Monday, March 7, 2011

Building Your Writer Callouses

Published authors, agents and editors talk A LOT about how there's a need to develop a thick skin if you're going to be successful in publishing.  But what does that really mean? 

Primarily, in my experience at least, it means two things:  Developing the humility to unpack criticism and the ability to separate rejection from failure.

I'll talk about rejection in the next post, but for now, I want to address how to go about...

Unpacking Criticism

When someone reads your work and gives feedback that isn't complimentary, there are three ways to react:  1.  Anger or defensiveness; 2. Retreating out of fear of further hurt; 3. With thoughtful consideration.

The third option is the only one that will improve your chances of success in publication.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I've felt the anger of a criticism: "What do you mean it was a little flat?!  Are you kidding me?!  I spent DAYS on that scene!  And now I need more exclamation points to fully express the emphatic nature of these statements!!!". 

I've had moments where I'd like to crawl under a rock and pretend I never wrote a word.  And I've written fourteen page emails explaining to my critique partners exactly why that scene / character / plotpoint had to be that way...

But in the end, those reactions don't make me a better writer.

For me, unpacking criticism is a four part process: 

Part One:  After I read feedback or critique, I let myself react emotionally (where no one else can see).  I feel the feelings, have the justification conversation with myself, throw a pity-party or shed a tear - whatever is required to vent the emotional response I've had.  Then I wait for myself to calm down (NB: Sometimes this takes minutes, sometimes hours, sometimes days). 

Rule #1 for Part One of Unpacking Criticism - Thou shalt not respond - at all. 

Rule #2 - If response is absolutely required, it shalt only acknowledge receipt, gratitude for time taken by critiquer and statement of intention to consider all points.  (i.e. "Thanks for sending that through!  I really appreciate your time.  I'll get back to you when I've had a chance to digest it all.)

Part Two:  Once the intial shock / emotional crisis has passed, I review who the critique or feedback came from.   Are they further along in the journey than I am?  If so, do they have a vested interest in seeing me succeed?  How familiar are they with my genre?  Are they published?  Are they an agent / editor?  What is their experience or knowledge of the craft? 

In the vast majority of cases, I am reminded that this person is either a fellow-writer with a genuine desire to help, or a professional with a much sharper, more experienced eye than my own.  In other words: I renew my respect for the source.  

Only very rarely do I finish this part of the process with a caution to myself that this person might not know an adverb from a gerbil.***

I also take some time to remind myself fresh eyes can catch things a reader would see that I'm blind to and remember how much better I've felt about my story in the past after taking on board some of the suggestions for change from previous critiques.

Rule #1 of Part Two of Unpacking Criticism - Honesty is the best policy.  Do yourself a favor and admit you don't know everything - even if it's only to yourself.

Part Three:  I sit down with the critique and re-read it, highlighting any points that immediately jump out as 'right'.  I make notes on how and where I'll action those points, then sift through the rest.

All other pieces of critique will fall into one of two categories:

The reader doesn't understand!  Whenever I feel this way, I'm reminded it's my writing that failed - because no one can read any book except the one I wrote.  So either I need to give more information, change my approach, or clarify something to ensure everyone 'gets it'.

I don't want to do that!  This is where things get gritty.  In the almost-two years of being critiqued by published and agented authors, as well as my agent, I'm finally beginning to see that the majority of the time I'm resistent to acting on feedback, when I boil it down it's because it seems like too much work. 

And in almost every single case where that is my driver, the feedback is right.

I can tell myself the story doesn't need that, the character isn't like that, yadda yadda yadda... but the truth is, if other writers / my agent can see it, then an editor will too.  What do I gain from pushing my story out there with flaws I know exist?  Nothing.  Wouldn't it be better to take the time and effort involved to fix the issues before someone who has a shot at making my career reads it?

Step Four: Start writing.  Do the easy stuff first.  When I see how much better the manuscript becomes after that's done, I usually find a second wind for the harder changes.

So that's my process.  I don't know how you're doing with receiving critique, but if it's a struggle, I hope this helps.

Where are you at with getting feedback on your writing?  Do you have a writer's group?  Critique partners?  How do you cope with criticism of your 'baby'?

***Exceptions to the rule: 

1.  When five people have critiqued the manuscript, and only one has noted the point (though it's probably still worth considering since that implies 20% of my readers might  have the same reaction.

2.  When the comment comes from someone who knows zero about writing and doesn't usually read my genre (this is more of a beta-screening issue - now I'm pickier than I used to be).


  1. This is GREAT advice. This sounds like what I do, but you summed it up better than I ever could! :)

  2. "Rule #1 for Part One of Unpacking Criticism - Thou shalt not respond - at all."

    I have that rule hammered into my brain and I don't plan on taking the nails out anytime soon. It hurts to get a criticism of something you love, even if the critter is right. I always read through and then step back for a bit and let my emotions settle before going forward and either changing things or discarding them.

  3. This is a fantastic post. So true in every way! Thank you so much for this - I'm bookmarking RIGHT NOW!

    I'm very lucky in my critique partner. We're honest but tactful with each other and I know she loves my work and that she just wants the best for me. Mutual respect makes it a lot easier to take the feedback as it was intended, to be helpful rather than disheartening.

  4. Hi, I've had over 30 novels published--all by the big publishing houses--and I'd like to say that you're spot on regarding the need to accept critiques graciously and thoughtfully. Attitude is what ultimately separates the pros from the rank amateurs.

    I was never angered by criticism, but instead totally crushed: I figured if my writing wasn't good (and my first published books show plenty of "new writer errors), then I wasn't a good writer. But it doesn't work exactly that way.

    True, you need to start with a native talent for words. But writing is like carpentry or quilting. It is a CRAFT, and the more you do it, the better you get. You wouldn't expect to build a PERFECT armoire your first day on the job as an apprentice carpenter, would you? You'd expect the edges to be rough, and things to fit poorly together.

    The study of craft is an absolute necessity in order to produce a manuscript that others will truly adore. There aren't any short cuts. (I'm first to wish there were!)

    I'm really glad you wrote on this topic. The writer's callous forms when she finally realizes that she's getting better as she practices what she studies. At that point, she doesn't take advice (or criticism, as you call it) personally any more. It stops being about her--whether she's "good" or not--and about the work itself.

    Of course, she has to be careful about who she takes advice *from.*

    Great post!

  5. Well, pooh. So much for being a professional; I see a typo in my already-posted comment. Aargh! :)

  6. Thank you so much for stopping by, Jeanne! And for the encouragement.

  7. I got really used to criticism at my old job... my managing editor DESTROYED my work... absolutely demolished it. The good news is that this gave me REALLY thick skin so when my publisher critiqued me, it felt pretty managable.

  8. Great post, Aimee! It's important to read through a critique, then put it down and consider it. Then some time later decide what to fix in the manuscript. It's not personal - it's work!

  9. I'm getting feedback from betas right now on my first novel. I'm actually relieved when I get any kind of sharp criticism because too often I feel like I'm getting back patting and hand holding, which will not make me a better writer.

  10. What a fabulous post! I might be weird but I love the feedback. I say bring it on. Sure, I'll cry through revisions. But when you get to "the end" it's pure satisfaction :)

  11. I've literally got a writer's callous - I grip my pencil too tight. But that's beside the point. ;) Thank you so much for all of this advice, it's awesome! If I want criticism, I'll have to learn how to take it!

  12. This is fantastic advice. Because I write corporately for work, I’ve had to develop a thick skin for feedback. So I thought that when it came to feedback on my novel, I’d be fine. But the first time I gave an excerpt of my WIP to my writers’ group, my palms became sweaty and my heart began to palpitate as I waited for their advice. Why the different reaction? Because my novel is so much closer to my heart. I write corporately to get paid, but I write creatively because it’s my passion, so of course I was going to care more about what people said about that!

    I’ve definitely developed more emotional distance when receiving critiques now, but it’s probably one of my biggest challenges as a writer. I’ll be sure to re-read your advice next time I receive some constructive criticism!