Welcome back for the second installment of critique tips! In this series of posts, I’m sharing some insight derived from my own critiquing experiences. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably read my previous post on this subject – but if not, I invite you to check it out.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
The Snowflake Effect
Let’s be honest. When we turn something in to be critiqued, we all secretly hope our readers will return with nothing but praise. Academically, rationally, realistically, we know that’s not what will happen. We probably know enough to at least say that we don’t want that. Being intent on improvement and serious about developing our professionalism tends to strengthen our understanding of the value (and necessity) of a solid critique.
But we love what we’ve written, and somewhere in our hearts we long to be told that it’s perfect and we’re special snowflakes. Or pretty ponies, or glimmering unicorns, or whatever term your kindergarten teacher used. When we hear that it usually takes decades to break into publishing, we can’t help but think “not for me!” We’d rather identify ourselves with those exceptionally talented/lucky/special people who sold their first book for a trillion dollars. Who wouldn’t, right?
But depending on how well you squash that tendency, actually hearing people criticize your work can be anything from disappointing to devastating. Maybe you get defensive, maybe you get depressed. There’s a whole gamut of negative reactions that can appear when we believe people are dumping on our manuscripts (and by extension, ourselves and our dreams). When we’re in this state, what we hear isn’t helpful feedback and we can’t use it effectively.
This is mainly up to you to solve. I can (and will) suggest some things that can help externally. If you try them, you probably won’t be labeled as the difficult person in the group. But to actually approach critiques with a grounded, stable attitude – the kind of attitude that will let your writing grow from the offered criticism – you’ve got to want it.
It’s like learning to be confident. It isn’t about what other people say or do – it is about your reaction to it. You can change your own reactions/actions, you have no control whatsoever over other people. Taking a critique well is a sign of maturity and professionalism. Ask yourself: “How much do I want to be taken seriously as a mature, professional writer?” If that’s what you want, criticism can’t crush you. You also can’t dismiss it out of hand.
Learning to value yourself and your work in the right way is something you have to live in order to learn. I’m not qualified to teach you that. But I suspect that this is one of those situations where “faking it” can sometimes help you make it.
I suggest that if you feel strongly at all, whether it is Hulk-like defensive mechanisms or overwhelming hurt, you say nothing. In fact, I subscribe to the say nothing school of critique-receiving anyway, strong emotional involvement or not. It’s too raw. Take notes, sure. Listen carefully. You may ask for clarification, but not if you’re using it to argue – you know the difference!
Then go away from it. Don’t come back until you can do so calmly (sometimes that means I let things sit in a drawer for a couple months). When you’ve got some distance, you’ll be able to analyze people’s comments more effectively.
This does not mean put it away forever! Don’t use this as an excuse to let your stories die from neglect. If you have a tendency to lose confidence after critique, give yourself a time limit. Put it on your calendar – in two months, force yourself to revisit that story. You’ll find that when you read it through again, it’s better than you remember. At the same time, you’ll probably suddenly agree with some of the comments your critiquers made.
If this is a real problem for you, try submitting something you either 1) don’t care much about or 2) haven’t polished up yet. I find it is much harder to look for feedback on something you thought was done.
Remember – you actually are a special snowflake. We are all a unique combination of skills, talents, and willpower. That means you are worthwhile, your work is worthwhile, and you can and should demand that your critique sessions remain respectful.
It also means that you are learning, just like everyone else, and you don’t get to magically skip all the time and effort it takes to write well. Give yourself permission to make mistakes (see perfectionism), and then take a few deep breaths. You don’t need to be defensive or scared. You asked for help, the people giving you feedback are doing their best to help you – take it in that spirit, and then use it to succeed.
In critique groups, the snowflake effect tends to manifest externally as a defensive, argumentative response to feedback. Obviously, there are many other ways it can affect the writer personally, but they have a lot more to do with how a person feels about themselves, their work, and their success. You are much less likely to be in a position to notice – much less respond to – these other manifestations. So for critiquers, it is all about the defensive writer.
Honestly, this isn’t up to you to solve. You offered up your feedback in the best spirit of helpfulness, honesty, and humility. You did your best to word your critique as kindly and clearly as possible. You would have been completely blown away to receive a critique of that quality on your last story.
Maybe that’s a little much. But you tried. You certainly didn’t intend any offense, and you really believe in the comments you gave. You honestly want to see the critiquee’s story succeed. Good. That’s all any of us can do.*
So in reality, no – you can’t solve this problem. But you can keep from feeding into it. It doesn’t have to be a big dispute, it doesn’t have to leave you (or anyone else in the group) with negative feelings.
Because you care about the critiquee and his/her story, and because you take pride in doing a good job, it is easy to get emotionally caught up. Maybe you feel guilty, resentful, or frustrated when a critiquee wants to argue or dismiss what you have to say. Maybe they dared to call you “wrong.” Ouch.
Disengage. Don’t respond. Be the bigger person. However you want to put it – just let it go. You don’t need to defend yourself. I’m not saying not to clarify a point or participate in some other totally valid form of interaction. I’m simply saying that it isn’t your piece – it isn’t your responsibility. Their manuscript is their problem! If you have been kind and clear (please don’t read this as license to be harsh or cruel), let it go.
They heard you; they have your written notes. If they’re being defensive in the moment, they still might take your advice once they’ve had a chance to process it. And if they don’t – again, not your problem. Maybe they have a completely different vision for their work than you do, maybe they just don’t want to be awesome. It doesn’t matter to you – there is literally nothing at stake for you here.
If you want to take it a step further, try to understand why they might react that way. If you’ve ever put up a manuscript for critique, you’ve probably felt what they’re feeling. You’ve probably received feedback that is waaay off the mark (at least in your opinion). You’ve probably worried that your work is crap, or dreamed of becoming an instant bestseller and resented those who insisted on pulling you back to reality. Remember those feelings, stir up that empathy, and use it to resist your argumentative instincts. You’ll be doing everyone a favor.
*By the way, if you don’t feel this way, if you don’t want other people’s work to succeed, then examine why you are involved in critique at all. This is a destructive place to come from, and you probably are not doing anyone – others or yourself – any good.