How To Take Criticism

A few weeks ago I talked about the editing and beta reader process in order to make your book the best it can be and now I have received my own feedback from all my beta readers on Prophecy, my next novel.

My own editing for Prophecy

This is the hard part but it’s critical because the more eyes you have on your manuscript before publication the better. They have to be the right eyes but you definitely need to improve the manuscript before it’s published and you can’t do it alone. I had several published authors as well as readers of my genre do a beta-read plus an expert on art history as I use a lot of this in the book. I’ve also had a structural edit for the whole book.

So I have a whole lot of constructive criticism to work through now and this bit is always difficult. But why is it so important?

You have to develop a thicker skin as an author because you will get criticism

If you’re going to ‘ship’ your work i.e. get it out the door and into the hands of readers, you have to take criticism. So it’s better to catch as many issues as possible at the beta reader stage so that criticism you get later is because the wrong reader has read the book, rather than your plot has huge holes or grammatical issues.

Criticism in book reviews definitely hurts so it’s good practice to get some before you make your work public.

I currently have 58 reviews of Pentecost on averaging 4 stars. 4 of those reviews are 1 star and 2 are because it’s not Christian enough (and I never claimed it was!) I don’t like those reviews but I have no influence on them, I can’t do anything about that. I just have to take that criticism and try not to let it affect me. I counteract those comments with the 45 4 & 5 star reviews instead. We have to remember to focus on the positive and not just see the negative.

Taking feedback from beta-readers

Here’s my post on the beta reader feedback for Pentecost. You can feel my depression! I’m happy that I have improved since last year and haven’t repeated the same mistakes this time. The comments are still difficult to take but I know they will help the finished product. You know I like to share the hard parts as well as the triumphs, so here’s my method for dealing with beta-reader feedback which can feel like criticism.

(1) Thank everyone sincerely for their help, offer to help them with anything and make sure you credit them in the book. This is a great service we all need as writers.

(2) Read through the notes everyone has sent and then let it settle. Do not react. Do not try to justify why you did whatever you did. Take the feedback without reaction.

My sweet vice. Green & Black's organic chocolate.

(3) Bawl your eyes out, then self-medicate with chocolate and/or wine. You thought you were finished but actually, you still have a way to go. You’re probably sick of the book but you have to go through it again. Ouch. After you have drowned your sorrows, go to the gym and play a lot of really loud music. My tracks for getting over these feelings (and here I show my age and how uncool I am!): Tubthumping by Chumbawumba (I get knocked down, then I get up again…), It’s my Life – Bon Jovi, Don’t Stop Believing by the Glee cast (am I losing readers yet?!) , Hold On by Wilson Philips and other such classic feel good tunes!

(4)  Re-read the feedback with a critical eye. Have the same things been said more than once? For example, two of my beta-readers pointed out that the first sentences of my chapters start the same way which becomes jarring. Great feedback and easy to fix. I’m taking that to heart. But only one of my readers said that the theme of eugenics on top of the rest of the plot was ‘too much’. The others all said it was a good extra layer so I’ll be leaving that in. I had been having some doubts about my ending although most loved it. One of my beta readers had a suggestion that will also ease my own concerns so that will be changed. But overall, most of the comments will not take much to fix, this is not a complete rewrite for me (thankfully!) but it will add more depth and fix the issues that the readers found.

(5)  Create your hit-list of what needs to be changed so you have a map of the rewrites. It’s also good to have a list of everything even if you’re not going to change it, so you can use it as a learning experience, so I collate everything into one document organized by scene.

Folder for drafts of Prophecy

**At this point, I’ll add a comment on versions and backing up as some people still struggle with this. At the end of every day, I save my WIP into a new document with the date on it and I email it to myself on Gmail which stores documents and is easily searchable. I also save to my drafts folder and back up externally. Then when there is a first draft that is saved as Draft_Date and so on through the multiple drafts. I have Draft_BetaRead_Date which is the version I sent to the beta readers and I will have the other drafts right up until the end. I always date them so I can trace back changes. This might be a little over the top but be sure to keep your drafts in case your change your mind later and back up somewhere other than your home computer – just in case!

(6) Go through the book again making the changes that you’ve accepted need to be done. Some may be big and others may be small. All are important. This is basically your final draft so it needs to be right. BUT/ don’t let this become an excuse for not finishing the book and releasing it to the public. You must ship your work if you want to be a professional writer. It’s a risk but if you don’t do it regularly, the ‘flinch’ gets worse and you’ll never publish (read about the flinch here).

(7) Re-read in print or a different format other than your screen, and then give it to the copy-editor for the final run. They will pick up any typos, grammar issues and final mistakes. Make those final changes and you’re finished. Yes, you really are!

There will always be more you can edit but you need to stop somewhere.

That’s why deadlines are critical for perfectionist writers. I always planned on getting Prophecy out in 2011. It might be Dec 31st but I will have it out in ebook format and working back from that deadline has driven all my work.

How do you deal with beta reader feedback and criticism? Curl up and die or hack away and make those changes? How do you know what to change and what is your own voice and not for negotiation?

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  1. David Billikopf says

    I have a question that you may have answered elsewhere. I have wanted to start writing for a while, so I have just started writing short stories to get myself warmed up. I noticed that Phil South mentioned asking school teachers to be beta readers. Is there some pool of professional beta readers or do you ask friends and fellow writers? Do you have a post about choosing beta readers? Well, I appreciate the help!

    • says

      Hi David, I have talked a bit more about beta readers here
      and also here
      but essentially for my first book I just asked a number of (intelligent) friends who were keen on the same genre. I gave them questions to think about and then just talked to them after they read it. Some just had comments, others had pages of notes.
      You can hire an editor but I’m not sure about a beta reader.

      • David Billikopf says

        Thank you! I appreciate the tips. I have been inspired by what I’ve read here on your site. I have been discussing with my family some writing options I had not considered previous to finding your site! I am pretty excited! Thanks again.

    • says

      Hi David, ah well you see I still think you should steer away from writers as your beta readers. You’re not writing to please writers. Plus professionals are kind of brutal. Unless like me they are also writing coaches in which case they are nurturing, lovely and kind 😉 Teachers are used to reading and marking and all my ex-colleague teacher friends are brilliant proofers. Oh yeah… Paying a little something to your friend to read your stuff puts the boot on the right foot, you know, a small amount of money, an Amazon token, a copy of Joanna’s PENTECOST… not too much obviously because they will be inclined pull their critical punches, but not too little (or nothing) or they will never get around to doing it. It’s daunting to flump the 200 pages of your book into someone’s lap and expect them to get on with it. :)

      • says

        I should have said that you should always credit your beta readers in your acknowledgements and be sure to give them a free copy of the finished product! Thanks Phil.

      • David Billikopf says

        Thank you for your tips as well. I teach 7-12th grade English in a juvenile prison. I can think of a few fellow teachers that might fit the bill! I’ll definitely give them credit. Thanks so much for the advice.

  2. says

    I had a writing retreat mid-year where on the first day I got a critique from a professional who’d read the first 30,000 words of my novel. She was really very kind, but I went into a decline that night and thought I may as well chuck the whole thing in. Quite a pity party, really.

    But I had to write for the rest of the week — that was the whole point of the retreat, which I’d been looking forward to for ages! Thankfully, by the next morning I’d somehow picked myself up, dusted myself off… etc. Being a newbie to fiction, I am a voracious consumer of Quality critique, because I know I have so much to learn — but it still hurts.

    I didn’t adopt every suggestion of that reviewer, but I didn’t ignore any of her ideas without thinking very hard about it first. And the ones I did take on have transformed the book. It is SO much better than it was. My characters are so much stronger.

    I have the second professional review coming up soon, on the completed work this time. Get ready for a really good pity party after that one. I’m not into chocolate these days, but I’m stockpiling potato chips. 😉

    • says

      I feel your pain, Belinda. Taking criticism is one of the toughest things to learn to do well. Its funny but rave reviews are often as hard to accept as scathing, cruel, gut wrenching dissections of your infant text, and you need to be a little thick skinned, whether to prevent your head getting so big that you think you can do no wrong, or on the other end giving up in a huff. Either is damaging to your skills as a writer. I think the trick is to take it on board but not take it on the chin. The thing that most people don’t really think about is that your critics might be wrong. And if you disagree with their criticism feel free to disregard it. It’s important to stay focussed on your vision for the story, and check every criticism against your authentic vision. Authenticity is king, and you are writing YOUR book not THEIRS. That’s why I’m suspicious of using writers as beta readers. It’s much better in my view to use pure readers because they have no axe to grind. Of course if readers say they love it and you are a genius accept it gracefully, extract a little faith in your ability and move on to a slightly steely eyed proofer who might give you a slightly more dangerous list of criticism to parry. It’s not about testing your quality as a writer, it’s about training yourself to answer every question a reader might have.

      • says

        Thanks Phil, nice to know we’re all in this together… and I know what you mean about guarding my vision for the book. One of the minor issues my reviewer questioned was whether a mother would be able to eat when her child was missing. I had a good think about it and decided in the end that THIS character WOULD eat because it was a matter of personal discipline for her, but the reviewer’s comment made it obvious that she wasn’t convincingly portrayed yet so I wove in a little more backstory to show why she behaves that way. It helped me to think about how to make this woman’s actions plausible for readers who don’t know the character as well as I do!

        Still waiting for those “you are a genius why hasn’t this thing won the Booker prize yet” reviews, but let’s give it time… 😉

        • says

          Haha yes we ARE all in this together. And that criticism is a shining example of the things I’m talking about when you present your work to writers. THEY would not have done it like that but why should YOU? Your character has different needs. She knows perhaps that she needs to maintain herself and be strong in case action is needed.

          It’s a cliche that a mother deprived of her child wastes away in a corner sobbing. Cliches are born of trying to please everyone. Some mothers, dare I say it, could react by getting violent, crazy or angry, which drives them into taking action. Think about tiny women who lift cars off their children in a red haze of adrenaline. This makes for a story which is much more interesting to read by being surprising, courageous and daring.

          I often suspect that writers who criticise other writers for being “unconvincing” are talking about themselves and their own fears about their work being seen as unconvincing. It’s an inescapable human trait to judge others by our own criteria. When accepting criticism as Joanna says you must take only what you think is valid and ignore what you think is personally motivated from the critic.

          And hey don’t give up on that Man Booker nomination just yet. People who write to please everyone aren’t creative geniuses and don’t win Man Booker prizes. People who write surprising and authentic characters are and do.

  3. says

    I find that when my critique partners bring up a problem in my writing, it’s often something that I’ve been doubting in the back of my mind anyway, and they’re just confirming that yes, I do need to go back and rewrite that part.

  4. says

    Hey Joanna,

    Did you have much conflicting criticism? Like, one person says they don’t find a character’s motivations believable, and then the next person says that the exact same thing really spoke to them?

    I’ve taken a bunch of workshop classes over the past 2 years and always have a mixture of amusement and frustration when this happens. Sure, when everyone in the class says “Take that line out,” I know for sure I need to give that line a careful look. But when they’re split 50/50… hmmm. Then you’re just left with your gut feeling. And when my poem just took a beating in workshop, I’m not sure how well I should trust my gut.

    Anyway, just curious what your experience was with conflicting criticism.


    • says

      Hi Chris, yes, I had some conflicts in feedback and in those circumstances I went with the one that resonated with me. I also had some where 2 people agreed and I didn’t but I still went with the suggestions! These weren’t at the line edit stage, more at the scene stage. This also shows in reviews – so you can’t please everyone. I just think the beta read is the point where you can get other eyes and some real reader response. Just wait a few weeks & I’ll be quaking with Amazon reviews!
      … and I think we need to trust our guts to a point, then get feedback, make changes, and then trust the gut again! Also, separate the emotional reaction from the point when you can accept criticism and move on with it.

    • says

      Conflicting criticism shows you that it’s all opinion. As Joana wisely says you get to choose which one you think is right. If you think the criticism is more about them than about you, you can disregard it. If you think they’re just saying something to prove they read it and want to show effort, you can disregard it. If it makes you go YES then include it, if it makes your heart sink then treat it with suspicion. :)

  5. says

    (3) Bawl your eyes out, ha! I guess we all should be ready to face having to do that at one point in our lives. I’ve dealt with much criticism in my life, what I do is just ignore them. Anyway, criticisms usually teach you indirectly how to become better at what you do.

    Great post. Thanks for writing.

  6. says

    Thank you, Bill Bell! I was about to ask the same question. Now, to take it a bit further–how do you find your beta readers? Do you pay them? It seems obvious they can’t just be your friends.
    I enjoyed the post.

    • says

      Suzanne, if you take a look at those posts I go through this – check out the video in particular. Quick answers:
      * use people you know who read in the genre – yes, friends or acquaintances who will be honest – but they MUST read in the genre. Or use a writing critique group – OR/ once you’re a bit more established you will find other authors who will read
      * No, you don’t generally pay them – they are like first readers – but do give them a free copy of the book & put them in the acknowledgements.

  7. Bill Polm says

    Your post above came at a time when I was undergoing some tough criticism but constructive. Your ideas are helpful. In particular I plan to use your keeping-each-version list. I found all the links in your email good reads and informative.

    For those who gave you a low rating stipulating that your novel wasn’t Christian enough. If wonder how the rated C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy or Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.”

    If and when I get my novel published, which is blatantly Christian, they will probably complain about it too. Phooey.

    Here’s a verse for them: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn…The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yes wisdom is vindicate by her deeds (Matt. 19:17-19). I like that. We Christians should get beyond our hypercritical mode. It’s bad enough to see politicians stuck in that rut!

    You’ve finally got my curiosity at a fever pitch, so I download a free look of your “Prophecy” to my Kindle. Great how you ran the theme/symbol of blood throughout that first chapter. Certainly captured my interest. I look forward to more.

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