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How (And When) to Handle Critics

Lemme tell ya something: you are never going to make everyone happy.

Criticism is full of scary things – scary authoritarian disapproval, scarier I’m-not-good-enough vibes, scarier yet ‘this will never sell and you are crazy and also you suck’ thoughts. We know (or at least, we’ve been told a thousand-plus-one-times) that we need healthy criticism if we’re going to be good writers/artists.

Well, that’s true. Sort of. There also comes a time when we need to stop paying attention to those critics.

It’s a hard balance to find, and it requires real self-discipline. I’m going to share a few tricks that will hopefully help you find it, and spare you some grief if and when you create.

1. During the baby stages of your masterpiece (book, art, song, whatever it is), DO NOT share it with the world.

There are very few people who can look at a sketch and see the potential bubbling through it. Maybe you’re fortunate enough to have the kind of friend/family who can see a bunch of scratchy lines or hear you babble about some plot-holey dream you had and say, “WOW, yes! Work on that! It’s going to be great!” More likely, though, your viewer will look at the burgeoning baby piece of your soul and deliver some variation on, “I don’t get it.”

This does not mean your idea sucks. It just means the person you’re showing it to doesn’t have the ability to read your mind – they can’t see what it’ll be when it grows up.

I repeat: when your piece is in baby stages, keep it to yourself, or ONLY show people you know you can trust not to kill it. It’s too fragile to take real criticism at this stage, and it could die.

2. When you have a completed first draft (a complete sketch, a full song-verse, etc.), then it’s time to start getting light feedback.

Note, I said LIGHT. First drafts simply aren’t ready for line-by-line scrutiny, but at least with a completed first draft, others can usually see the potential in where it’s going. This is the time to take it to your writers’ group, your artists’ community, and get general ideas (avoid detailed critique at this stage) on the feel of it, the overall impact, and whether your point is coming across.

3. Second draft forward: it’s war.

Once you’ve done a complete comb-through of this thing, fixed it enough that it looks and feels pretty polished, it’s ready to face the wolves. Now, it’s time for detailed criticism – and you need to listen to it.

This doesn’t mean every piece of criticism is helpful. Don’t just accept everything you’re told – but LISTEN to everything. If a character fails to move your readers, you need to try to figure out why – the problem is in your manuscript. If a major plot point doesn’t seem to make sense, you need to dig in and find the cause.

Important: nine times out of ten, when trusted critics tell me something doesn’t work, they actually don’t know why not.

They just know it doesn’t work, and their guesses as to why are often completely mistaken. Listen to them to determine what isn’t working, but you need to figure out for yourself why the message failed to come through.

3. Semi-final draft: takes a licking, keeps on ticking.

This is the stage where your creation can handle the most criticism and the most tweaking – and in fact, it needs it. Now is when every typo counts, every errant phrase  or misplaced word matters. Now is the time you really need trusted critics to help you clean those pores.

Sometimes, this can be traumatic. More than once in this stage, I’ve discovered a gaping plot hole that seemed overwhelming, a break-the-story kind of deal, but it was always WORTH battering my way through.

No plot-hole is too big to overcome. No chapter is so messed up that it cannot be fixed, even if this means ripping out the original chapter and writing it over from scratch.

Just always remember to save a copy of that painted hand/chapter/chorus that didn’t work. You never know when you’ll need to refer to it later.

4. Final Draft: STOP LISTENING.

Yeah, I know how crazy that sounds. But here’s the thing: every work of art can still be improved. There’s always more to do. It’s not as if we’d ever come to the end of tweaking/changing/painting/writing any created thing. Perfection is not the goal; people are not perfect, and neither are the flawed but magnificent things they produce.

The goal, instead, is to realize when the piece is “good enough.”

“Good enough” still needs to be excellent. It still needs to be the absolute best you can make it at that time, with the knowledge and skills you have. But good enough really is good enough – and that’s the point when you need to stop listening to critics.

When your work is good enough, it’s ready to go out into the world and be known – and YOU are ready to start work on another piece. Critics will still come out of nowhere, mind you. Critics at that stage often do not know how much work you have put into this thing, and they can even be envious that you have completed a dream. And sure, there will always be things in your work you could have done differently (note I did not say “better”). That doesn’t mean you should still change things around.

Good enough means best-you-can-make-it means time to move on and create more.

Without fear. Without regret.

From this stage on, rejoice. Be proud of yourself. KNOW you can create more. And be delighted when you meet other like-minded people who not only “get” what you were trying to do, but can rejoice with you over it.

Your critics can go pound sand.

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