On taking criticism

It’s that time: I’ve sent the first draft of my novel to my editor. Soon I’ll receive his comments and begin revising it. And this summer I published a novel that’s been reviewed by newspapers and magazines in North America, the UK and continental Europe, not to mention by bloggers, anonymous online commenters, and my relatives. And some new people are joining my writers’ group, which means they’ll be giving — and taking — critiques. So I’ve been thinking about the ways writers receive, and respond to, criticism.

Here’s the deal: Everybody hates criticism. Everybody. Writers crave fawning, drooling, unconditional adoration. However, if you’re an adult who lives in the neighborhood of reality, you realize that relentless, unrestrained worship will never be yours. It shouldn’t be. None of us is perfect. We can all improve — especially on our first drafts.

How do different writers deal with critics? Tess Gerritsen writes honestly about the pain bad reviews cause her. John Scalzi posted his one-star Amazon reviews online and challenged other authors to do the same. At ThrillerFest this year, the International Thriller Writers took it a step farther and held a contest to judge who’d gotten the worst Amazon review. The winner was Lee Child.

Two remarks I heard this summer have stuck in my mind. The first came from a friend of a friend in Texas, who asked, “Do people ever criticize your novels?” I broke into uncontrollable laughter and said, “Are you frickin’ kidding me?” People criticize authors all the time. I am fortunate in the extreme that my novels have received so many great reviews. But some critics have hated them, or me. Publication does not insulate a writer from complaint. It paints a big red target on your back.

The second remark was from an author whose debut novel has won raves and awards — but who, baffled and stung, asked in all sincerity, “Why do Amazon reviewers get so angry?” That’s harder to answer. The advice, from me and every other writer who’s been in print for a while, was: Do not read online reviews. They’re the digital version of graffiti scrawled in a high school bathroom. Stop reading them. Now.

How should writers deal with criticism? Consider the source, and its authority. Trusted editor = listen carefully. Jealous and angst-ridden creative writing classmate = tread softly and watch for daggers thrown at your back. Reviewer who sneers at your gender or nationality = brush them from your shoulder like dust. Anonymous troll = ignore. That’s often easier said than done. But it’s best to smile and take it and keep writing the best stuff you can. Take pride in your work, and remember: If they criticized you, it means they read your book.

9 responses to “On taking criticism

  1. I just wanted to fawn, drool and give you unconditional adoration over your article :), it’s a great subject.
    I’ve got a book in the works too, and it’s a tough think to keep your confidence.
    Good luck with everything, you’ve got great style.

  2. I got the opposite problem. No one in my circle of friends is willing to rip up my pages. One friend who is reading the rough draft of my first novel says it’s great. Uh, huh. My rough draft is the equivalent to big shovel of manure thrown against the wall to see what sticks and what smells. It’s supposed to be horrible. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Well, I can honestly say, I’ve read all your books (except this last one; it will soon be mine though) and I have enjoyed every single one. I thought they were well written with great characters and interesting story lines. I just can’t say enough good about your work–and I know you don’t remember, but I had them read before they even got here to the states and wrote to tell you thanks for just a great series of books.

    And you responded with a very nice note. So, of course, this means we’re BFFs. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  4. C.D., you’re right — “Gosh, your rough draft is nice,” is about the least helpful remark a writer can get.

    Thanks, Dana Jean. I do remember your message, and really appreciated it.

  5. Meg,

    You’re spot on as always! The only point I’d take issue with is where you give reviewers credit for actually reading the book. That’s generous of you (per usual)but not always the case I’m afraid.

    Keep writing!

  6. I was just wondering, who are these alleged critics on Amazon? I have written a couple of reviews on books I liked a lot. I have never trashed an author or a book. Are the Amazon writers supposed to be “professional” reviewers or every day people? Thanks.
    Oh, I have to check to see if I have written one for Meg yet. I know I have done Stephen Pastis (one of his Pearls Before Swine treasuries) and Vic DiGenti for his first Windrusher novel. I did manage to get a short review in my local newspaper on The Dirty Secrets Club, and I can relate to having one’s words excised so cruelly. You must have nerves of steel, Meg. :>)

  7. Pingback: Should Writers read reviews of their Writing? « Emma Lee’s Blog

  8. I believe that most criticism should be aimed at improving something–I participated in a critique group for years and feel that one owes truth, but never cruelty, to one’s writing partners.

    I sometimes do bad reviews — and am feeling ripped off when I write them. Not yours, Meg–I am loving them and thrilled that a whole batch has come out in such a short time here in the US.

    The issues that do manage to rile me almost always have to do with quality issues, particularly the quality of grammar used by the writer. I’m not talking about dialog, as one expects characters to have individual voices, nor the sentence fragments that show up for emphasis. Dangling modifiers, various agreement issues, and run on sentences drive me nuts. I’m less of a nitpicker when it comes to fact errors, as I know of cases where mistakes were the editors’ fault and not in the original manuscript–a famous case being zucchini for lunch in a book set in ancient Rome. Poor character motivation and plot issues can sometimes set me off, but don’t usually prompt me to pan a book in public.

    Every now and again, a highly promoted book comes along that must have been edited by someone who failed a remedial jr hi English class. The reviews are amazingly positive (did the reviewer actually read the book?), the back is covered with raves from authors whose work I respect (OK, they have been quoted out of context), and the publisher is putting money into promotion. These are the ones I am most likely to dump on.

  9. Pingback: On Criticism | lying for a living

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