The best advice I ever heard about how to handle criticism came from a talk given by Newbery author Linda Su Park several years ago at the Highlights Chautauqua conference. She said that while it’s difficult and painful for a writer to hear criticism, it’s also essential. If you don’t listen to criticism, you’re never going to improve your writing. But how do you respond when someone tells you your book is boring or your plot makes no sense?
The answer is to nod and say, OKAY. You can say this with your teeth grinding together and a sick smile plastered on your face, but just say OKAY. Let the person talk. Listen to what she has to say. Take notes. Say okay then give yourself a chance to think about it. Nine times out of ten, it’s valid criticism. At the very least, it’s worth considering.
Here. Let’s practice (using real comments first readers have given me):
Reader: The beginning is slow and clunky and confusing.
Me (What I’m thinking): Are you freaking kidding me? I wrote that section like fifteen times! It’s completely necessary to the set up of the entire novel. I’m not changing one damn thing about it.
Me (What I say): Uh. Okay.
Reader: I don’t like your main character. He’s kind of a jerk.
Me (What I’m thinking): You’re kind of a jerk.
Me (What I say): Okay.
You get my point. If you ever want this person to read your work again and honestly give you feedback, you must listen to what she’s saying and thank her kindly for taking the time to think about it and relay it to you.
Something I’ve learned over the years, too, and I’m not sure if Linda Su Park said this or not, is that a good reader will be able to tell you what isn’t working, but she won’t necessarily be able to tell you why it doesn’t work or what you can do to fix it. That’s YOUR job as the writer.
Now say you’re the first reader for someone else. How can you be a helpful critic without destroying the writer’s delicate ego? Well, it goes without saying that you must be kind. The writer likely spent months (maybe years) toiling over this manuscript. Even if it’s a giant mess it represents her hard work, never mind her blood, sweat and tears. But that doesn’t mean you should sugarcoat your response. Telling someone I liked it or it’s good isn’t very helpful. If you really did like it, be specific about what you liked. It’s a good idea to start with the positive no matter what. If there are issues, be specific here too. Is there a section that’s confusing? Does a character do something that doesn’t make sense? Is there a part with too much description or not enough? Or maybe there are more rudimentary issues. The tense changes, for example, or there are confusing shifts in point-of-view.
The best case scenario is to have a give and take relationship with your first readers—where you read and critique each other’s work. It’s taken me years to find people like this and I take my role as their first readers just as seriously as I take my role as a writer.
I’m thinking about all of this because today I’m off to have coffee with one of my first readers. She just finished reading my manuscript and she’s gearing up to tell me what she thinks about it. I’m gearing up too. I’ve got a notebook to record what she says. I’ve done my yoga this morning so my chakras are balanced. I’m in the proper state of mind—a zen-like oneness with the universe. I’m also chanting my all-purpose word:
Okay Okay Okay Okay.