Taking Criticism Well or Are You a Newbie Monster?

Writing groups are great for support and criticism. However, they are next to useless if all they do is smile blandly and tell you how great your work is after you’ve read your offering out loud. If that is going on in your group, ask yourself this. Is your work really that good or are they afraid you will turn into the “newbie monster”?

You may know this person. This guy or gal has pressed their story/novel excerpt/poem into your hands and with great sincerity requested an honest opinion. They want to be a professional writer but are having trouble getting anything published. You read it and, although it may have a good voice or the idea is interesting, the writing lacks in some terrible way. It may have plot holes, repeat the same word often enough to cause headaches, or tell the story rather than show it. You start to offer suggestions in the kindest possible way but then the person interrupts you.

But I meant that–” (fill in the blank). Or, “you don’t understand, it is because she–” (followed by 10 minutes of plot explanation).

You try again, rephrasing this time, only to be interrupted again with further explanations and growing hysteria or hostility. At that moment, the newbie monster has appeared. That sane person who desires a career as a bestselling author has gone into overload about you “attacking” their precious baby, which in their mind is perfect in every respect. They wanted you to look for missing periods or misplaced commas, not tell them that it has too much exposition or reads like an 8th grade term paper. Eventually, you simply want to escape the awkward situation. Thus, you smile, tell them it is great, and walk away with the absolute conviction that their work will never see publication.

Here is a secret, though. We have all been that newbie monster at some point in our life. It is part of the natural transition from hobbyist to  professional writer. However, some people have a hard time making the leap out of their monsteritis. For those of you who may have this trouble, here are a few suggestions.

  1. You’ll never get honest criticism from family. Understand that your mother, children, sibling, students, best friend, and possibly husband will never tell you how bad your writing is. To them, it is ingrained with your personality. Plus, they don’t want to see the newbie monster come out.
  2. Accept that your work isn’t perfect. We’re talking more than just a few punctuation mistakes here. Professional writing is an evolving process where the author is constantly learning to improve their craft. If you are new to the writing and publishing world, you have a long way to go. However, that journey is easier if you are honest about your ability.
  3. Learn to shut up. When having someone review your work, don’t explain what you meant. Don’t say the story actually starts on page three. Don’t dig up any excuse to explain why your work is the way it is. If the story isn’t clear or doesn’t keep the reader’s interest, then it simply fails.
  4. Observe the 24-hour rule. Listen to the criticism without comment, write it down if need be, and then take 24 hours to think about it. After cooling down from that automatic first defensive reaction, you might find your reviewers have made some good points.
  5. Get progressively more experienced people to look at your work. As you make revisions, the work will improve but also possibly lack in some way. Therefore, let writing group buddies or friends read it again and give more input. At some point, however, you should move away from amateur editors and get the advice of skilled folks in the trade. They can offer input on the subtleties of good writing that nonpublished people miss. Check out manuscript reviews at conferences or pay attention to any advice offered with rejections from editors or agents.
  6. Take some of the suggestions with a grain salt. After all, the manuscript is still your idea. If the advice about plot or character changes doesn’t fit, then ignore it, particularly if you don’t view the reviewer as any more of an expert than you are.

Learning to quietly accept criticism of your work will mark you as more of a professional. More importantly, it also encourages others to actually be honest with you, which helps you move towards creating something that is acceptable to the publishing houses and agents. It isn’t easy but you will be a better writer in the end.

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