Let’s be honest, getting feedback on your writing is sometimes the worst. Or maybe you haven’t experienced that feeling yet because the dread of receiving a critique keeps you from sharing your precious baby story. In either case, at times, we writers (especially newer ones) tend to fear, avoid, or even resent critiques.
Critiques are humbling. But, in the spirit of the Christmas season, I want to encourage you to think of critiques as a gift. A reader has taken the time to look over your manuscript and offer their commentary on the work. They didn’t have to do that with their time, but they did, and believe it or not their motivation was to be helpful—not to crush your soul. They gave your story the most costly gift a human can give: their time. Isn’t that special? Worthy of at least saying “thank you” to them? Of course. Their critique is a gift to you. Even if you don’t like it or it stings a little, we still put on a happy face and thank them, just as we do when we receive a Christmas gift we don’t really like or want that much, like the three hundred and twenty-first box of Christmas cookies or an itchy sweater.
Since I’m about to head to a writer’s workshop featuring four days of critique groups later this month, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to receive a critique well. I’d like to share with you my thoughts on what I think it takes to master the art of receiving critique, though I myself am no expert on practicing this art perfectly.
The first discipline in the art of receiving critique is attitude, namely fostering a humble approach to accepting feedback. Humility is the greatest virtue a critique-receiver can possess. We must first be willing to admit our writing is not the greatest thing ever written, that we need help to grow, and that others are more experienced and learned than we are. Without this foundation, the other practices of receiving critique cannot exist in our lives at all.
It’s worth noting that humility does not mean unjustly criticizing or downplaying your own writing. If we call our work trash or don’t want others to read it because we think it’s so terrible, that’s not humility. That’s still pride. True humility means we acknowledge that we have things to learn, without beating ourselves up over how “bad” we are as writers. You’re not a bad writer—you just have room to improve. Stop throwing a personal pity party and humble yourself to seek out knowledge from others. That’s the key ingredient to receiving a critique.
Once our foundation of humility is laid, we are ready to start receiving critique. Once we’ve received critiques from others, the second discipline in this art is monitoring our responses. The goal is to find a balance and be willing to listen.
When we’re defensive or dismiss others’ comments immediately, then it’s time to go back to step number one. You’re not truly humble about your writing if you’re not open to hearing out others’ opinions. In one of my creative writing classes in college, my professor essentially prohibited us from defending our work during critique sessions. On our workshop days, the author of the work being critiqued was placed in “the box,” a “separate dimension” where he or she could not speak or respond to what was being said by their classmates. At times I found it extremely hard to stay quiet while I was in the box. In my opinion, it’s a great critique group practice because you’re forced to listen. That experience taught me that defensiveness isn’t a good strategy when it comes to responding to critiques.
However, keep in mind that the goal is not to please every single person who gave a critique by trying to apply every single comment you’ve received. If you try to take all of others’ feedback into account, if may not be best for your story. Some people will have different opinions about certain aspects of your work—one will love it and the other will hate it. Or, because you’re the author and therefore know the bigger picture of the story, others may suggest things that aren’t conducive to your book’s vision. And that’s what you need to remember—your book is still your story, not your critiquers’.
Now that I’ve been writing for a while, I’ve been able to discern what ideas from others help my story and what suggestions hinder it. And that’s the goal: listen and be open to others’ feedback up front, take every comment into account and respect the critiquer’s time. Then, when you have a chance to sit down and be alone with the comments, take them with a grain of salt, harvest the helpful ones, and set aside the less-helpful ones. It’s okay to not apply every comment—as long as you’re carefully and honestly considering each one.
The art of receiving critique is something I still have to work on. It’s hard to let others see your precious baby story, hard to learn that what you thought worked so well doesn’t work at all, and that others aren’t seeing or buying your story’s vision. But we need critiques as writers, not only to improve our work, but also so that we know what works and can receive encouragement to keep writing from our fellow authors. Critiques are not bad, not at all, and with the right attitude and focus, you and I can master the art of receiving critique.