February 11, 2019

On Soliciting Critique

I found this week particularly nerve-wracking. Since I already struggle with anxiety, I try not to pile needless stress on myself, but sometimes I don’t plan things out very well, and other times that’s just life.

I’ve been working hard on this puzzle book idea I had, and I finally reached a point where I wanted to get feedback before continuing on. No matter how many people get excited when I tell people I’m working on a puzzle book themed after escape rooms, I can’t judge whether this idea will work unless someone sees it in action. Furthermore, I won’t know how difficult the logic problems are until I give them to others to solve. And while I was at it, I put together a cover, keeping in mind that I want to make this idea into a series if the first book does well.

Not only did I submit a portion of the manuscript to my writing group for critique, but I also sent the cover to another critique group. And once everything was out of my hands, I started freaking out a little bit.

You’d think that having published several novels and really putting myself out there on social media would have given me a thick skin. For the most part, it has—I read the reviews people leave on my books and can accept the good and the bad, I’m comfortable telling everyone I meet that I’m an author and about my books, and I’ve solicited critiques several times in the past. In fact, the most valuable feedback I’ve gotten was someone telling me that the ending of my book sucked, and they hated my main character.

Even so, early feedback is rough. Up until a point, the only person who’s read my manuscript is me. The first time someone else looks at it, I have no idea how they’ll react to my characters and story. The unknown is scary. By the time each book is published, the entire thing has been scrutinized several times over by a number of people. But that first time, I’m never sure exactly how people are going to react.

Only days before my writing group would discuss my puzzle book, the cover went up for critique. I soon learned that every single aspect was all wrong—except for the fonts; those were okay. So instead of reworking a cover which I thought almost hit the mark, I had to scrap it and start over. When I’m already worried about basically everything, it’s hard to accept that a failed cover doesn’t make me a failure.

After scraping myself off the edge and rereading the feedback on the cover, I was able to keep a cool head as I put together something new. I still felt apprehensive going to my writing group, but I love my fellow writers and they’re great about pointing out the positives in a piece no matter how much work it needs. It was a huge relief to learn that not only did they like my escape room/book idea, but they also said the execution worked well. So now I’m able to move onto playtesting all the puzzles and editing the text.

What I really hope newer writers can learn from this is that it’s totally natural to be nervous about sharing your work, but in the end, incorporating quality feedback will only make your work better. So before parting, I want to share some tips on getting critique.

It's not personal

After putting your soul into a story, it's hard to separate negative feedback from a personal attack. Especially if you’re getting feedback from others who don’t know you well, all they have to go on is your story. You are so much more than the one story you shared. Even if readers don’t like the world you created, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you as a person.

You can't please everyone

Some people just won't like your book no matter how much you rewrite it. That's okay. Even bestselling books don't appeal to everyone.

Don’t explain

If someone found a part of your writing confusing, accept that they found it confusing and move on. Whatever explanation you want to give to on the confusing passage needs to be addressed in your text, not on the spot with that one person offering feedback.

Sit on it

Getting a bunch of feedback from a number of people all at once is overwhelming. Collect all the critiques you've gotten, read over them, then put them away for a bit. Give yourself some time to wrap your head around what people generally thought did and didn’t work in your piece before jumping into revisions. Wait until the excitement or upset from the critique dissipates so you can attack rewrites with a calm head.

Shut out the noise.

Not everyone is going to be great at constructive criticism. Ignore any feedback that isn’t specific. If only one person out of several identifies a certain aspect as a problem, it may not actually be a problem with the writing, but a personal preference. And if anyone is flat-out mean in their feedback, don’t let them critique your work in the future.

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