Two Words Writers Should Avoid

Two words to avoidOver 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:

“Yeah, but…”

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!

 

Image generated by Caption.IT.

 

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About Keith Cronin

Author of the novels ME AGAIN, published by Five Star/Gale; and TONY PARTLY CLOUDY (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele.

Comments

  1. says

    Spot on, Keemosabi. Listen. Absorb. Speak only to ask for more input/clarification. Be gracious in thanks for the input. (You can ditch the inappropriate comments later after gleaning).

    That said, I have observed critiquers who seem to have self-aggrandizing agendas. But, NEVER confront these asses during their bloviation. Take the ‘high road’ of smiling, nodding and taking notes. Lots of time later to grind teeth and punch a hole in the wall board.

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    • says

      Great point about taking the high road, Alex. Unfortunately it’s not uncommon to encounter a critiquer who seems to enjoy their task just a bit too much. As you’ve observed, graciousness is key in those situations.

      But even in situations when the person doing the critiquing does not have a personal axe to grind, it’s best to remember that above all, they are trying to *help* you. Admittedly, maintaining this mindset can be easier said than done.

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  2. says

    Nice post. For me, I think with feedback, the key is just to thank people for it and nothing else. Then you have to let it simmer for awhile. Once I get a chance to think about it, I’ can tell if criticism is valid or if I can do anything about it.

    Obviously, the easiest criticisms to handle are the ones that have executable action, like when someone says something wasn’t clear, or the description runs too long. The more nebulous things like people didn’t connect with a character, are harder to fix because they’re so subjective.

    The good news is that no one likes every book. Even bestsellers have one star reviews. So, just because someone doesn’t like it doesn’t mean it’s bad. That’s why it’s important to get several beta readers, so you can get a sense of whether nebulous complaints are isolated subjective things or something most readers feel.

    Again, enjoyed your post.

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    • says

      That’s a great attitude, RJ. And I agree, it’s a VERY important lesson for writers to understand that not everybody is going to like your stuff.

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  3. says

    Did they change ‘Y’ to a 10-point letter? I’ve got to update my Scrabble set!

    Great post, Keith. It can be very hard to hold back the ‘Yeah, buts…’ or other forms of self-defense. For me, I skim the notes first, in the belief that it will soften the criticism. Once I get a sense of overall impressions, I go back and read in detail, and it doesn’t seem so bad. Can’t really do that if you’re in a face-to-face critique session, though.

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    • says

      jeffo, I was wondering about that Scrabble score, too – so it’s not just me! I think your skim-and-then-dive-in approach makes a lot of sense.

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  4. Jeanne Kisacky says

    Good post! The yeah-but syndrome for me hides not only ego protection but an unwillingness to re-engage the level of work required to ‘fix’ the criticisms. By the time I’ve asked someone to read something, I’ve already edited it. A LOT. Facing the fact that it still needs work is almost as hard as facing the fact that the reader didn’t just adore every single word. So lethargy is the enemy of dealing well with critique. The takeaway–for me, it helps to read critiques when I feel energetic and positive about life. Shortens the down time.

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    • says

      Great point, Jeanne. I’m definitely susceptible to that overwhelming desire to just be DONE with the freaking thing. At that point, every bit of critique – no matter how helpful – can at first just seem like another pain-in-the-butt obstacle. It’s important to conquer that instinct – sounds like you have a great approach in only tackling this when you feel energized.

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  5. says

    All good points, Keith. I like the advice about improving the work versus not winning the conversation. I’ve been on both ends of this too, as an editor and a writer. If the criticism is said with credibility, support, and constructive comments, that’s really a gift and very valuable.

    I’d like to point out that sometimes the criticism is an attack by the editor and that anger will color the evaluation. Alex’s point above about “critiquers who seem to have self-aggrandizing agendas” is a good one to keep in mind. It’s also a writer’s job to evaluate the quality of the critic.

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    • says

      Paula, your last sentence is key. Critiques are not things we should simply accept and incorporate. They are things we must EVALUATE. Ultimately, all the decision-making is the writer’s responsibility, so we must A) consider the source, B) evaluate the input, and then C) decide what is relevant to the story we are writing.

      Bottom line: writers must be processors of information, not mere receptacles. Thanks for reminding us of that important fact!

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  6. says

    I follow Writer Unboxed for its excellent articles and you did not disappoint!

    From a personal viewpoint, I don’t understand the need for a writer to go the “yeah, but” route. The editors and publishers who comment on my work certainly have the expertise to provide the best insight on what will sell in this challenge market. Why would I waste valuable time arguing with them when I could be soaking in their wisdom which in turn will only strengthen my own writing?

    Thanks for the lovely post!

    Donna L Martin
    http://www.donnalmartin.com

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  7. says

    Good points from everyone. As with Paula, I’ve been on both sides, which leads me to consider the source and then take a look at what stopped the reader. As there are myriad ways to say the same thing, and some things actually don’t need to be said, we ought to be able to learn from all except those ax-grinders.

    Contests were hugely entertaining for me. I entered quite a few one year, just to see what readers had to say. Oh, my. Talk about divergent thoughts, from “I just love that character/scene/dialogue/resolution” to “Are you kidding me?” Which validates RJ’s point. Not all readers will like our work, and obviously not all editors or agents, or each of us would be multi-published by our choice of house and raking in the big bucks.

    Yes, sometimes we want to drown our sorrows or slap ourselves upside of the head, but, hey, sometimes those words of criticism will be just what we need to hear to move to the next level in our writing.

    So, we’re to sit on our hands, paste on a smile, and then pick up the phone to call the one person who always has our back. “Would you believe what that guy said about my words?” And she (or he) will let us rant, tell us we’re the next best thing to perfect, and wait until we come to the realization that, well, no, we’re not.

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    • says

      Excellent insights, Normandie. I’ve learned a LOT from contests – they provide a reality check that can be very eye-opening. I’ve submitted stories about which I was patting myself on the back and chanting, “Nailed it!” only to see them fall flat with the judges or contest voters.

      But by repeating the process – painful as it was – I started to develop a sense of what aspects of my writing seem to resonate most with readers. The lesson has been invaluable (if painful), and has taught me how to play to my strengths.

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  8. says

    t is not the reader’s job to “get it.” It is the writer’s job to “give it.”

    Ain’t that just a kick in the ‘but’ !?

    It takes a lot of “yeah, but” moments to realize that when it comes to learning, one must be ready to listen. Not everyone is brilliant from minute one. And those who are? Are hiding the truth.

    Learn,listen, suck it up, keep going.

    Great post, thanks!!

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  9. says

    Great post. I think one of the best ways for me to handle criticism is to give it time. You read someone’s comments, do your “yeah, but”-ing in your head, put it all away for a few days while you fume or whine silently (or out loud to a willing sound board–but NOT online!) and then look at the comments again. Time usually helps you see that there is truth there and there are answers and solutions to the problems that the critique raises. Maybe not every quibble is worth revision, but certainly some are, especially if you hear it from multiple readers. Time helps you weed out the stuff that really matters so you can deal with it calmly.

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    • says

      Erin, that’s a great point about getting similar feedback from multiple readers. When that starts to happen, it’s clear you’ve got some revising to do!

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  10. says

    In a one-on-one conference critique, I had a “yes, but” argument with an editor about the use of “transistor radio” versus “radio” in my 1960s novel. I backed down to keep the critique moving along, but have kept my “transistor radio” in every draft. ;)

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    • says

      Mary, that’s a good example of keeping one’s priorities straight. You realized the conversation was being derailed, and by backing down you got the critique back on course. And in the end, the decision is yours as to what elements of the critique to incorporate.

      I’ll bet that by not fixating on “winning” that conversation, you were able to get even more input from the editor – I’m hoping at least some of it was helpful!

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  11. says

    Hi Keith,
    You are sooo on target with your post! Taking criticism on the chin is difficult and certainly can leave us feeling bruised and battered. I agree that the harshest critics are imbedded deeply in the industry. They have little to no mercy, but that’s why they get paid the big bucks (or not, depending on your perspective).

    For me, I try very hard to keep reminding myself that this is a business and to learn something useful from each bruising encounter. I’ve learned that if industry professionals are willing to give advice, however bitter the taste, that’s a good thing. Most do not bother, so be grateful that he or she cared enough to comment. That is an improvement over dead silence because it shows you are at least a blip on someone’s industry radar.

    As for critique partners, there is absolutely no need or reason for rudeness or being mean. We writers should support one another and give advice, not try to tear one another down for the fun of it, to show off, or to enhance our own egos. In a critique group, one’s mantra should be what goes around comes around so be nice and helpful.

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    • says

      Linda, you raise a great point: getting ANY reaction from an industry pro is a step in the right direction – it means they’re at least paying attention to your writing, and that’s a good thing. Thanks!

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  12. says

    I’m going to use your “Writing is a full-contact sport” idea. Truer words . . .

    I love this post. Giving feedback to Yeah Butters is excruciating. Not that everyone has to agree with me and my suggestions, but it’s just so tiring to have battles over feedback.

    I hired Alan Rinzler to do some developmental editing on my first book. I remember one of his comments (on page six of one of the chapters) was this: “This is the first interesting sentence in this chapter.”

    Ouch. But I knew he believed in the book. I knew he believed that it was worth his time. And yes, the first six pages of that chapter did nothing to further the story.

    I think about his words often because I trusted him. I think that’s key . . . do we trust the critiquer. If so, we should at least consider his opinion and humbly listen. If not, perhaps we move on.

    If we are going to improve as writers, we have to be willing to adopt an attitude of humility.

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    • says

      Sarah, thanks for this great statement:

      “If we are going to improve as writers, we have to be willing to adopt an attitude of humility.”

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  13. Denise Willson says

    Great post, Keith.

    I find it most difficult when I get contradictory opinions. Sometimes we need to listen to our gut.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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    • says

      Denise, it’s true that our gut-level reactions as writers are crucial. But do be on the lookout for this seemingly contradictory scenario:

      1) Reviewer A has a problem with section N of your manuscript, and thinks that you should do X to fix it.

      2) Reviewer B has a problem with section N of your manuscript, and thinks that you should do Y to fix it (which happens to be the polar opposite of doing X to fix it).

      While their advice may be contradictory, the thing to notice here is that two different reviewers had a problem with the same section of your manuscript. When that happens, it’s worth considering that you may have a problem there – but it’s on YOU to figure out how to fix it.

      That’s a surprisingly common situation, where the reader can tell that a certain section isn’t quite working, but can’t quite put their finger on how to fix it. In that case, their feedback is still helpful, because it has identified a problem section.

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  14. says

    Keith-

    What do you mean agents deliver sledgehammer critiques? See, you lost my interest right there. Why should I care about your point, or for that matter keep reading? Where the tension or unanswered question to make me scroll onward?

    Sorry, but I wasn’t quickly drawn into your post. I don’t think I could “like” it in the current market. However, if you should extensively revise I’ll be happy to reconsider reading this in a century or two.

    (Don snorts iced coffee through his nose and laughs uncontrollably. He is having too much fun for a Tuesday morning.)

    *Okay, try to be serious*…great advice, Keith.

    At some workshops I’ve been to writers are not allowed to respond at all when receiving comments. They only listen. Evaluate. Then hit the bar.

    The corresponding advice I’d pass along is to those delivering critique. The most helpful critiques I’ve ever heard did the following:

    1) Acknowledged what the writer was trying to achieve.

    2) Praised what what good in the work.

    3) Made criticisms a personal response (“For me, interest dropped when…”).

    4) Offered suggestions not to make the story more pleasing to the critique giver but to illustrate ways for the writer to better achieve his or her intent.

    Newer writers do respond, as you say, with “Yeah but…” More experienced writers tend to respond with, “What I was trying to show was…”

    That isn’t necessary either. It you’re getting any critique at all (versus, “No suggestions, I loved every word and punctuation mark!”) then it’s obvious that you didn’t “give it”.

    And hey, what’s wrong with making your work better? And BTW, Keith, I did like the way you used the word “the”. That worked.

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    • says

      Yeah, but Don – if you think my use of “the” was the best thing in my post, you totally didn’t get my masterful use of “and.” I really don’t know how to help somebody like you, if you can’t even pick up on such clear moments of literary genius.

      Seriously, though – those are some great guidelines for critiquing somebody else’s work. Which, incidentally, is something I think ALL writers should do, to develop their own critical thinking. (Hmmmm, I think I know what one of my next posts will be about….)

      Thanks!

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  15. says

    My crit group often includes people who don’t normally read the genre I write, and vice-versa. So, sometimes suggestions can be a little off-base, HOWEVER, am I not (ideally) wanting to appeal to a cross-over audience? Storytelling is storytelling; if the plot is murky, if description bogs it down, if the dialogue is flat, or a thousand other things… then I need to fix those things, and not hide behind “you don’t ‘get’ me.”

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    • says

      Great point, Beverly. Whether or not a reviewer likes what you wrote, they still should be able to “get” what you wrote. If they didn’t, that’s your problem, not theirs.

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  16. says

    “You can’t argue somebody into liking your book.”

    Very true … but you can rewrite a book until that somebody likes it.

    I just had this experience with my editor who went from six critical pages to “WOW, what a difference—this feels spot-on.”

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    • says

      James, it’s great to hear an example where the results of your critique were what we all hope for: a better piece of writing in the long run!

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  17. says

    Years ago, when I first started writing, I wrote short drama sketches. My very first one got published, and every one after that. Then I turned my hand to novels. After a few months and 125,000 words, I found an online critique group.

    When I received my first critique, I knew I knew nothing but good dialogue … and I mean nothing! I’d never heard or POV and had no idea what it meant. Omniscient was something that God was. Show? Tell?

    I didn’t have any problem accepting hard critiques. The difference was, while they were hard, I never saw them as harsh. Writers need to read critiques from the perspective of being taught – not attacked.

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    • says

      Ane, this is a GREAT mindset to maintain:

      “Writers need to read critiques from the perspective of being taught – not attacked.”

      Well put!

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    • says

      Mona, you’ve clearly identified why it can be so hard to take criticism: since we put so much of ourselves into it.

      But that’s what makes writing great in the long run: our emotional investment in our stories. So I guess it’s a no pain, no gain thing!

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  18. says

    Oh, I had to laugh at this! I may not say the ‘Yeah but’ out loud (sometimes I am too intimidated) but I certainly say it in my head. If only you could see things as I see them… you just don’t understand true art even if it hits you on the head… I was just a little bit rusty… and so on and so forth!

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    • says

      LOL – Marina, you forgot a few popular excuses. The sun was in my eyes. True genius is never appreciated during an artist’s lifetime. My computer had a virus. I was possessed by demons… :)

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  19. Tom Witkowski says

    This is by no means a blanket statement, but at times I’ve found critiquing can be a flawed process. Because there are people who get handed work along with your polite “please let me know what you think,” and they hear, “let me know in exacting detail everything you think is dreadful and wrong.” Some people go into a critique process thinking this is their time to be heard, and they get so wrapped up in looking for what’s wrong, that they fail to see what’s right. And if you look hard enough in anything, including this very blog entry, you’ll certainly find a bevy of things that could be better. Like I said, by no means a blanket statement, but something that backs up the notion of 1) careful who you ask, and 2) always remember there is probably a lot of great in your writing that won’t receive nearly as much attention as the not-so-great.

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    • says

      Tom, I think the very word “critique” helps create the effect you mentioned, because to some people it comes of solely as a request for criticism. So I usually spoon-feed my requests to reviewers (when appropriate), asking them to identify both what they liked, and what they didn’t like.

      Obviously, you can’t necessarily do that with agents and editors, unless it’s in some sort of workshop scenario. But when possible/appropriate, gentle nudges like that can help elicit both negative and positive feedback.

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  20. says

    This is really good advice, Keith. If we writers can ask for clarification about critical comments instead of trying to dismiss them as wrong, we can learn why we maybe didn’t “give it” in the way we intended.

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  21. says

    I was never much on “yeah, but”. I guess I was more of a rocking-chair-sulk kind of guy. Over the long-haul I’ve grown an appreciation. Any progress I can claim to have made has been greatly informed by critique. My stubbornness eventually gets me out of the rocking-chair, and back to but-in-chair.

    I’m not quite saying I’m in the “Thank-you sir, may I have another” club. But I do recognize the necessity, and after each critique I am grateful for having endured it… eventually. Another winner here, Keith!

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  22. says

    Keith, I have been a yeah-butter in high standing (Ahh, the world just doesn’t understand the subtlety of my stirring prose) for a while, but in the last few years, I’ve become more conscious that it’s a reflex of sorts. As others have cited here, it’s hard to take an objective stand on your work, but also as pointed out, when it’s in the service of the work’s betterment, resistance, though inviting, is futile.

    Right now I’m asking in a few writer’s circles to have the first chapter of my new novel critiqued. I WANT it to be done, but I secretly know it’s not. I can look smart here and quote Goethe: “No one knows what he is doing so long as he is acting rightly; but of what is wrong one is always conscious.” I started to “yeah, but”—or head butt—a few comments already, but stopped. It might be 12 steps, but I will get over myself.

    Hey, I thought your use of both “the” and “and” was bold and original!

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    • says

      Ooohhh, Tom – a 12-step “get over yourself” program could be a huge help to many artists. Let me know where to sign up!

      And I’m glad you dug my use of “the” and “and.” Since you’re clearly a highly discerning reader, I’m sure you also picked up on some of my sublime instances of “of” – some of which are truly awesome, if I say so myself.

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  23. says

    My method for dealing with criticism is to not respond. When it hurts, when it makes me angry, I know it’s probably true. So I wait until the frustration is properly directed–at myself–and after a day or two all I feel toward the person who called me out is gratitude. Then I respond with a “thank you” and get back to work!

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  24. says

    When you come to terms with the reality that failure and rejection are the only guaranteed experiences in writing, you’re a long way toward taking criticism in stride. To be shot down is the norm and the only failure is to stop writing. Mary Pickford said, “The thing we call failure is not the falling down but the staying down.”

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  25. Lori Owen says

    Love the post Keith. I am so guilty of saying “Okay, but…” so I had to laugh at the Yeah, but thing. I could see that ugly head of criticism rearing it’s ugly head. There are times when I don’t take criticism well. I had written a very rough draft of a story some years back. I could not get an honest critique from family and friends. I know, the worst people to ask. So I took it to a therapist friend of mine. I finally asked for some feedback. She was kind in her critique but was honest enough to tell me it was to technical for the general public. The book was good for the medical professionals and other health service type people but not for the people who could benefit from it. 8 years later I am trying to rewrite it.

    Okay, but…..

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  26. says

    Great points, Keith.

    When critique seems hot and hard, for me, being inquisitive is the best way to stay in the room and to learn. A question can bring mutual understanding. Sometimes the critique comment is not as clear as that person intends, so rather than me licking wounds over an inaccurate statement, if I’m going to put myself in that position, I might as well get it direct and clear.

    The inquisitive approach also tends to soften the person who has an agenda. (But not always. Then it’s time to just listen and thank.)

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  27. Ronda Roaring says

    It’s amazing how many comments this post has generated. I attended a seminar/workshop once where the moderator handed out index cards to everyone. A writer was supposed to read a couple of pages of something they’d written and, then, everyone would write comments on the cards and hand them to the writer. There was nothing verbal, it was all written. I think I still have those cards. They really didn’t help.

    What helps me is when critiquers start arguing. “I didn’t like that part about….” “Oh, that’s the part I liked the best.” “Me, too.” “No, I thought it was boring.” Then you have to decide if you’re going to change it or leave it alone. That’s the hard part.

    By the way, spiders don’t dismember their prey, they suck them dry. Being critiqued can be a bit like being sucked dry. That works.

    Thanks for the post.

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  28. says

    When I coach people on how to give and recieve feedback (in writing, life, or other pursuits) I tell them that they have only two options for how to respond to critical feedback:

    1) They can ask a question for better understanding of the feedback. A great question is “can you give me an example.”

    2) They can say “Thank you.”

    Ultimately the writer decides whether or not to use the feedback. If they keep getting the same feedback from different people, then maybe they should start to adjust their writing. If they only get the feedback once, it might just be a reader preference which they could choose to disregard. However, they never should make an excuse. Feedback is a gift! Say thanks, or get over it!

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    • says

      I totally agree with showing your appreciation of the time and effort someone has invested into your work. It’s one of the maxims included on my list when I teach beta reading.

      The writers who have failed to show appreciate for the work I’ve done for them (as an editor or as a beta reader) are writers who have a short shelf life with me.

      I always tell my students when providing feedback to give examples to illustrate their point. That way it avoids things falling into ruts of critiques becoming person, rather than just about the work. That a critique needs to be a road map for the author to review and reconsider their work!

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  29. says

    Keith – I loved everything you had to say in this article. As an editor, a publisher, a writer and someone who teaches editing and beta reading there is so much humble wisdom to be absorbed in your words!

    I have lost count the number of times I’ve got a ‘yeah, but’ responses I’ve received from authors. It’s often, upon discussion, a mistranslation or no translation, from the context they have in their head, to the missing context on the page.

    What I have found though, is the ones who are willing to enter into a conversation about the work, are the ones who end up with a stellar piece of story telling. Where the context in their head marries beautifully with the context on the page, so the author and the reader are talking the same language to each other.

    The writers who tell you their story is fine and they could take it somewhere else, this minute and sell it, who don’t want to have this dicussion… well okay. There are plenty of unpaid markets that will take anything!

    What I teach in beta reading is the critiquing is a two-way dialogue with the intent of both parties to improve the work at hand. What I fear is that many writers go into the beta reading/critiquing process with the expectation they will be patted on the back and told their work is awesome. When they are not, it is a huge slap in the face.

    Regardless of whether we’re new or veterans on the page (I have the ‘delight’ on being the reverse side of the desk last year with my debut novella) it hurts when someone tells us our work isn’t up to par. And it’s OKAY to feel like that. What’s NOT okay is to immediately email your editor or beta reader and tell them they don’t get it. It’s not okay to go on social media and complain and whinge about it (yes, Twitter moves fast but Murphy’s Law States that the person you moan about will see it). I totally agree with and Don, in privately licking your wounds – because it’s part of the grieving process.

    Give it 24 hours… then return to the work, see what you agree with, what you don’t and what you need more explanation of. I always tell my students review and consider EVERYTHING. If something is not working for one of your beta readers/editor and you don’t agree with the suggestions for fixing it, have a long hard look at it and see if you can work out why it doesn’t work and how to fix it from your POV.

    Beta reading and critiquing the work of others will help you develop a tougher skin (it is also THE BEST PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT YOU WILL EVER DO AS A WRITER). It imbues you with a more empathy for the person on the other of the critique also. I don’t think the ‘yeah, but’ knee jerk ever goes away (in fact I think it’s essential)… it’s learning to use it, rather than let it use you.

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    • says

      Jodi, I strongly agree that critiquing is a crucial tool in a writer’s development. I’m amazed at how many writers are reluctant to do so.

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      • says

        I think most shy away from critiquing, Keith, because they don’t know how to and are afraid of destroying someone’s confidence with a badly worded or thought out critique (especially if they have been on the receiving end of a gutting critique). They don’t understand/ know of the simple fundamentals (outlined by Don above) or how to apply them. And trying to get writers to PAY to learn critiquing (as I’ve discovered) is really, really hard. They don’t view it as an investment in their own work. My own work as an editor (and as a beta reader after that) has been the best up-skilling as a writer.

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      Jodi-

      You said something important above: It’s okay to feel bad on receiving critique. Indeed, it’s part of the process–the grieving process. Ah. That’s astute. So much time, hope, ego and identity are tied up in that draft! How could it be otherwise?

      It’s like relationships…the loved one starts out idealized and perfect. Eventually day-to-day realities set in. We see the loved one more as they really are: human and imperfect…yet all the more beautiful and precious for that.

      We need to see our fiction in the same way: All that we adored is still beautiful despite the pillow hair, sheet creases on the skin and grumpy pre-coffee scowl on the face of our loved one.

      It’s funny, isn’t it? Writing fiction takes one into a semi-conscious, childlike and vulnerable state, yet when done one must become strong, mature and at the same time flexible and receptive. Not so easy.

      I like the 24 hour rule. Give yourself a day to grieve your lost ideal…then affirm your commitment, appreciate what’s good in your loved one and hurry back to work.

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  30. says

    For me, receiving criticism is pretty easy. It still hurts like hell, BUT I can take it. I have yet to be criticized by an agent though. The only time I have a problem with criticism is when the critic adds vain comments just to brow beat you like an Ursuul.

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  31. says

    I laughed my but off! I recently entertained a whole thread of discussion over whether how many adjectives should be used in one my “yeah butts” (as in head butt). It was a great discussion from the writer’s unboxed forum, but the guy who made the comment couldn’t pinpoint an example in my work. After all of my hooting and hollering BUT BUT BUT… I looked over the two pages I had sent to him (yep it was definitely a darling) and evetho the character saying the stuff would use more adjectives than the average person, I still hacked out all of them. BUT not without discussion first. A long winded-one. Ahhh the madness of it all.

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  32. says

    I’ve used and reused “yeah, but” and never understand why my writing buddy would always say you’re being negative again, when I never got to finish my statement. Then I realized that one writer’s “yeah but”, is another’s (mine) way of saying “yeah, although this might be a better idea.” or “What if this happened instead.” Poor maligned, yeah but.

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  33. says

    I completely love AND agree with this post! As the editor of a literary anthology that produces one volume per year, I deal with submissions all the time AND we offer critiques to those we reject. I train our staff to choose kindness when responding to work. While it’s important to be honest with your critique, it’s also important to not disparage or degrade another writer. Thanks!!!

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  34. says

    In Don Miguel Ruiz’s wonderful book “The Four Agreements,” the second agreement was “Don’t Take Anything Personally.” I have repeated those words so many times to myself that it seems like I’m doing affirmations (self-talk).

    Don Ruiz further describes the agreement as:

    ——————
    Agreement 2
    ——————
    Don’t take anything personally – Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

    By the way, your post was very insightful. Thanks.

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  35. says

    Working as a psychologist, I sometimes remind the discouraged, “Hey, if you went in to see an orthopedist and what she said was, “Gee, ankle looks great. You have nice in tact wrists…etc.”
    Would that be any help to you? Would those comments turn you toward a plan of action?

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  36. says

    I first evaluate the source. Once I figure that I can trust the critique, it generally doesn’t bother me, since I see it as part of my bid to improve one what I’ve done.

    Some Yeah, but’s are valid, though, because sometimes, people who critique one’s work is just out to be critical. Usually those people are easy to catch, fortunately.

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