Sunday, January 9, 2011

Cool Down Time: Handling Criticism Effectively

My dad had a favorite saying that I'm sure most parents have in their arsenal. "Think before you speak or act." I say the same thing to my own children. I also say it to myself-- every single time I receive a critique of my writing.

Writing is personal, but if you are pursuing publication, it's important to realize it is also a professional craft and a commercial endeavor. Sometimes, pushing aside feelings is essential in order to succeed.

You've labored on a project that obviously is dear to your heart or you would not have invested the time and effort to write it. Then, you turn it over to someone who does not hold it dear. Sometimes they don't even like it. The thing I always keep in mind is that just because someone doesn't like what I have written, it doesn't mean they don't like me. It is totally separate. Maintaining this separation is difficult for some writers.

Here is my strategy for handling critique.

1. Read the critique notes carefully without responding at first. Send a brief thank you note to let them know you received their suggestions. Nothing specific. Same with oral critique in a live critique group. Listen. Really listen. Say nothing. When you have heard them out, thank them for their suggestions. If you are unclear on a point they made, ask questions without any explanations or defensiveness.

Do not explain why they didn't like it or "get" it. If they were confused, perhaps it is a valid point. As a writer, I know exactly what I mean. If the reader doesn't get it, it is probably my fault.

2.  Give the information time to cure and your emotions time to cool down. This is the most important part. When I receive revision suggestions from my critique partners, agent, or editors, I read them several times and then set them aside for at least 72 hours before I respond or begin revising. (Of course, I send an immediate "Got it. Thanks!" but nothing else.)

This curing time enables me to recover from my initial reaction, which is always more dramatic than necessary. After 72 hours, I've had time to process the suggestions logically, rather than react emotionally.

My editor for Shattered Souls said that she has a client who puts the letter in the freezer after reading it so that it isn't sitting out. After a few days, she pulls it out of the freezer and is ready to go. Both letter and author have had a "cool down" period (the letter, literally).

I don't have to lock my revision letters out of view, but I do keep myself from responding or making changes right away.

3.  Consider the source.  Enough said, probably, but I'll elaborate. Who gave you the critique? Is this the first time you have received suggestions from this person? What is his or her professional writing status: new writer, established writer, published author, published author in your genre, agent, editor?  The way you handle your response should be the same, regardless (calm, genuine gratitude), but the weight you give to the suggestions will be different.

4.  Decide what fits your vision for the project and what is necessary to meet your professional goals. You don't have to make every change, even for your publisher, but your decisions should be logic-based and not emotion-based. Once again, as a writer, it's hard to step back sometimes and be objective about our "babies." I've made quite a few changes at my editor's request that I didn't object to, but didn't wholeheartedly buy into either.  After making the changes, I realized how brilliant the suggestions were--so for me, there is a bit of a cool off even after the changes are made.

5.  After cooling down and making the changes that resonate with you, send another genuine thank you. You don't need to explain why you didn't make all of the changes (Unless it is your agent or editor, then sometimes it's necessary).  You don't need to discuss the changes in-depth. I try to thank critique partners and beta readers for specific suggestions I found most helpful. Personalizing it makes the person who took the time to read and remark on my project feel the time spent on me wasn't misplaced or unappreciated.

I'm sure there are folks who can jump right in without a negative reaction to criticism, but most writers aren't like that. Those words in that manuscript came from deep inside and are personal. So, give yourself a cool down period. Rushing into revisions or reacting immediately when you feel defensive will not only make your revisions less effective, it will potentially alienate you from the very people trying to help you become a better writer.

This post was written for and can also be found on the Querytracker.net Blog

Wishing everyone a fabulous week.

Mary


2 comments:

dana said...

Quote: Who gave you the critique? What is his or her professional writing status: new writer, established writer, published author, published author in your genre, agent, editor?

When I first started asking for critiques, I took every one as an ORDER. I put every suggestion into action until I couldn't recognize my own story.

Only then, did I understand the reasons for their suggestions. Some were YA writers, some, horror fiction/paranormal. They wanted more butterflies with fangs.

My genre is women's fiction.

If I hadn't learned to take the best, and leave the rest, my heroine would now be wearing steel mesh and holding a rabid leprechaun - in the country setting I established for her.

lbdiamond said...

This is a great post. I'm glad I read it again. Thanks, Mary!