There comes the time when every writer has to show their work to other people. Those people might like it — they could even love it — but chances are they’re going to have some “thoughts.”
The reality is, those thoughts aren’t going to be that your writing is perfect and brilliant. Your readers will probably have “suggestions” on where the weak points in your story are, and you may not like everything they have to say. So whether you’re listening to feedback in a writers group or reading a critique on paper, here’s how to process and deal with that criticism without having a meltdown.
Or in other words, how to be calm like a leaf in the face of criticism.
Step 1: Accept the critique without judgment
If you’re receiving the feedback firsthand, listen with a calm face and an open mind. Accept the feedback without interrupting and defer your judgment on whether it’s right or wrong. Don’t try to defend your writing because this is the reader’s opinion — this was their experience reading your story, and now they’re simply sharing their reactions with you.
Remember, you don’t have to make any changes at this stage. A lot of writers get worked up over criticism because they’re thinking further ahead than they should be. They’re thinking about how much work it’s going to be to fix these alleged problems or rewrite a scene, and jeez, how are they even going to do it? Don’t worry about any of that. Just consider the feedback at face value.
Likewise, if the critique is on paper, skim the notes without thinking about how you’re going to respond to them. You’re not responsible for anything more at this point.
Step 2: Sleep on it
This is especially true for critiques on paper. Whenever I receive a critique from a writer buddy, I review their notes and then set them aside for the day. It’s far too easy to get wrapped up in the emotional stress of learning how they felt about a chapter versus how I thought they were going to feel — because oftentimes, those feelings don’t match up. It’s really easy to get overwhelmed by that realization.
So I let the whole thing go for the time being, knowing that I’ll deal with it more tomorrow. Don’t think too deeply about it or you’ll get angry at the reader or down on yourself, or you’ll make rash decisions about how to integrate the feedback.
If you’re in a live writers group, thank them for their critique and file it away in your brain. If they’ve written their thoughts on paper as well, that’s even better because then you can revisit their points the next day.
Step 3: Evaluate the feedback more seriously
The following day, once you’re a little distanced from that initial emotional mess of receiving the critique, you can start to seriously look at the feedback and decide how to handle it.
I like to start by going through each comment, reading it carefully, and marking either a checkmark or an X beside it. I put a checkmark if the comment is valid and worth acting on; I put an X if I totally disagree — meaning that if I were to make a change based on the comment, it would be to the detriment of the story. This is the part where you have to really try to understand the other person’s perspective, and you have to be honest with yourself about whether or not they’ve made a good point.
Don’t base any of your decisions on how much work would be involved in making a fix. Just put a checkmark or an X. That’s it.
Step 4: Form a strategy
Right after you finish making your checkmarks and Xs, go back to the beginning and jot down some notes on the same paper about how you might address the problem that was pointed out.
In some cases, the solution will be as simple as “rephrase this part of the sentence.” In other cases, you’ll need to brainstorm a bit. I put anything down from whole sentence additions to general suggestions like “describe this better here” or “clarify motivation more in this paragraph.” But don’t make any actual changes in your manuscript yet. Just put together a battle plan.
Step 5: Make the revisions
Finally, put the plan in action. Open up your manuscript on your computer and get ready to make some changes.
I like to start with the simplest edits first, just to warm up — grammar and punctuation things, mostly. Sentence-level changes. Then I move on to the big stuff. By now, I’ve calmed down considerably and have thought out how I want to revise before even opening up the document and doing anything permanent. If I had jumped in right after receiving the critique, I would have made a lot of bad calls and sloppy changes.
And probably would have had a panic attack, too.
This way, I can stay sane and calm and revise like a pro, and so can you. So bring on the criticism — I’m ready.