Guest Post: How to Take Criticism As An Author

15 November 2012

I’m going to take a stand and proclaim what I have learned as one of {perhaps the} the single most important keys to becoming a great writer. Ready? All right.

We all love our stories. We all, for the most part, go through stages where we think we’ve stumbled across a stunning plot idea that’ll be the next David Copperfield. For those of us who actually make it through writing the entire thing and fleshing out all the characters, the events, the timing, we put another feather in our cap. Not only was the idea press-worthy, but the finished novel is magnifique! We’ve got a novel that’ll rival To Kill a Mockingbird. The third tier on our Happy-Go-Lucky kudos-cake arrives when we’ve finished the first edit of the manuscript. We’ve moved on from thinking our book is as good as those Other Famous Novels. Forget Where the Red Fern Grows. We’ve written the new Les Miserables

Go ahead and deny the charge if you will, but you know deep down you’ve felt this sensation. It’s fun. It’s rare. It is lovely to enjoy….for a week. But if I’ve learned one thing in my years of writing, it is that this misplaced arrogance cannot last if you hope to become an honest-to-goodness great author.

The wonderful thing about writing is that it is a growing craft. The most famous author is still honing his skills and working on one aspect or another of his writing. Even if you’ve got a killer plot, even if you’ve got the best characters in the best pinch with the best villain and the best hero, your book is not perfect. The sooner we realize this, the easier it will be to accept criticism. Because that is the place where the ways part and the truly great writers diverge from the mediocre and amateurs.

That’s the secret to being a great writer: Learn how to take criticism.

My first real foray into writing seriously –not just as a fun hobby—was when I joined a Christian Young Adult Writers’ critique group. The men and women in that group were gentle but pointed with their remarks.  Many of them were published and/or agented authors who had been to conferences, read widely, written more still, and knew darn well what they were talking about:

My punctuation was atrocious. 

My formatting was a nightmare.

I used exclamation points like a California valley-girl.

And if there was an Adverb Protection Service in America, I’d have been clapped in irons and stowed in jail, guilty of the most heinous abuse.

My poor novel was raked over the coals in no uncertain terms.  I think I ended up editing that manuscript six or seven times before I was {mostly} satisfied.

It’s not stretching the truth to say that I loved every criticism I got.

It was tough-love, though. The comments stung sometimes. My heart would seize up now and then when the leader of the group said something not-so-gentle and actually rather rough about my writing, the slowness of my forsaking a certain habit. {*Ahem* Comma-usage *Ahem*}

It hurt!

What had happened to my dreams of grandeur? My certainty that I was born to be a novelist?

I hadn’t even seen it coming. But I was clever enough to realize this was a refining fire for me as a writer, and a fabulous opportunity to get the wisdom and input of real authors. 

I swallowed my pride and applied their wisdom to my writing and I realized that not only was my writing better by the time the group disbanded, but I could actually apply the principles as I wrote my next novel so that there was less editing to be done. I’m telling you, criticism changed my writing-life forever. 

For good.

I cannot tell you how many mistakes I would still be floundering in if I’d not made myself vulnerable and had other writers read my novel. One reason my writing is as good as it is—and I am the first to admit it is full of room for growth and improvement still—is because the criticism from these men and women exposed all the juvenile mistakes I was making and showed me how to correct the errors. My writing doesn’t look as amateur because I learned what the amateurs do and have sought to avoid those things.

When you finish a novel, rather than preening yourself over it for four months and realizing—four years later—that you haven’t grown at all, I have another tactic:

Get as many people to read your novel as will put up with you.  

But don’t get the friends and family members who will pat you on the back and affirm your suspicions that you’re the next Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway. Get the people who are grammar Nazis. The people whose aura of Well-Read-Person hangs about them like a shimmering, frightening mantle. Get your bilingual grandmother who has lived through two World Wars. Get published writers or friends who are farther along the writing road than you.

The thing is, as a young writer you just cannot rely on your own judgment as to what is good enough. If you don’t know you’re making mistakes how can you correct them? That’s why I say that the biggest key to success for an aspiring author is to learn to love criticism. The harsh, the gentle, the stinging kinds. The good critics who point out what they like as well as what could use work AND the snobs who weigh you in the Victor Hugo balance and find you lacking. Sift the wheat from the chaff. Look over their comments with a humble mind and heart, open to new ideas and hard choice. Sometimes they'll recommend things that you'll choose not to change. I know. I had that happen to me. But that's the beauty of being an author and getting as much input as possible: you'll grow to be able to discern what to apply and what to lay aside.

With each tweaking of your mind and heart and the words on the page, your book will start to live up to its Great Expectations. Take heart, valiant-ones. It’s a battle worth winning.

* * *

Rachel Heffington is "not yet one-and-twenty." She writes like a fury, reads whenever she can, loves her family, loves God, and wishes there was money and time enough to travel the world and write about her adventures. You can read about her own writing, writing tips, and all things inky at her blog, The Inkpen Authoress.

6 epistles:

  1. As usual, an excellent post, Elizabeth Rose, gently but firmly put. You are at once perfectly realistic (criticism is hard and hurts sometimes) and optimistic (with a teachable spirit, these criticisms can help shape our writing in unimaginable ways). Here are two lines that jumped out at me the most:

    "Even if you’ve got a killer plot, even if you’ve got the best characters in the best pinch with the best villain and the best hero, your book is not perfect. The sooner we realize this, the easier it will be to accept criticism. Because that is the place where the ways part and the truly great writers diverge from the mediocre and amateurs."

    - and -

    "Sometimes they'll recommend things that you'll choose not to change. I know. I had that happen to me. But that's the beauty of being an author and getting as much input as possible: you'll grow to be able to discern what to apply and what to lay aside."

    I thought those two quotes balanced the business well. We are not always the best judges of our writing (we are sometimes too close) but at the same time we are the masters and creators of our writing, we have the last word, and there's nothing wrong with that.

    Beautiful post, Elizabeth Rose! This one is a gem. ^.^

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  2. EXCELLENT advice. I'm beginning to learn to love criticism - I used to be terrified of it. But now I think of it as a blessing (mostly! :-) ) because the more skillful people that contribute to the words of a book the better it will be, and thus the greater the number of people who will like the finished product. I don't know how I ever could have trusted that inexperienced little me knew enough about writing and the world to produce a great book all on my own!
    Thank you!

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  3. Thank you, Elizabeth! I love reading what you have to say. This post is especially helpful in that I love to write and am currently working on a fictional story, though I have been somewhat stuck in a writer's block for the past few weeks... Again, thank you for posting! I look forward to reading more of your blog!
    Blessings,
    Sarah

    http://threemaidens.blogspot.com/

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  4. All: Thank you so much for your gracious words, but as indicated be the title, this was a guest post and not my own original. The praise goes to Rachel Heffington. Please visit her blog at inkpenauthoress.blogspot.com and let her know how much you loved her post; I'm sure it would make her day. :)

    Blessings,
    Elizabeth Rose

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  5. The group you are a part of is it online? Or meets in person? I'm looking for a critique group that is good at what they do but at the same time doesn't do it in a harsh but gentle way.

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  6. I *was* a part of an online group, but unfortunately, it disbanded last year. :(

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