How to Take Criticism Like a Pro

Image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of JonoMeuller

Image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of JonoMeuller

One of the greatest blessings of being an author and teacher is I meet so many tremendous people. I feel we writers have a unique profession. It isn’t at all uncommon to see a seasoned author take time out of a crushing schedule to offer help, guidance and support to those who need it. I know of many game-changers, mentors who transformed my writing and my character. Les EdgertonCandace Havens, Bob Mayer, James Rollins, James Scott Bell, Allison Brennan are merely a few I can think of off the top of my head.

J.E. Fishman is another, and he offers a very unique perspective because he’s worked multiple sides of the industry. He was a former NYC literary agent, an editor for Doubleday and now he’s a novelist. His newest book A Danger to Himself and Others is masterfully written. I love books that make me pause, underline and dog-ear. As much as I think I know? I can always learn more. I make it a habit to study those who write better than I do.

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Today, J.E. Fishman is here to offer some of the best advice any of us can get when we’re new. If we’ve been around for awhile, we can always use a refresher. Writers do work an emotional, often isolated job, and it’s easy to forget to chew with our mouths closed be professional when so many of us are writing from beneath a pile of laundry and toys.

I hope this guest post blesses you as much as it has me…

Take it away!

J.E. Fishman

J.E. Fishman

We’re all amateurs at most things, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Maybe we shoot hoops after work or set up an easel in retirement. Perhaps we cook on weekends or spend the morning making an iMovie production of our summer vacation. We are neither professional basketball players nor professional painters nor chefs nor directors. We’re just having fun.

But what if we’re trying to achieve something more as writers? How do we get out of the bush leagues and behave more professionally?

Let’s start by acknowledging that amateurs often have conflicting priorities. They may allow foolish dreams to captivate them, for example, but they can’t always invest the hard work necessary to achieve those dreams. They frequently lean on raw talent when the greater challenge requires practicing craft. And with regard to criticism, they often have thin skin.

I’d like to talk about the thin skin part.

In my experience, professionals are not easily satisfied by their own work, whereas amateur writers take a degree of pride in their work that’s often not commensurate with the accomplishment. And if the person doing the criticizing is not a fellow writer, fuhgetaboutit!

What do they know, the tyro author tells himself. Or, if he’s rude, he says aloud, “What do you know?”

But this defensiveness is a sign of weakness. More important, it turns self-improvement — which is difficult enough in the best of times — into an insurmountable challenge.

Sure, the professional writer who can communicate the technical deficiencies of our work is worth heeding if we seek to improve. But the casual observer’s opinion is just as valuable. After all, most of our audience are just plain old readers, not writers.

Here’s something worth remembering: If we’re creating art, we owe our audience something, not the other way around.

A professional knows this because a professional lives and dies with it. Her skin may be thick or thin by inclination, but she forces herself to respond in certain ways toward criticism because she understands the stakes. To disappoint one audience member is potentially to disappoint all of them.

I was struck last month by a Chuck Wendig blog post in which he called out independent authors, challenging them not to publish amateurishly (“slush pile on display” were his words) — urging them to behave with professionalism, which is to say, to respect their audience. It got me thinking of the people I’ve worked with over the years as an editor and an agent and an author. Over time, you come to know a pro as much by her process as by the work she produces.

Some people think pros just work harder than everyone else. While it’s true that they often do, there are any number of other ways in which a professional distinguishes herself. Acceptance of criticism is among the most powerful. If we want people to take us seriously as a writer, we must take criticism like a pro does:

A pro respects roles. Your editor may or may not be a writer herself. In any case, it isn’t her job to rewrite your novel (unless you hired her specifically to do that, of course). The pro knows where her responsibilities lie.

A pro separates the work from himself — He pushes ego out of it. Even if we’re writing something very personal, we are not our work. The work is a form of communication. It is not what we are, but what we say. The pro doesn’t internalize criticism.

A pro seeks opportunities to learn from criticism. She knows that her art is not static, that a failure to grow with the craft will harm the next work. Every work becomes imperfect the moment it seeks expression. To learn as we go is a means of approaching that ever-elusive perfection.

A pro looks for the source of the problem, not easy fixes. He understands whose job it is to seek solutions. Hint: not the reader’s. Say the reader points to a given scene and asks of the protagonist, “Why’d he do that?” The facile answer might be, “Well, that guy was pointing a gun at him.” The writer here is telling himself that he only needs to clarify about the gun. But in fact, he must ask himself whether he needs to clarify the deeper character of the protagonist that would lead him to choose the action that’s been questioned.

A pro hears what is not said. The amateur too easily dismisses criticism that’s not expressed in the framework of how we think about our own craft. But the pro reads between the lines, asking herself what in the story caused the reader to have that reaction.

A pro accepts challenges. Not every item of criticism calls for a response within the work, but the default should never be a shrug of the shoulders. The pro understands that the path of least resistance, while tempting, rarely leads to great execution.

A pro never argues, never rebuts. The work should be all we ever need to convince anyone of anything. It stands alone. The pro knows that her work will eventually go out into the world defenseless. If a proper understanding of the work requires an off-the-page argument from the author, it’s already failed for that particular reader. There’s no point in discussing it further except perhaps by asking questions to learn.

A pro doesn’t belittle the messenger. Imagine if only architects were allowed to have opinions about the beauty (or utility) of a house. Don’t ever put down critical readers, even in your own mind. Respect your audience, and out of that respect will grow the potential for greatness.

Finally, a pro knows that all the aspects I’ve outlined here are aspirational. None of us is perfect at them — certainly not me. At times I have sniffed at criticisms, failed to read between the lines, not risen to the challenge.

Let’s face it, pro or amateur, criticism of our work always stirs up a measure of disappointment. That’s why we must train ourselves to respond as the pros we claim to be or aspire to be. In the age of specialization, people have high standards for the work of others. We must have those same high standards for ourselves.


*Applause* Thanks, J.E. I know all of this is tough to do. We are all works in progress. I know I am.

What about you guys? Are you struggling with leaving the role of the amateur? Are you actively seeking ways to toughen your skin? Or have you gotten to the point where you welcome the crucible? Were you always that way? I know I stared crying in my car after critique. Now? A beta can chop my work to the ground, burn it and then nuke it and I don’t take it personally. I LOVE that someone would take the time to give my work the “trial by fire” before the reviewers can. But, I was NOT always this way. I still struggle to remain this way.

I LOVE hearing from you!

J.E. Fishman, a former Doubleday editor and literary agent, is author of the wisecracking mystery Cadaver Blues, as well as thrillers The Dark Pool and Primacy. His Bomb Squad NYC series of police thrillers launches this month with A Danger to Himself and Others and Death March.

To prove it and show my love, for the month of March, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less)


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  1. A pro doesn’t say JK Rowling should stop writing so that the said pro could have some shelf space. 🙂 Sorry, I just had to do that. Great post!

    1. I had a couple people in a writing group say the same thing. I was like, really?!

      1. What? You mean to tell me the said pro wasn’t the only one with such selfish thinking? We should be HAPPY that bestsellers continue to write, because that sets the bar that much higher, which translates into better quality books. Which, I suppose, is also selfish thinking since I want my books to be even better.

        Ok I need to stop lol, I may have just run out of coffee.

        1. Nope! Lots of others out there.

          I agree, Katya! I certainly wouldn’t want anyone telling my favorite authors to stop writing to make space for them.

          Say it isn’t so! I always have reserve. My co-workers and family value their lives too much. Lol!

          1. I should start planning ahead and bring drink reserves with me. This is an example of how writing makes us more organized, better planners, and nicer human beings 🙂

          2. Well said, Katya! Have a great day!

    2. Yeah, that J.K. Rowling thing was a head scratcher. Waiting for successful people to retire is generally not the best career move for anyone.

      1. LOL! Well said! I may just tweet that (I’ll quote you)

      2. Especially considering that just because a best selling author stops selling new books, nothing guarantees that the readers would automatically start buying the books of that other author who wanted them to stop writing. Readers will still buy books that they LIKE, best-sellers or not.

    3. Amen!

  2. This is why I feel lucky to have worked as an advocate for many years.

    Having very intelligent people spend an entire court hearing telling the room why everything you have said is wrong quickly in the morning, then having them hire you to do a case in the afternoon quickly makes you separate criticism from personal attack.

    1. I once had a job that involved a lot of cold calling. I’d hang up in frustration (not to mention being hung up up on), and the more seasoned guy next to me would say sarcastically, “Take it personally.”

  3. “A pro separates the work from himself” – working on that one! It generally takes me about 3 days to stop snarling and listen…

    1. Sometimes my tongue is bit so often that it bleeds.

      1. had my first “legit” beta reading session on a new project, something completely new for me on many levels. IT sucked. Which means I am gonna keep those Betas around for the next one, no matter how much I chewed the inside of my cheek. Honestly, my toughest Beta reader critic is my damn mother. But she is one of the only one who says: Stop defending this. It’s crap. Just listen! Go figure. GREAT advice. just bought your book btw

        1. My MOM saved me from myself with my first book, LOL. I credit her with me growing up to be a “real” writer :D.

    • pjsandchocolate on March 11, 2014 at 9:26 am
    • Reply

    My problem lies in trying to find people who can critique without trashing. “This is wretched,” is just about as useful as “I liked it.” Neither one gives hard data, and while one can make you feel good (albeit frustrated) the other just makes you want to give up because all they can say is how much your work sucks, not what needs to be worked on.

    1. Editing, beta reading and critique are a skill/art for sure. But, we do have to remember that reviewers can be cruel. Even if someone who looks at our work guts us, it’s private and prepares us for what is ahead. No matter how hard we try we will get jerks. J.K. Rowling has a POSTAGE stamp in her honor…but she also has more than her share of scathing one-star, hateful reviews. Thus, I believe everything is valuable even when it isn’t. Maybe the “I want to kill all your characters” doesn’t help us improve the writing, but it will help us toughen that skin.

    2. If you’re in a dialog with someone about your work — not, say, being randomly trashed or praised in an Amazon review — it can help to ask specific questions to elicit more useful feedback. Most non-writers don’t know the mechanics of what we do, nor should they be expected to know. You have to draw the specifics out of them.

        • pjsandchocolate on March 11, 2014 at 9:55 am
        • Reply

        I have tried to draw specifics out. Usually, all I get are shrugs or “It’s just crap. You need to throw it away.” And these are people who, before I even gave them the manuscript, I told “I need you to tell me, what you liked and didn’t like and WHY. Just saying ‘I liked it/hated it’ does not help me. I’d rather hear it from you first.” I’ve tried a broad demographic to find critiquers – from English teachers, computer professionals, car mechanics, fellow writers and teenagers. I’ve tried sit-downs with coffee and snacks for an after read breakdown. I’ve tried email. After 5 years, I have found 2 people that can actually critique, and even then, half the time it’s like pulling teeth from a chicken.

        1. The only good reply to someone who tells you, “It’s just crap” is “NEXT!”

          • Sarah Brentyn on March 11, 2014 at 10:09 am
          • Reply

          Ha. 😀 “’This is wretched,’ is just about as useful as ‘I liked it.’” So true. When someone says “This is great.” or “I loved it.” I’m waiting for the rest… And waiting…

      1. As far as criticism goes, I bow to the wisdom of Samuel Johnson, who said: “It is advantageous to an author that his book should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck at only one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends.”

        Another great blogpost, Kristen, with lots of meat!

        1. One can always count on Dr. Johnson!

    3. My suggestion would be to find a good critique group either locally or online. I like for short stories (they have hundred of members so you get at least 5-10 reviews usually). You can also join Absolute Write Water-cooler or Scribophile where you can either post your work for review directly on the site or trying to find a beta to collaborate with.

      1. Great info!

  4. Great post! I was fortunate enough to have my first critiques come from online. I could shake my fists at the computer screen, but couldn’t respond. It helped a lot, but didn’t prepare me for the face-to-face critique of my bff. WOW! Between her and the painful reviews on Amazon for my first book, my skin has toughened up nicely. I still have a long way to go, but I’m closer than I was two years ago and have learned some valuable lessons.

    Congrats on the book release, J.E.!

    1. Thanks. We can save ourselves some pain by being our own toughest critics. What complicates things is the matter of varied tastes. And, in some sense, the reader, like any customer, is always right. Even when it hurts.

      1. I agree, J.E.! That’s why I only respond to good reviews and don’t stalk or belittle readers who don’t like my work. Not everyone is going to enjoy what I write and that’s their right as a consumer.

        I figure if bestselling authors get bad reviews then I will too and will have to suck it up and focus my energy on improving my craft. 🙂

        1. Bestselling authors get bad reviews?! Books that are among the greatest classics get bad reviews!! See Melville, Herman.

          1. So true, JE! Even Shakespeare got them.

  5. Reblogged this on Daphodill's Garden and commented:
    I’m way behind on my blog reading, but I am so glad I clicked on this link in my inbox today. This article is right on time. I’ve been attempting to read and review some indie books and have gotten angry for the lack of professionalism some of these authors display through their writing and reception of constructive criticism. I’m re-blogging. This is such valuable information–lessons we all need to learn, regardless of what stage we are in the publishing process.

    Happy writing!!

    1. Thanks!

  6. This post is well worth reading. I’m not consciously doing anything to “toughen my skin” but neither am I adverse to criticism. My biggest problem is that I am by nature a loner, and do not enjoy participating in many groups. This makes finding critics difficult for me. My latest novel has had but one beta reader — my wife, and she is naturally prejudiced. I don’t know the ins and outs of having others read my works. If you were me, would you just hand the manuscript to a friend and have him or her read it, and repeat this process until you have some feedback? I am querying a few agents with this book, but, as you know, you rarely get constructive criticism from them unless one of them actually wants to represent your book.

    1. No, I wouldn’t rely on agents you’re soliciting for constructive criticism. I’ve found at times that it helps to share a manuscript with friends who are big readers. It can help them understand what you need if you give them a short list of questions, such as, “Was there anyplace in the book where you thought the narrative dragged?” or “Did you understand why the main character made the choices she made?”

      • Stephanie Scott on March 11, 2014 at 4:42 pm
      • Reply

      The terms are thrown around, but it’s a good idea to have a mix of readers. A beta reader is usually someone who is a fan of reading but not necessarily a writer. They are great for big picture stuff. Critique partners who are writers will probably look at your work differently. The best part of groups like this (MyWANA-Kristen’s network of writers) is there are so many ways to connect. You can be a loner and still have critique partners you may never meet in person. I would suggest starting with a chapter first, and through your networking see about trading pages with another writer with some specifics of what feedback you’re looking for. It’s scary but necessary!

  7. Wise words. Hard as it might be, critique is essential, taking us out of our hermitic cocoons and into the real reader’s world. I try to go willingly, joyfully, rather than kicking and screaming but there are times… I find the more I crave criticism on a piece the thicker my skin. I feel positively draconic on occasion! There are also times I still feel like a fragile mayfly. I don’t know that it is a matter of professionalism so much as a certain raw-nerve quality that comes from pouring our life and blood into a piece. If I stand back from it, distance seems to help.

    1. Sometimes we do resist because it feels like a baring of the soul, but I think there’s often a degree of laziness mixed in there. My first reaction to my editor’s objections is always anger (which I don’t express!) because, man, he just made more work for me and I was ready to move on to the next thing. It’s like you just came out of the primeval forest all scratched up and exhausted, holding forth the pelt of the dragon, and some guy says, “No, not THAT one.” And the prospect of going back in is daunting. But go back in we must!

      1. Indeed, we must. I can’t say I get angry, save with myself for not getting it right sooner.

      2. LOLOLOLOLOL. *head desk* Wrong dragon. Can I shoot you in the FACE now? LOLOLOLOLOL.

      3. Now THAT paints the picture! However, I’m not sure I’d call it laziness. After all you did just slay a freaking dragon! LOL

      4. “Not THAT one.” The perfect analogy – love it.

  8. Extremely insightful. I especially like the part of about looking for the source of the problem instead of an easy fix.

    1. That’s probably the single hardest thing. If I had to give storytellers (and myself) one piece of advice, it would be: Never take the path of least resistance.

      1. Amen.

  9. This tone of post reminds me of War of Art, by Steven Pressfield, which is a good thing.

    I remember sitting in my windowless basement apartment, in my first year of university, re-reading a Writers of the Future article by Karen Joy Fowler about developing that thick skin, that pachydermal skin of a writer. I’m still working on it. Beta readers don’t bother me anymore, but some reviewers still slay me. Which is why I try not to read reviews, unless someone else has screened them.

    I’ve written a few blog posts about rejection and one-star reviews, but the last time, my friend Kandy sent me this hilarious video:

    1. LOL!

    2. OMG – Hilarious. 🙂

  10. Again, another timely post from the desk of Kristen Lamb. I just received my first one-star review on Amazon yesterday, so I guess I’m a real writer now! 😉 It was, however, oddly personal, which makes it slightly less easy to keep out from under my currently tissue paper thin skin, but I’m working on it.

    J.E. Fishman – thank you for your sage words. Especially those at the end. We’re all working on the aspects of “going pro”, but giving yourself space to be human and a work in progress is important too.

    1. If anyone knows that we’re all continuously in the process of becoming, it’s a novelist, right?

      1. Indeed. 🙂

    2. Ah, personal attacks. The last weapon of he who has no valid argument 🙂

    • Sarah Brentyn on March 11, 2014 at 10:04 am
    • Reply

    “…conflicting priorities”? Um, yes.

    “If we’re creating art, we owe our audience something, not the other way around.” So true.

    And, finally, “The work should be all we ever need to convince anyone of anything. It stands alone.” It stands all alone. How many times I’ve told my student this… When they whined to me about a grade saying “But I meant to say this” I asked if they wanted to hang out with me and commentate while I read their essay. Dude. You handed your paper in. I brought it home and read it. I took out my red pen (oh, YES, I did), and you weren’t there to explain what you “meant to say”. And it will always be like that with writing.

    1. The greatest sign of an amateur, I think, is thinking that an explanation off the page is helpful. It’s there or it ain’t, babe. No?

      1. I think that is true of the finished product. Once I have shipped, it’s done. Either I nailed it or I didn’t. But with beta readers and critique partners, I will take time to go, “Okay, THIS is what I wanted to accomplish. How did I blow it? What could I have done differently?” For instance, I recently sent out a mystery thriller for beta-reading. Seven loved it and one hated it. But when I took time to articulate to the one who razed me, “Hey, this was my goal. What, in your mind, went so wrong?” she gave AWESOME suggestions that were easy fixes and made a far stronger book. There were simply times I’d failed to translate what was in my head to the page and she nailed me.

        Thus, I do feel there is a fine line between being an argumentative amateur and being a pro who begs for the crucible and WANTS to know the truth even when it’s hard. “Where did I fail? Can you tell me HOW? Because I am too close and not seeing it.”

          • Sarah Brentyn on March 11, 2014 at 6:29 pm
          • Reply

          That is true, Kristen. I held peer editing groups for this purpose to get kids to realize that “what they meant” wasn’t on the paper–anywhere. They were there to tell the other students what they were trying to say so the feedback was instantaneous and spot-on because they had both writer and written word in front of them. But…once they handed in their final copy, the teacher (me) had to read what was written. So, to shorten this immensely, I agree. 🙂

        • Sarah Brentyn on March 11, 2014 at 6:23 pm
        • Reply

        It’s there or is isn’t. The End. 😉

  11. I need to get better at all this!

  12. This is a great post and very helpful. These are excellent rules, or should I say aspirations? I find myself wondering, will I ever be done, because each time I go back to something I see changes to be made.My skin became thicker when I heard from a few people that it is unrealistic to expect something to be liked by everyone, that if you have four or five out of ten who like a piece you’re doing great. I’m not sure I believe that, actually, too many years of being told to seek perfection, if you don’t get ten out of ten you’re a failure. But I’m a total newbie at this compared to others here so I am happy to learn. In my latest effort I found a terrific editor and I was happy to say to him, have at it, and in nearly every single case he improved what I had tried to do. Not sure I could have done that earlier.

    1. A good editor will always see things we can’t see ourselves. Regarding perfection, a guy I once worked on a project had a great line: Production before perfection.

    • SP on March 11, 2014 at 10:18 am
    • Reply

    Love this blog. Great “pro” advice. A few, I’m on my way to mastering while a few, I’m still bumbling and fumbling with.

  13. Thank you. I love this. (Thanks for sharing J. E. with us Kristen)

    This is my fave; “A pro hears what is not said. The amateur too easily dismisses criticism that’s not expressed in the framework of how we think about our own craft. But the pro reads between the lines, asking herself what in the story caused the reader to have that reaction.”

    I cannot tell you how valuable a tool this has become. Its wonderful for query rejections and understanding and improving on what the rejection told you.

    A couple questions:

    I often wonder if workshopping a ms and hiring a pro-editor is enough? Do you think ALL writers should query to learn the strength of their ms? The reason I ask is, there are few people in my write’s group who think querying is a waste of time and their workshopped and copy-edited ms is professionally ready for self pub.

    That said, most of them HAVE published whereas I am still dallying with rewrites and queries.

    1. That’s a tough question. The gatekeepers, we all know, have at times proven themselves blind. On the other hand, one can sometimes tell a lot from the rejections that come back. Again, between the lines. If the rejections are about the marketplace, say, rather than the storytelling, that would tell you one thing. If, on the other hand, they all keyed in on some aspect of the story that’s not working, that tells you something else.

      Generally, in my experience, editors or agents are rationalizing their gut reactions, not really providing advice. And their imperatives might be a lot different — say, having to sell 20,000 hardcovers — than the self-pubbed author’s.

      1. Thanks, good thoughts to mull over.

      2. Something else I thought of, that got me fired up after reading your most excellent post, was how to GIVE criticism. I spent some time and put together my own advice for giving. I found that in our critique group there is a huge difference in the way critiques are presented.

  14. What a perfect time for this post. In two weeks, I will send my first novel out to beta readers. I’m already rubbing sandpaper over my skin daily to toughen it up. I know the book is nowhere near perfect but it’s at the point where I need readers to tell me where it falls short.
    Yeah, I need readers. All of us do. I also needed to read this post. Thank you both.

  15. Reblogged this on Anakin's reveries in multiverses.

    1. Thanks!

      1. Haha no problem. The pleasure is mine.

  16. Reblogged this on ~ Jaye's Days ~ and commented:
    Criticism – think like a pro: 9 Points from J.E. Fishman via Kristen Lamb’s blog.

    1. Thanks!

  17. Cruel criticism is a reflection of them, not me, and should be ignored. Constructive criticism is an invaluable opportunity to learn. That doesn’t mean it’s painless, of course. Elvis cut himself off from criticism and it cost him his life. I suspect Michael Jackson did the same thing. Communication is a two-way street and when you cut it off on one end you’ve effectively cut it off completely.

    1. i agree and find sometime writers, friends and beta readers can become high-handed in their efforts to “help.” I think part of developing that thick skin is also learning how to separate the personal attack kind of criticism, from the true, needs improvement criticism. Love this discussion!

    2. Well said.

      1. Thank you! 🙂

  18. Thanks for the architect shout out. Being an Intern, and a professional working my way towards that end, I was reading your post and thinking, I look at my architecture projects as clients. They pay for my services. They want their views expressed through design in a cost-effective way. Very rarely to we get ‘the ideal client’ who lets us do what we want to do. And quite frankly, while they pay us for our expertise, they do not pay us to do what we want willy-nilly. And we’ll hear about it when we mess up (structure, finish, leaks). And this can drastically affect our professional reputations.

    So maybe, we needs to start looking at readers not as a mass of people who will read our works because “they’re brilliant,” but maybe we need to look at them as clients. Clients who pay $1, $5, $10 or $20 for our expertise, even if our expertise is creating a fictional world they want to live in for a short time. Some clients will love what we do. Some won’t. But we need to respect them if they are paying for it, especially since readers tend to be vocal about it in very public places, like Amazon and Goodreads.

    But maybe I’m taking this thought too far? Thoughts?

    1. As with the consumption of any creative “product,” one has to distinguish between matters of competence and matters of taste. The building might not please me aesthetically but may still function, which is proof of its competence. The same with the structure of a story.

      1. Beautifully said.

  19. Great points – thanks Kristen and JE Fishman! I write metaphysical (eastern spiritual) fiction and its particularly hard for me to deal with criticism from folks who know nothing about the subject but who think they do — for instance, kundalini is a “real” phenomenon in the eastern world and treated with awe, but many who don’t know this think I’m writing fantasy…however, I’m no longer as prickly as I was…which is amazing in itself. It’s a privilege being able to read these posts – thanks again.

  20. I like to think I can take criticism like a pro but I’m having problems finding readers that stick with me. I have a hard time finding readers period. But I’m wondering if my nature is offending them. I explain that what I like to do is have discussions so I can see where the problems lie. For example, one reader told me that she didn’t understand why a character got ice instead of turning on the air conditioner in a scene. So I replied by explaining that where I live it’s not uncommon to not have a/c. Then she stopped talking to me.
    I told her ahead of time that I like a sort of back and forth so I can see where I need to make corrections. There were several issues with that scene but I couldn’t necessarily see what they were without talking about. I know now because I’ve talked about the scene with others and can see where it feels unnatural.
    In the end, the character had to get ice so they could meet another character for a particular set-up so I couldn’t dump the scene but I could see where I needed to make corrections. I just didn’t know how from her comment.
    It was like she was offended I questioned her critique. While I was, it wasn’t because she was wrong.

    1. One has to be careful not to appear to be arguing with a reader. There’s really no percentage in that kind of relationship, even if you didn’t intend it.

      1. Never thought of it that way. Perhaps I don’t come off clearly. Unfortunately all the communication was via email so intent is hard to portray. I may have to reconsider how I respond in the future.

    • Tamara LeBlanc on March 11, 2014 at 11:31 am
    • Reply

    I normally have a nice Rhino hide, nothing bothers me, as far as criticism is concerned. But a few years ago I actually cried like a baby in Panera when my crit partners critiqued a synopsis I had thought should win a Pulitzer…after the tears dried and I blew my nose a few hundred times I realized they were right, the 5 pages I’d given them would be better used as toilet paper.
    Loved this, Kristen!
    have a great afternoon,

    1. Funny how what we at first think is our best work turns out to be our worst. That’s one reason why it’s critical in the rewrite phase to go after self-conscious writing like a heat-seeking missile.

  21. Hi Kristen and JE; Now I will wonder all day long, is it John or James or Jacob? Your article was wonderful.

    I never thought about the rights of the reader. I think you are saying that, once I finish my first draft or two, and open the door to First Readers and Beta Readers, I am giving up some of my rights as the author. And, when I finish and go to the publish, the readers have all the rights.

    Thank you for helping me see something so obvious. Silent

    1. I think storytellers are in a contract with their readers, which begins with certain aspects of storytelling but also extends to the whole book. So, yes, in that way the reader has “rights.” But on the J, I remain silent.

      1. No fair…but the internet is vast…and much data is out there.

        1. Jablonsky? No – what author would miss the chance to use a name as SEO-friendly as that?

  22. Yep, I’m slathering on the lotion to thicken my skin. I just sent my story to beta readers and always have to take several deep breaths when I get a critique back. Thanks for the great article. Nice to know I’m not alone.

  23. A wonderful topic! For me, the hardest part is in the evaluation of the feedback I’m given. As a devout rule follower (often at my own peril), I take everything everyone says as gospel…which makes for a very confused writer. I’ve found the way that works for me is to find the sources of critique/guidance that resonate with who I want to be in the future and HEED THEIR WORDS. When I gain feedback from others outside my inner circle, I try to process it through them to gain consistency. If that makes any sense…

    1. At the end of the day, we all need to balance criticism with keeping our own counsel. We can’t just blow with the wind. An old agent of mine used to say that you know criticism is right the moment you hear it. I have had this experience when my editor points something out and I realize, oops, didn’t get away with that, did I? The more you write and receive criticism, the more you learn what rings true for you.

    • janmoran1 on March 11, 2014 at 12:25 pm
    • Reply

    It’s often said, write the book of your heart. But the heart can be a messy affair; it needs the head to guide it. Thanks for parting the curtain and allowing people to see how professional authors work. Like you, my first edit by a pro was devastating. Today, I welcome the opportunity to have my work lifted higher. A pro strives for excellence, no matter what field they’re in. Great article, J.E. and Kristen, thanks.

    1. Well said! The heart is indeed a messy affair. If we don’t write from the heart, the work is flat. If we write from the heart, we risk emotional pain. I can only pray that, like you, I will one day be able to welcome the opportunity instead of fearing it.

  24. I love writing and will keep doing all I can to improve my writing as long as I’m physically and mentally capable. For seven years I wrote a serial fiction blog. Once or twice a reader came upon a piece in the middle and asked a question that hadn’t occurred to me. Those were big moments for me but they happened in the first few years. Past that, my writing elicited no comments, despite fluctuating stats that included about a dozen faithful readers.
    All along, my husband has edited what I write. He writes fiction but makes his living as a business writer and editor. He’s almost always right about my writing. I rarely even pause, making the changes he suggests.
    Of course, everything I write could and should be better. Eventually, though, I finish a novel, especially if my husband happens to pull it out of storage, reads it, and laughs throughout. (Although, I don’t write humor, per se. I’m quirky.)
    Still, amateur, professional–I don’t care about ranking–I’ve yet to interest more than a handful of readers. I worry about this, past the simple frustration, because for me a work of fiction is not finished until readers bring their perspective and life experiences to the story. I put up an e-book last year. “Diary of a Heretic.” A few reviewers delighted me, seeing aspects that never occurred to me! The End. (It seems.) I aim for more readers but do not know how to reach them.

  25. How do you find a good editor/critic? My editors have said good things about my book: “original and compelling” “a great book” “wow” That leaves me with the feeling that they’re trying to be nice instead of critical.

    1. Maybe it’s perfect. Nah, just kidding. We know that nothing is.

      It’s encouraging, in a way, that you aren’t satisfied with their criticism. It took me a while to learn that I had to be my own toughest critic. And even after that, there’s always room for improvement.

  26. I’ll admit taking criticism is hard for me, but right now I’m having a harder time finding readers who will actually critique.

    • Laurie A Will on March 11, 2014 at 1:18 pm
    • Reply

    Great post!
    “In my experience, professionals are not easily satisfied by their own work, whereas amateur writers take a degree of pride in their work that’s often not commensurate with the accomplishment.”
    I loved this line! It made think of my evolution of learning the craft. Many times I would finish a draft of my WIP and think, “This is it! This is brilliant.” I don’t not what kept me from submitting or querying, intuition perhaps. Then I would learn more and go back and reread my novel and realize it needed more work. I still have plenty to learn. Hopefully I am at the point that I will be able to recognize when my work it ready for publication and to know when enough is enough because it will never be perfect. The other side of the coin is after we’ve learned to accept other people’s criticism, we need to learn how to take our own and no when we’ve taken a piece as far as it will go. Because certainly one could edit the same piece of work indefinitely.

  27. I just posted this to a writing group on FB where a few complain about bad reviews – we can all use a reminder about how to take criticism.

    1. Like.

  28. I particularly like “A pro separates the work from himself.” I’ve been practicing law for over 25 years and I think I’ve just learned how to do that one.

    I would add another. “A pro respects other people’s time.” As in, don’t waste other people’s time unless you’re paying them by the hour. Engage in the exchange, be concise, say thank you and move along.

    1. I like that addition.

    2. I agree wholeheartedly.

  29. Such great and timely advice! I am gearing up for my first writer’s conference in May and am beginning to see that, though I started out as an amateur, I began to feel that I wanted to present my work as a pro. This is what has caused me so much anxiety of late.

    Part of it is due to my “day job” of 20ish years: graphic designer. I accept criticism on an hourly basis of my graphic design work, most of which I feel is pretty wrongheaded. I present something that I feel has a nice balance, flow, etc. But the client wants the logo to be REALLY PROMINENT or something that totally destroys the layout.

    I have no problem taking this type of criticism and insistence that my work be changed, because I don’t really have an emotional connection to someone’s newspaper ad or email blast. I can say “Oh well, not everything is a portfolio piece,” and move on, unscathed.

    But my story is like my heart on a platter. I know I have to overcome this feeling or I’ll never be able to survive being a pro. I’m almost tempted to write something else that I don’t care as much about and present that instead so everyone can get all the requisite “tweaking” of my work out of their systems before I try to publish the real deal!

    My sense is that the first time around it’s going to be like being hazed in a fraternity.

    1. Be like the Buddha and practice detachment. Your story is not your heart on a platter. Even at its most perfect, it’s just one imperfect representation of that heart.

  30. Leaving the ego behind is definitely a huge step for the amateur who is becoming a professional. We need to love our work in order to pour our passion into it, but equally we also need to treat our writing like a business rather than a hobby. Once I made that step, I found it easier to accept criticism. But it’s certainly not easy!

  31. What an excellent post! I felt good reading it, because I can see how I’ve grown in how I approach criticism. As you said, at the beginning, I only wanted to hear that my work was flawless; now I actively seek out critical feedback that will help me make my story match my vision of what it could be.