Over the years I have witnessed and/or contributed to critiquing many writers, through my longtime participation in online writers’ forums, through reading agents’ blogs, and through attending some major writers’ conferences.
In my experience, the most brutal critiques tend to come from established literary agents, who typically pull no punches in criticizing the first few pages of aspiring writers’ manuscripts, or in evaluating the effectiveness of their queries, pitches, or loglines. Watching how these agents tear apart the work submitted to them – like a hungry spider relentlessly dismembering a fly caught in its web – reminds me that this whole writing-to-get-published thing is a full-contact sport, and not for the faint of heart.
Conversely, the most gentle critiques I’ve seen were posted in well-moderated online writers’ forums like Backspace, where rudeness is not tolerated, and even harsh critiques are expected to be delivered with diplomacy, helpfulness, and – this is important – accountability. (This is something you’ll find in a forum with a paid member base, where the site administrators know who everybody is, which in turn helps eradicate the vicious posting behavior that internet anonymity enables in some rather poopyheaded people.)
Whether delivered with a sledgehammer or with a spoonful of sugar, these critiques will often inspire a knee-jerk response from the writers, particularly those who are relatively new to this pursuit. And regardless of what genre they are writing, their response almost always begins with two words:
When a novelist is challenged on something he likes – one of his darlings – the first two words out of his mouth are almost always Yeah but.
~ Stephen King, On Writing
It’s understandable to want to defend your own work, and that’s what most people do the first time its quality has been called into question. As Stephen King notes in his wonderful On Writing, “When a novelist is challenged on something he likes – one of his darlings – the first two words out of his mouth are almost always Yeah but.”
I bet many of you have run into this. But if not, here are a few examples of what I’m talking about – see if any of them sound familiar:
- Yeah, but it gets funnier after the first five pages.
- Yeah, but James Patterson did this exact same thing in a book that sold a bazillion copies.
- Yeah, but you needed to know that this character used to be a professional ping-pong player 20 years ago – it’s essential to you understanding his arc!
- Yeah, but it’s just that I’m no good at writing queries. The book itself is totally awesome, believe me!
- Yeah, but the protagonist becomes much more sympathetic after the first couple hundred pages – honest!
- Yeah, but you just didn’t “get it” – that’s why you don’t think you’re interested in my awesome book.
Yeah, but here’s the thing
The thing about all this yeah-butting is this: You can’t argue somebody into liking your book. Or into “getting” your book. This latter point is essential. I’ve seen the sentiment expressed numerous ways, but I really like how former Executive Story Editor at International Creative Management Christopher Lockhart (now with William Morris Endeavor) puts it, in his foreword to Richard Stefanik’s book The Megahit Movies: “Writers will often complain that the reader didn’t ‘get it.’ But it is not the reader’s job to ‘get it.’ It is the writer’s job to ‘give it.’”
It is not the reader’s job to “get it.” It is the writer’s job to “give it.”
~ Christopher Lockhart
Time and time again I’ve seen writers become increasingly frustrated as they try to explain away the faults that others have observed in their work, rather than stopping to actually consider and address those faults. But the good thing is, even this apparent exercise in frustration can have a potential benefit, as I’ll explain next.
I like big buts and I cannot lie
The one upside of the “yeah, but” conversation is that it can help a writer clarify and better understand just why his or her work did not hit the mark. I think we all know how hard it is to maintain objectivity about our own creative efforts. So this actually can be a worthwhile conversation to have. But let me add one more “but” to the buttload of buts in this post:
BUT… you need to make sure you’re having this conversation with the goal of improving your work, NOT of “winning” the conversation by somehow making your critiquer see it your way. I’m afraid that’s an AGH situation, my friend. Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.
So I think the key to having a successful exchange over a critique is to try not to be defensive, but instead be inquisitive. Try changing “Yeah, but” to “Really? Can you clarify?” Or to “Wow, that’s not at all what I meant to convey there. Can you help me understand what made you react that way?”
One more “but” to consider
This is another really important “but” to keep in mind. Conversations may be great, BUT not every critiquing situation is a two-way street. With agents or editors, you’re usually in a “shut up and take notes” situation. Your next stop should be the nearest bar, where you can lick your wounds over a stiff drink and ponder the input you’ve been given. Because if you think it’s hard to argue a “regular” reader into liking or getting your work, you have NO idea what an uphill climb you’d face in trying to get an agent or editor to capitulate once they’ve voiced an opinion. That’s an AGH + NWIH situation. Ain’t Gonna Happen; No Way In Hell.
But within a writers’ forum or critique group, it’s likely you may have the opportunity for some back-and-forth with your critiquers. If you do, take advantage of it, and focus on learning more about why your readers reacted the way they did, and not on trying to convince them that they simply got it wrong.
How about you?
What methods have you come up with for handling criticism? What ways have you found to learn from feedback that might have been painful to receive? I’m eager to hear your insights, and as always, thanks for reading!
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