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From Panic to Process: What Taking Criticism Actually Means

One of the most common pieces of wisdom I hear directed at new writers is that You Must—oh, You MUST—Learn To Take Criticism Well. Intoning this solemnly seems to protect its proponents from ever having to articulate what that process would look like. Where is the middle path between placid accommodation and knee-jerk spite? What does it mean to take criticism well? How does it apply differently to critique (before the work is published) and criticism (after the work is out in the wild)? The sum of most advice for productively taking post-publication criticism is “don’t respond to reviews”—often the right answer but not all that can be learned.

One of the default assumptions people carry in from school and other experience before their writing lives is that criticism means negative commentary. Critical is rarely taken to include in-depth positive or even neutral commentary. But critique and criticism are not merely assessments of a work’s flaws. In fact, some of their most interesting moments can come from an analysis on forms and themes in a work that are neutral or positive. Even this, however, can be disconcerting and take practice and deliberate plans to get used to as a tool.

Critique/Pre-Publication

For me any piece of critique, large or small, can raise two questions about a work. First, how does it bring this work into better alignment with what it was intended to be doing? Second, if it challenges or reshapes those intentions, does it do so in a good way? The former question sounds grandiose when applied to small tasks like removing vague or repetitive language, but specificity helps convey your vision. Whether they change punctuation or add entirely new characters and subplots, revisions should have some method for bringing the work closer to its originating vision.

I think the latter question is often neglected because there is a common idea that only the creator can conceive of an artistic vision, which should remain pure and untrammeled. And this is true up to a point. But it is also true that sometimes it is not the execution but the concept itself that can benefit from critique. Those cases are the exception to the rule that revision should bring works closer to their original intention—rather, the entire vision for the work can be improved.

The default critique group method in science fiction circles—in many creative writing circles—is the Milford Method, in which the person whose work is being critiqued is expected to sit silently while the group delivers its commentary. For writers building an individual process of taking critique, there are advantages and disadvantages to this system. It’s intended to keep the writer’s ego from getting in the way, to allow the critiquers to have their full say without argument from someone who is knee-jerk defensive and treating every pixel out of their own computer as deathless prose. The other advantage of Milford is that it spares the author from having to come up with clever discussion on the spot—silence gives time to consider rather than react, and time is a staunch ally in finding graceful ways to process criticism.

The problem is that in compensating for defensive egotism, Milford may conceal or even create other problems. If critiquers go off on a very wrong path from misreading text that is actually present, being able to point out what’s there is sometimes useful. If they are even further unhelpful to the point of being offensive, allowing the author to respond to comments like “no autistic person would ever think this” with “I’m autistic myself, actually” can save the group a great deal of trouble—and the author a great deal of pain.

So beginners often start with critique in the Milford mode: sitting silently as a group goes around and takes turns giving their opinions, listening without giving any response. Whether this is the initial mode of critique or some other, it behooves the writer to pay attention to their internal response to it. What parts of it work well? What parts don’t? Writers are allowed to ask for particular things in a critique—either particular questions (“does the ending work?”) or a particular critique format. It’s useful to pay attention not just to whether a particular critiquer tends to have good ideas but to how the writer reacts internally to certain kinds of critique in the moment—shoulders tensing up when people say them out loud vs. writing them down, or the other way around? Stomach roiling for a point-by-point or an overview? There is no one true path here, but listening to very basic bodily signals from certain forms of critique can be a good signpost for which ways might be more productive for each individual.

It’s okay to say, “I’m feeling very shaky on this one, I’d like some encouragement.” If I had said the name of a friend who said that to me recently, you’d probably be surprised—the person has many well-deserved awards. We all have rough patches. We all need encouragement. It’s okay to say, “I’m not looking for line edits at this time.” There is no shame in letting critiquers know that you’re in that place with your work—or with a particular aspect of your work. “I’m curious about how the character relationships work for you,” or “I’m wondering if the pacing is going okay,” or “The cat is staying in no matter what, please leave the cat alone” are all acceptable things to say to critiquers in advance. I keep using the plural—but it’s okay if you find out you do better with one at a time.

Once you’ve received the critiques, you can again try different iterations of what works for you in processing them. Do you do better taking notes and organizing your thoughts right away, or does that make you feel rushed and stressed? Sometimes letting ideas percolate helps you find the right balance of your vision and other people’s ideas.

Sometimes, even having put down boundaries of this nature, there will still be something in your work that made a critiquer feel honor-bound to speak up in an area you did not request. Nobody likes to hear that they’ve accidentally (…one certainly hopes accidentally) propagated biased views in their work, but a critiquer who encounters something of that nature will often feel it is important to mention even if it wasn’t the requested focus of the critique. No beta reader is perfect, and it’s okay to consider whether one reader is reacting to your work as inaccurate to one individual rather than misrepresenting a group or propagating bias against it. But it’s also a good time to take a hard look at what you’ve written and how it might say things you don’t believe—or even things you do believe, but wish you didn’t. It’s not fair to ask readers to assume that you’re being your best self if you’re not willing to actually examine yourself and your work to ensure that this is genuinely true. This is a case where you should err on the side of things you don’t want to hear. “You’re too sensitive” is for semicolon use, not prejudice.

Your original vision was almost certainly not that you would perpetuate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, or any of a number of other problems. This is a chance to move your work closer to that original vision, which did not have those problems. Fundamentally, any manuscript problems are problems in words, lines, paragraphs, chapters. Is that too obvious? But when you’re feeling attacked and defensive, such problems can seem holistic, personal. Instead, look for how to address them in the same way as you would the rest of criticism: where in the manuscript does this problem occur? How can I address it in concrete, practical terms? This moves the question from a personal attack (“Am I a bad person? What’s wrong with me, that I wrote a manuscript with this kind of problem in it?”) to a practical problem to solve.

When you read the acknowledgments of a published book, you may never know which of the names helped in the form of hugs and brownies and which helped in the form of sharply observant critique—but some of them will spell it out to you. Whenever you see, “Thanks to Doodle, who helped me see the relationship between the main characters so much more clearly,” in the acknowledgments, that’s an author who learned to take pre-publication criticism well.

Criticism/Post-publication

Do I have to tell you not to argue with reviews? Generally, on the whole, do not argue with reviews, this is the main advice you get for a reason, it is good advice, get it printed on a coffee mug if you have to, embroider it on a pillow, and sleep clutching that pillow to your bosom. Do not say, “Marissa Lingen wrote an entire essay about this and never said not to argue with reviews so I totally can.” Okay? Yes? We’re on the same page here and now we can say more things? Good.

It’s important to remember that the primary audience for reviews and criticism is not the author. They’re about the work, not for the author’s benefit. Even professional reviews and criticism exist as part of a larger conversation with the work they’re reviewing and other works; reader reviews are a chance for readers to talk to each other. Does that mean authors can’t ever add anything to their process based on those pieces of criticism? Never is a long time, friends. The important caveats to remember from both sides of the table here are that published works are finished. Done. New editions are rare and, in most cases, require a lot of work if they can happen at all—if you’re not the sort of person who gets an all-new edition with a special introduction written by someone else, brand-new cover art, etc., they are not likely to happen for you. (The exception here is if your work is ebook/online only, making it much easier to change.)

This means that most of what an author can—can, not must—learn from criticism is going to apply to the next work along the line—or more realistically, a work several years down the line. Ursula Le Guin’s beloved and influential The Left Hand of Darkness sparked a great deal of critical thought about gender, but as discussion evolved, the limitations of using “he” for all of the persons of a species that does not gender the way humans do became clearer to all concerned, including Le Guin herself. She followed up with discussion in a later edition’s afterword and with a short story, “Winter’s King,” making the opposite choice. Had she lived longer into the era of comfortable, ordinary nonbinary pronouns, who knows what further art might have been inspired.

More recently, Kristin Cashore has spoken about how critical discussion of her portrayal of blindness in Graceling helped her to realize that she needed a more nuanced portrayal in a later book in its series, Bitterblue. Cashore stresses not only the specific things she has learned about disability representation for this series but also its applicability to future examples of writing characters not like herself and her intentions to seek input on these topics earlier in her process. Other authors have given shorter examples of similar themes, such as Joe Abercrombie realizing that how he was handling point-of-view had implications in larger questions in his work.

In one of the rarer cases where an author had a chance to adjust aspects of a work post-publication, Mary Robinette Kowal has a thorough discussion of how her story “Weaving Dreams” changed with critical input post-publication. She talks about her vision of the story and how it went into the world achieving some things that were the opposite of that vision when it came to racism and colonialism—and because it was an online story, these aspects could be changed for all readers. Kowal has chosen to post notes about this process rather than trying to erase the previous problems with her work, allowing others to learn from the discussion as well as the results.

Author Diane Duane also responded to both her own desires to revise her Young Wizards series and to criticism of the series for the New Millennium Editions of the books. While it’s impossible to guess which motivations were internal and which external, Duane has commented on how reader feedback about her portrayal of an autistic character in A Wizard Alone in 2002 led her to revise that portrayal for the updated 2013 version. Duane talks about the balance of positive and negative criticism in her work, wanting to retain elements of the crucial character that had resonated for some autistic readers while improving the parts of her portrayal that other readers found wanting. In this case the importance of positive criticism is clearer than in most examples of demographic bias criticism, because it gave the author clarity on which parts of her story had a solid foundation and which were on shakier ground.

If you are one of the authors making post-publication changes, it’s important to take a beat to process what you’re hearing—even more so than with pre-publication critique. The speed of internet communication may make it feel like you have to react in the moment, but it’s even more crucial not to have an unconsidered response that you will regret. The authors who have issued edited works, and especially the authors who have applied lessons from criticism to later works, have taken time to consider and process.

If you choose to make a statement rather than letting your work speak for itself, that’s a great time to run that statement past another person before making it public. Your agent, the work’s editor, and a small group of trusted colleague friends are all wonderful ideas for people to help with this process and may give you much needed perspective and parallax on your public statement.

Writers are not required to read criticism of their work, much less to draw inspiration from it. You can put off reading reviews and literary criticism or have trusted friends or colleagues filter it for you in useful ways. But its uses can come in small ways and large. “They’re right, I really don’t have any disabled characters in my stories. Let’s figure out how I can change that,” is one beautiful way to take criticism well. So is, “I wonder how I can keep reaching the audiences who squee about my lapidary prose.” So is, “Thank you to all of my fans, your support and encouragement makes all of this worthwhile.” They’re facets of the same process.

No work of criticism is going to be perfectly geared to your learning. Even when you’ve had the opportunity to ask for the shape of critique that suits you best, it may show you things you wished you hadn’t seen. But with time and space to process, they can be a source of growth rather than angst.  You are free to become a better person at any time—more interesting, kinder, more knowledgeable, more thoughtful about the experiences of others—and bring your work up to the standard you have achieved. Sometimes other people offer to help you and your work with this. Take them up on it.

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Marissa Lingen

Marissa Lingen is among the top science fiction and fantasy writers in the world who were named after fruit. She has many opinions on Moomintrolls. She has been known to cross international borders in search of rare tisanes. Her personal relationships with bodies of water are intense though eccentric. She lives atop the oldest bedrock in the US with her family, where she writes, if not daily, frequently.

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