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Rose Lerner | How To Deal With A Tough Critique

I can't remember when I first noticed that Five Stages of Grief are really, really similar to what I go through every week when I get a chapter back from my critique group with comments.

1. Denial.

"Whatever, my chapter is perfect the way it is. I don't really have to change anything." "She just didn't understand what I'm trying to do." "Well, A said I needed to fix X, but B said it was okay, so it's probably fine."

2. Anger.

"How dare she say that about my heroine?" "Don't they realize how hard I worked on this chapter?" "MEANIES MEANIES MEANIES I HATE YOU!"

3. Bargaining.

"Well, I know in my heart that this scene is under-motivated and lacks conflict like my critique group said, but maybe if I just give the heroine a new hat no one will notice." "Can I put a band-aid on it?" "I'll wait until my rough draft is done to make a decision."

4. Depression.

"I'm a terrible writer." "Why is everything I do such crap?" "I'll never sell a(nother) book." "This can't be fixed."

5. Acceptance.

This is the place I have to fight to get to, where I'm able to say, "Look, Rose, this is why you have a critique group. Because no one gets it perfect the first time around." And then I really look at the feedback I got, decide what feels right to me and what I can set aside, and get in there and fix it. Sometimes it's a small fix like changing the POV for a scene or adding a couple sentences of introspection. Sometimes I have to take the entire chapter apart and put it back together from scratch. But no matter how small a fix it is, I never seem to get there without going through the other four stages first.

I used to think I was just a big baby, and that was why. Why couldn't I just woman up and take my criticism with grace and wisdom? But then my therapist mentioned in passing that the stages of grief are really the stages of change. And something clicked.

It makes sense, right? Grief, at its heart, is a response to a major change in your life. It's learning to say goodbye to the way things were and the way you imagined or hoped they would be, and move forward as best you can. But it's not just negative change that provokes that reaction--any change requires adjustment. Writing is an intense, personal process. I love my characters and my stories and I get attached. It's only natural that when someone suggests that I change them, I have to adjust to the idea.

I find that being aware of that helps. I still go through the cycle, but at least I know the end is in sight. (Of course, the most important thing is to never, ever e-mail your critique group while still in the grip of stages 1 and 2, and probably even 3. You'll just be embarrassed later.)

How do you deal with a tough critique?




22 comments posted.

Re: Rose Lerner | How To Deal With A Tough Critique

I haven't written in awhile but I always thought of it as a difference of opinion.... I recently lost my father and really don't find any comparison between the two, I know that writing is personal but to compare it to the actual stages of "Grief" just doesn't seem right....
(Brandy Blake 1:42pm April 22, 2010)

Brandy--I'm so sorry about your father. I lost my mom a few years ago too and it was definitely the most difficult experience of my life. I'm sorry I offended you--I certainly don't mean to suggest that getting a tough critique is a similar experience in magnitude or intensity, just that the emotional process for dealing with any change in one's life follows a similar pattern with the same sorts of steps to go through. I don't think this is a new idea--as I mentioned I first heard it from my therapist.
(Rose Lerner 6:18pm April 22, 2010)

The toughest critiques are the ones that come from someone OUTSIDE my crit group, where I have no frame of reference for what they mean. I like to get to know my critters before we swap those lovely critiques! But mostly, I just remember: it's all about CRAFT.
(Susan Kaye Quinn 6:58pm April 22, 2010)

Hello Rose, Please enter me in your fantastic contest. I love entering and winning contests from
God Bless YOU, Cecilia
(Cecilia Dunbar Hernandez 8:23pm April 22, 2010)

There is no one as the toughest critic than my Mom. It is no way anyone in household that can please her. I came to the fact that the more I try to please her, the more miserable I become. That's is the best way is to know that no matter how well you do, you can only be happy with yourself.
(Kai Wong 9:03pm April 22, 2010)

I can see your point dealing with a tough critique. I find that this as in all life you have to take the information that you are given and take what you will and leave what you will. We all know that a part of a writers soul is put into each character some of those that critique sometimes forget that while others are trying to make the character more to their liking.
(Cindy Olp 10:35pm April 22, 2010)

It is never hard to be criticized, but working with it probably makes us better and stronger.
(Joanne Reynolds 6:19am April 23, 2010)

What an interesting column! Thanks for visiting. I look forward to reading your book.
(G S Moch 11:15am April 23, 2010)


Don't worry you didn't offend me, sorry if I sound rude, that was not my intent... I am sorry about your mom, I don't think you can ever get over the death of a parent atleast I haven't been able to. I advance a few steps and then I am right back were I started. I understand it is difficult to be critiqued especially when what you are writing is a part of you but I think that you as a writer have to take back the power from those who give you the neg feedback, just know that "you are the writer, its your vision, and your emotion (and talent) you are the one writing the book" and even though they give suggestions, in the end you are the ARTIST/author and should have the final say!!!

Good Luck!!!
(Brandy Blake 12:43pm April 23, 2010)

Wish I had know about these steps earlier when dealing with negatives. I stil don't take them well. I internalize them and once that is done they NEVER leave!
(Karin Tillotson 1:05pm April 23, 2010)

In for a penny, in for a pound.
(Marjorie Carmony 1:28pm April 23, 2010)

I haven't read your book but you've peaked my interest
(Catherine Myers 1:44pm April 23, 2010)

A tough critique is humbling, yet it's one person's opinion. If everybody else notices the same confusion, then maybe it needs to be reworked. Afterall, most writing makes some point clearer or conveys a feeling or mood. As a writer, you know what you want to say, but not everybody is coming from your corner. I welcome critiques in order to learn more and make my written thoughts a bit more understandable.
(Alyson Widen 2:59pm April 23, 2010)

First, you can please everybody. Second, just write to the best of your ability.
(Sherry Russell 3:23pm April 23, 2010)

Hi Rose, Like you, I think my first reaction to a tough critique would be denial. Hopefully after I finished justifying why I was right, I would sit down and listen to others...maybe not agree, but at least listen.

Your books sounds great.
(Robin McKay 3:46pm April 23, 2010)

Susan--I agree! It's less scary for me to get critiqued by my group, because at the end of the day I know they think I'm a good writer.

Kai--Some people are like that--there's just no pleasing them. But when I write, I do need feedback--which is why I feel so lucky to have the crit group I do, who are a bunch of smart kind talented people. Sadly it's hard to quit your family, but if your critique group never has anything nice to say and is making you miserable, get out of there and find a new one!

Cindy--Yes! Of course every critique doesn't need to be accepted wholeheartedly. One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever heard (I want to cite it but I can't remember where I heard it--maybe from Sarah Monette?) is that every critique is saying "I don't understand." So if more than one person suggests changes or points out flaws with the same aspect of your book, you may not need to make exactly the changes they suggest, but you do probably need to figure out what they aren't understanding, and then how you can communicate it better as a writer.
(Rose Lerner 4:23pm April 23, 2010)

Joanne--Yes, that exactly! If you can't take critique (and I do mean critique and CONSTRUCTIVE critique, not insults) then it's really hard to improve as a writer.

Brandy--hang in there! While it's true you never get over it, it does eventually get less awful, I promise. And yes, I do think it's important to have a sense of balance in taking critique--at the end of the day you have to make the decision about what you'll change, and it's important to make sure that's a decision you'll be happy with. Don't ever hurt your book because someone told you to.

Thanks for the good wishes!

Karin--aw, I hear you! I think it's definitely something that gets better with practice, but I also think it's totally fair to talk to your critique group (or whoever is giving you feedback on your work) if their help is just hurting you. A while back my crit group instituted a rule that every week for everyone's chapter, we had to say what our favorite thing was because a few of us (including me) were getting discouraged. And it wasn't because they hated my writing! It was a simple communication thing that we were able to work on and improve. Good luck!
(Rose Lerner 4:30pm April 23, 2010)

Alyson--Yes! I think you've got the key there with "understandable." In the end, a critique is to help you better get across what you want to get across, not to make your writing more like what the critiquer would write/want to read. When I remember that, I have a much easier time sorting through critiques and figuring out what it all really means.

Sherry--words to live by!

Robin--I agree completely. It's that word "listen," isn't it? I don't have to take everything everyone says about my writing to heart, but when I get my defenses up I can't even LISTEN fully. When I do really listen and try to understand, that's when I can judge what I need to act on and what I can safely ignore or deal with another way.

To everyone else, thanks for stopping by and reading my piece! I'll be back a few more times over the next couple days to check comments. Thanks for having me!
(Rose Lerner 4:35pm April 23, 2010)

My Mother can just raise an eyebrow slightly & I feel it. When we were children she never raised her voice, just a glance & we felt her full measure. It's a gift.
(Mary Preston 5:33pm April 23, 2010)

First of all, I take a deep breath and remind myself that everyone has an opinion and they're entitled to that opinion. Then I try to honestly read through the review to see if there is anything in there that I can use to actually work on improving something I've written. If I find that it's all bunk and opinion with no fact to back it up, I simply thank the person for their critique and welcome them to check out my next work and see if they like it any better... I let the harshness slide off my back and not drag me down if there's no legitimacy to it.

Yes, it's had to do, but if you can be open about taking feedback, you can always overcome a harsh or unfair piece of criticism.
(Donna Holmberg 11:26pm April 23, 2010)

By the way, as an artist (mostly photography not much professional writing), I can tell you that your works become like your children, so any harsh attack at them does seem rather personal, and when someone tells you one is useless or not wanted (or needs a complete revamp), it does feel like you've lost a piece of you. You can't replace the original anymore than you can ever truly replace a cherished pet by buying another pet when the first one dies... the loss is always there and it does take some time to get over it. The stages of grief are quite a great way of describing the process everyone goes through when they experience a major loss in their life, whether it's the loss of a brother and four grandparents (as I've had) or the loss of a job or a house that burns down. These are all very emotional losses, and our emotions run the gamut with each of them in a nearly identical process as the grieving process.... good comparison!
(Donna Holmberg 11:31pm April 23, 2010)

As a Mom and a voracious
reader,the toughest critique
usually comes when I'm trying
a new dish and the family are
the test subjects. If it's
thumbs down, I don't fix it
again. As a reader I accept
that while someone may rave on
and on about a book, tastes
and even moods are different,
so it's quite possible that I
may be 1 of 100 people who
just don't get it.
(Lisa Richards 10:44am April 24, 2010)

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