The Necessity & Power of Sitting With Your Critiques

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Today’s post is by writer and literary consultant Grace Bialecki (@GraceBialecki).

My second novel started on a train to Paris and had a locomotive momentum—for months, all I did was put its words down on the page. Then the expat community led me to a drop-in workshop at Shakespeare & Company. Even though I was writing daily, it’d been years since I’d received formal feedback, but a man there appreciated my edits on his novel’s opening and offered to read mine. Thrilled by our budding friendship, I sent him my chapters.

Classic mistake. He picked apart my word choice, mocked my protagonist’s motivations, and derailed my positive energy. While he could’ve delivered his feedback in a more constructive way, in hindsight, I wasn’t ready for a critique, much less at the line level. I was still in creative mode—churning out characters and plot lines—not questioning commas. As I read through his notes, I felt defensive and disheartened. This opening was the culmination of months of work, and now I wondered if my novel was worth finishing. (Spoiler alert: it always is.)

As writers, we know that critiques are an integral part of improving our work. But we rarely learn how to receive feedback or what to do after. Since that hasty share, I’ve spent years attending and leading workshops. Here are some lessons gleaned about how to receive and grow from our critiques.

Listen receptively

Receiving a critique starts with being ready to listen and admit that there’s room for improvement. Before any potential ego bruising, I’ll remind myself this is a work-in-progress, while also appreciating having produced something. Anything. Remember, even if the future of this piece is unclear, creating it has made you a better writer. And no amount of criticism can take that from you.

During the feedback, do your best to listen:

  • Check for signs of becoming flustered: flushed face, sweaty palms, racing heart, nervous stomach. These are your body’s way of telling you it’s in reaction mode. And those rampant emotions will overpower any insights your brain is processing. Instead of shutting down or powering through the bad news, recognize that you need to regroup.
  • Come back to calm. The easiest way to calm your nervous system is to connect with your breath. Feel the air moving through your nostrils as you inhale and exhale. If you’re at a desk, plant your feet on the ground, put your palms flat, and close your eyes. Breathe. It’s amazing what a difference three breaths can make. Good news—if you’re workshopping in person, you can still breathe.
  • Amidst all this, try to take notes. Memory is fallible, especially in emotional situations. Even if you’re receiving written feedback, it’s still important to jot down ideas that resonate with you. I do this in a notebook since the act of writing by hand also grounds me.

And if you’re not ready to listen, you don’t have to agree to critiques. Take my effusive father praising my first novel, then pausing. “So do you want my notes?” My reply, all smiles and hard-learned boundaries: “No thanks, no notes.”

Reflect & distill

Receiving feedback is inherently disquieting, so take time before diving into revisions. This could mean going on a walk, moving your body in any possible way, soaking in a bath, making tea, or cuddling with a pet. The goal of these activities is to get out of your head.

When you’re ready, try the following:

  • Write about the soul of your project. What are you hoping to convey? What themes are essential? And what are your favorite parts? Even if you don’t re-read this, simply writing your goal helps bring the piece into focus and prepare for revisions.
  • Start to decide which critiques are useful—we all have the autonomy to sort through the criticism we receive. If feedback motivates me to keep working and gets my revision wheels turning, I know it’s worth keeping. This usually also means it’s specific, actionable, and in-line with my vision for my work.
  • Throw out the bad. If criticism is vague, demeaning, or centered on the reader’s personal preference, it’s not useful. On an intellectual level, I’ll struggle with how to incorporate it into my work. My body might also feel tight or frustrated. Again, I’ll center myself and calm my inner defenses before deciding if it’s me or them.

Speaking of getting defensive, often critiques do cause an emotional reaction. Instead of blaming the person for their delivery or vowing to burn the next thing they write, take a moment to reflect. Is your reaction coming from a deeper insecurity? A past criticism? Sometimes the hardest critiques to swallow are the most relevant. And other times, they’re brusque and off-base. Be honest with yourself and stand by what’s important to you.

For example, in one of my recent essays, an editor wanted me to name a doctor’s credentials—was she an acupuncturist? Nutritionist? Naturopath? For me, the piece was about universal medical struggles, which meant that the doctor and the malady would remain undisclosed. I politely explained this, made other adjustments for clarity, and she was receptive to my changes.

Avoid being your own worst critic

Bad news—sometimes we’re our own worst critic. Most often, this manifests in perfectionism and writers who obsess over getting a piece “perfect.” Like unproductive feedback, perfectionism is a dead end. Obsessing about word choice or grammar in early drafts; writing and re-writing dialogue or other minor moments; and generally letting the analytical side of the brain rule can stymie creativity.

Often, these self-critiques stem from a place of dissatisfaction. A voice saying this isn’t good enough rather than how can I make it better? Be gentle. Focus on finishing the project and how you’re going to get there.

Ways to move away from perfectionism:

  • Don’t let yourself over-edit early drafts. Writing by hand is one way of ensuring your inner critic doesn’t take control. Or if you’re typing, remind yourself that this mediocre prose is filler and you’ll clean it up later.
  • Focus on finishing a complete version of your project, rather than a perfectly polished one. Deadlines or accountability partners can help you get to the other side.
  • Separate your worth from your work. Much easier said than done, but keep reminding yourself that writing and creativity are the goals. And if you’re doing that, you’re already succeeding in this difficult endeavor.

Remember, the same ego that gets defensive during critiques might need to be curbed again. Instead of striving for the perfect phrasing, trust that you’ll find it when the time is right. Maybe it’ll even come in the form of constructive feedback.

Learn to move forward

No matter how harsh the critique, I hope everyone finds a way to move forward with their project. At the same time, diving into revisions amidst emotional turmoil can be counter-productive.

Here are some ideas on moving forward:

  • Write a critique letter to yourself. This combines elements of your vision for the piece with positivity about what you’ve done well, before moving into ideas for revision. Try to be as specific as possible about what you’ll change and distill critiques that resonate with you into actionable edits.
  • Get a little meta and take a moment to critique your critique process. Were the people giving feedback your ideal readers? Is it too stressful to fling open your laptop and dive into workshop after rushing your children through dinner? Remember, the platform and people you entrust with your writing is your choice.
  • Shelve your work with a firm promise to come back. Sometimes it’s simply too soon, and writing an emotionally vulnerable piece makes us realize we’re still processing. Or sometimes life gets in the way of creative endeavors. As long as you’re being honest with yourself, and not throwing out your work, it’s okay to take a break.

As you think about future critiques, remember that a good reader is someone in your target audience who’s already amenable to your genre, subject, or style. My second novel takes place in Paris, so instead of picking apart my florid prose about the City of Lights, my readers are already onboard for descriptions of a foreign place. And if my prose gets too painfully florid, I trust them to tell me, and I trust myself to listen.

Remember your community

As writers, we’re all part of a community who have dedicated themselves to this daunting and thrilling art. When you’re giving feedback, think of supporting your peers and leaving them inspired to keep writing. Writing is challenging enough—we don’t need more discouragement, especially not from those who share our struggles.

What was some of the least helpful criticism you’ve received? And how did you learn and grow from the experience?

For more on critiques and ideas explored in this piece:

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