Have you ever had a critique that was so inked up with red that it looked more like a crime scene than a manuscript? The only crime was the one committed against you under the guise of being helpful.
Or was it?
We’ve probably all been there—anxiously awaiting the return of our manuscript, never suspecting that it would come back hacked to bits. After all, if we thought it was that bad, we would never have sent it out for critique in the first place.
But how much of the critique is helpful information versus personal opinion? And how much are you affected by the comments, maybe unnecessarily? Remember, a bad critique is in the eye of the beholder.
On the flip side, just because the words hurt doesn’t make them untrue. A wise writer will learn to find the balance between what’s factually true and what’s opinion, and what might seem hurtful at the time but is absolutely correct.
I’ve had many a critique over the last 13 years and most were incredibly important and helped propel my writing forward, but there were a few stinkers in there that absolutely dragged me off course and wrecked my confidence. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Bad critiques can teach us something—even if it’s how not to critique a manuscript.
First, let’s define what I mean by “bad critique.” I’m using this in the sense that the critique is overly harsh and soul crushing, rather than meaning it’s done lazily with zero suggestions for improvement.
Before we dive into the nitty gritty of how to handle a bad critique, let’s cover a few ground rules:
- No matter how ugly the critique is, you cannot let it affect your forward progress
- You must realize that it’s a critique of your manuscript, not of you
- Not every person who critiques a manuscript is equally qualified
What do I mean by qualified? It depends on what kind of critique you’re looking for—a high-level critique that looks at story structure, story arc and characterization, or something more narrow to help you with grammar and weasel words. Before you enter into a critique situation, this is something that should be clarified or you might be sorely disappointed.
More information on finding a writing partner (which may or may not include critiques) can be found here.
Suggestions on handling criticism in general can be found here.
How to Handle a Bad Critique
Set It Aside
Stepping back for a day or two is the first step in objectively reading a critique of your manuscript. Let the raw emotions wear off a little before coming back to it with a fresh eye. Time won’t change the critique but it will allow you to gain some perspective.
Write Down Everything You Love About Your Manuscript
What do YOU love about your manuscript? Think of the parts you love—the reason you love your book as a whole—and actually write them down. If you have positive compliments from a different person, think about those comments. Marinate in them for a while and enjoy your book.
Read the Critique Objectively
After taking time away and loving on your own work, brace yourself to dive back in with the purpose of finding comments and suggestions that will make your work better. Make sure you have plenty of time set aside to work through the critique.
Find the Positive Comments
Every good and objective critique will have some positive comments sprinkled throughout the manuscript. Go through with a highlighter and find them. Sometimes a positive comment from a harsh critic is worth more than many happy comments from someone who is more worried about hurting your feelings than helping you move forward.
If you can’t find a positive comment—not even one—you might be tempted to throw the whole thing out. I wouldn’t blame you, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world to do so. Really, there are cases where tossing out an entire critique might be the best thing to do. (Truly, this is a rare situation.)
Decide Between Fact and Opinion
Depending on the person who critiqued your manuscript, there may be a ton of opinion or the whole thing may be based on facts. Examples of fact-based comments are spelling, character’s eye color changes from page to page and clues missing that are needed to solve a mystery.
Examples of opinion-based comments are saying the music playing in your church scene is all wrong and your character is selfish. Remember, an opinion can be true or untrue, or somewhere in the middle. As the author, you get to decide!
Pick Out Comments That Resonate
Look for the comments that will improve your manuscript. Start with the fact-based comments then move to the opinion-based comments. Not every comment has to be implemented because not every comment will make the work better. But be fair to the critiquer! Every critique has something of value in it, even if you disagree with the way it was stated.
Intentionally Disregard Select Comments
By now you have gone over the comments and have a pretty good idea which ones to ignore. The thing is, you have to literally and intentionally ignore comments that are mean-spirited, rude, opinionated and unhelpful. If you haven’t yet had comments like these—lucky you! Just realize that they actually occur.
Sometimes the person doing the critique is in a bad mood or has a bone to pick, or sometimes they don’t realize how hurtful their words are. (And sometimes the words just hit you wrong because of where YOU are with your writing.)
Get a Second Opinion
Finding another person to critique your manuscript can be helpful when you really aren’t sure what to glean from a harsh critique. If you do need another critique, make sure you look for someone who can be objective, not just someone who will make you feel better. While feeling good about your work is vital to moving forward, you still need objective feedback.
Receiving a bad or harsh critique can really knock you off your game, but don’t let it! Remember, it’s YOUR work and it matters. The message you are trying to convey through your books is in your heart for a reason. A bad critique should never get in the way of that or make you doubt you’re doing what you’re supposed to.
Remember, if you write long enough you will get your feelings hurt. It’s just part of the process because our writing is such a personal part of who we are. Let it make your writing better—let it make you better. And keep on pounding out the words.
How do you handle a bad critique?