We’ve all heard it, and most of us have even said it: accept critique. Accept it gracefully. Keep an open mind. Don’t take it personally. But is it really that easy? I’ve always thought of myself as capable of accepting critique gracefully. But I found out recently... I actually just hadn’t received much.
A few days ago, I finished the first draft of a submission I’m working on for When Women Waken, a women’s online literary journal. I admit that I was pretty pleased with it. It was just over the 1,000 word limit, though, so I emailed it to my boyfriend Josh, who TAs for a creative fiction class, and lives and breathes writing. I expected him to send it back with a few light comments. I’d adjust some wording, delete a few paragraphs, and be ready to submit.
Instead, he sent it back with one comment, highlighting a line of dialogue almost exactly halfway through the piece: “Start from here. Stay in-scene.”
When I questioned him on it (rather aggressively, I’m afraid), he told me he didn’t want to give me any more detailed critique at this point because he imagined most of the actual prose wouldn’t make it to the second draft.
I was furious. How dare he suggest I cut five hundred words of exposition, important information, moving emotional back story. How was I supposed to start where he told me, and still include all the necessary information to understand the characters? He obviously didn’t understand what I was trying to do with the piece.
The next day, when I’d had time to cool down and think about it, I copied it into a fresh document and decided to give it a try.
Forty-five minutes later, I had a complete second draft that read more smoothly, revealed more about the characters, had a better pace, and was only 920 words. I sent it proudly back to Josh, thanking him for his advice and apologizing for my reaction, ready for him to do a second edit. This edit, I was sure, would be lighter. After all, I’d fixed the structural problems. Now it just needed tweaking.
Wrong again. He once again highlighted a chunk of prose halfway through the piece and suggested I start with that. “You have to stay in-scene,” he repeated. “We can’t follow the dialogue with so much back story crammed in between the lines.” I also had a character who spoke only in quotes from philosophers. I was trying to use it to illustrate that she was distancing herself from engaging with her personal problems. Josh told me it wasn’t working. “You can’t have her quoting people the whole story,” he said.
I’d learned my lesson. I gracefully accepted this critique and wrote a third draft.
Oh, wait… no I didn’t. I flew off the handle. Start over again? I’d already rearranged the whole piece! What significance would the scene he’d highlighted have without that exposition? And as for the quoting character, how could I cut the quoting? That was her whole character!
Then I paused.
Wait a minute. That was her whole character.
How weak must my writing be that the elimination of a gimmick left my character empty? Once again, irritatingly, he was right.
a constant effort
What I’m quickly learning is that it’s easier said than done to tell someone to accept critique gracefully. In many ways, we have to attach ourselves personally to our writing, or else why would we write it? That means a critique can easily feel like a personal attack. Unfortunately, that doesn’t change the fact that we need critique, and we need objectivity.
My advice? Seek out critique. Practice accepting it. If you want to react strongly to a suggestion someone gives you, force yourself to pause, take a step back from the situation, and reevaluate.
I encourage you, if you can, to apply every critique, even the ones you think won’t work. Create new drafts in different documents, so that if you try something and it doesn’t work, you can go back to a past version and lose nothing but time. I was so reluctant to eliminate the quotes, but the moment that my character began speaking for herself, everything about her became more interesting, more complex, and more real.
I’m working on my third draft right now. With any luck, I’ll respond to Josh’s criticisms on this one with a little more maturity. But hey… it’s a work in progress!
Are you good at accepting critique? Why or why not? Let’s discuss in the comments!