, and start revising.  This process varies in its intensity (and sometimes the duration of the stages) depending on how polished the story was (or I perceived it to be) and how dear to my heart it is.  Sometimes I know the piece is flawed (and in what ways) and so do not experience the first or second stages at all.

Even though receiving critiques can hurt and the process of dealing with them makes you feel like a crazy person who spends all her time having conversations in her head (or worse, with her cat), I almost always learn something valuable.  In most cases, it doesn’t just improve the particular piece I’ve had critiqued, but carries over to future projects – I become more aware of my strengths and weaknesses, as well as how to accent the former and improve upon the latter.

So, that’s my process for dealing with critique.  What’s yours?

13 thoughts on “Critiques: they hurt so good

  1. Bryan Robbins

    Many times I turn to the bottle, stalk the reviewer, and key his or her car. It’s a bit more direct, and in some cases walks the line of legality, but can be equally therapeutic if enough rage is released. Then you just have to come to terms with the fact that it’s not your fault God made them poopheads. Life is funny that way.

    By the way, the sharpie in the photo above?– I’m going to assume you stole that from the project…

    Glad to see you writing (not that you haven’t been for a while, I just hadn’t commented).

    1. mirandasuri

      Hi Bryan! Nice to see you haven’t changed a bit 🙂 I still remember when you would steal my notes out at Las Canoas and write entries about my plans to kill everyone and take over the world 😉

      I refused to confirm or deny where I got that sharpie…

  2. Cath

    It sounds like a lot of writers are saying drinking, so I won’t do that joke again.

    My process is a lot like yours, although I’ve just crossed into a new place–going into the critique with the idea that everyone will find things fo me to do as a given. Maybe I’m in training for an editor down the line now?

    Critiquers help me see a new depth in a story that I can’t see because I don’t have distance. I now need the critique in a way I was ignoring before.

    You are absolutely right about academia toughening you up.


  3. Micah Joel

    True, true.

    Sometimes I have the inverse reaction when delivering a critique. “WriterX is going to hate me after this…maybe I’m grossly misinterpreting the story…maybe this is brilliant like that one Clarksworld story I couldn’t comprehend and I’m too dull to see it…” Despite growing up with a little brother, I’m a kind person at heart, and I go through several stages before I can hit ‘send’. I usually have to sit on a critique for a day.

    In the end though, the things I pick on are always the sins I’ve committed in my own project. Usually recently.

    1. mirandasuri

      I was considering writing about how receiving crits (and my experiences in academia) have influenced the way I *give* crits…but I thought I’d save that for another post. There’s definitely a balance to be struck between being brutally honest and being constructive (I guess maybe emphasis on the “honest” without the “brutal” is what I strive for)…

  4. Danielle

    Agreed about academia giving you a thicker outer shell. Mine still needs some padding though, and I’m constantly flummoxed by the amount of input. This is the reason that I don’t have very many first readers, and tend to do many, many rounds of crits on a story because I can’t process too many inputs at once.

    That said, I could really work more on your fourth stage. If I spend too much time working to accept the reality, I tend to shelve the project. Blergh.

    Great post, Miranda!

    1. mirandasuri

      Parsing commentary from multiple readers is a challenge – especially if they have widely varied opinions (always much clearer what to do when everyone is saying the same thing in chorus 🙂

      Also, from what I’ve read of your writing, I’d have to say: DON’T SHELVE THE PROJECT! 🙂

      1. Danielle

        Well thank you Miranda for the support! This is just the sort of boost I needed 🙂 Hope your revisions are going well!

  5. Matt Hughes

    I do pretty much the same thing, minus the conferring with the cat. The little cretin just bites me so I leave him alone. And the dog is more of a poet so he’s useless to me.

    By the time I send the piece out for critique, I know there’s flaws it in that I can’t see yet. So I rely on those folks out there to point it out to me because otherwise I’ll never find it.

    And you are right – reading critiques changes the way you critique other people. I’m seeing that with my own right now. I’ve got a long ways to go though before I match the skills of those I have to repay. It’s *hard* to do a good critique.

  6. herndy

    One step that I usually do, that I guess you either skip, or just forgot to include:

    The one where you cringe and go, “I KNEW THAT!! I knew that!! ARGGHHH!!!”

    I don’t know what is wrong with me, but I very OFTEN get critiques that point out flaws that are suddenly SO glaringly obvious to me the second they are pointed out.

    It’s an actual physical cringe, this cringe I’m talking about, by the way. I literally duck behind my desk to hide from all the people who are (presumably) pointing and laughing at the OBVIOUS mistake/ plot hole/ implausibility that I committed to writing and didn’t see until my much smarter writing buddies pointed it out.

    So this is what I’m doing when I hide under the table when we start talking about my work. In case you ever wondered. 😛

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