On July 16th, 2011, Ella wrote, So I’ve finished my novel and I’ve to shown it to some people and let them critique me. However, I’ve never been very good at taking criticism, and I’m having a hard time using their comments. It just sort of makes me queasy when someone says there’s something I should change about my precious book, and I get so worried about what they say that I want to give up, or at best, overcorrect. I guess all I’m really asking is if you or the bloggers have any advice on accepting criticism and using it to your advantage. Thanks!

Great question!

Criticism is hard. Tomorrow I’m going to meet with my critique buddy, the wonderful kids’ book, YA, and science writer Karen Romano Young, to discuss my work-in-progress and hers, and I will be scared. I’m scared already, even though we’re friends and she’s a really nice person and her criticisms have been very helpful. I’ll be so scared I’ll want to talk about her book first and then ease into mine.

Although it’s hard and sometimes torture, criticism is essential. Few writers (but definitely some) can revise entirely on their own and turn in prose that needs only a light editorial dusting. The early chapters of Beloved Elodie have big boring patches. I’m hoping the pages I gave Wren (Karen) this time are tighter, but they may not be, and I have to know. She may see other problems, too, that I’m not aware of, which will be especially useful to learn about.

You don’t have to process criticism right on the spot, and you probably can’t. It may be impossible. A great line when you’re getting criticism is, “Thank you. I’ll think about that.”

Later, in the privacy of your room or office, you can go through the five stages of grief (classically applied to the response to a diagnosis of terminal illness, but no hyperbole is too extreme when applied to writing criticism!):

∙    Denial — The manuscript is fine exactly as it is!

∙    Anger — My writing pal is just jealous!

∙    Bargaining — I can change this paragraph on page 75 and the second sentence on page 112, even though I spent seven hours on each one, but if I revise them, I won’t have to rewrite the entire middle section.

∙    Depression — My story never was any good, never will be, and I might as well trash it. (Some of you, I suspect, skip the first three stages and go right here. If you must, you must, but try not to inhabit this step for long.)

∙    Acceptance — Hmm, hmm, hmm. If I make my villain more likeable, as my writing buddy suggests, then the conflict with the hero will have more tension. Oh, this is cool! I see how I can make everything better.

The best strategy for getting comfortable with a dose of criticism is to sit with it for a while. Let your readers’ suggestions percolate in your brain without making judgments. Take a walk, pet the dog, play with the cat, bake muffins. Let a few hours go by. If you find self-hatred settling in – if you think the criticism also means you’re a terrible person – remind yourself of your virtues and the people who love you.

I’m talking here about constructive criticism. My advice is different if what you’ve been told is global and non-specific, as in “Sorry, I just didn’t like it.” Or, “I hate it when you give me something to read. I always hope it will better but it never is.” Or, “I think you should take up another hobby.” When you get this kind of thing, ignore it and show your story as quick as you can to someone else and never to this frenemy again.

Constructive criticism is criticism you can use. I’ve mentioned on the blog that editors have responded to my manuscripts in the past with criticism that my heroines aren’t likeable. These editors have meant well, but that statement isn’t helpful all by itself. I haven’t intentionally made my heroines unsympathetic. What I need are specifics. What did my character do or say or think or fail to do or say or think at which moment in the manuscript to convey that she isn’t likeable? Show me the places: which action, which line of dialogue, which paragraph of thought. Then I can fix.

Your critics may not be gifted at helpful criticism. They’re probably not professional editors, so they may be vaguer in their ideas than you’d like. In this case, after your period of silent absorption of the criticism, you can ask your readers questions, the questions that have come to you while you contemplated.

When you get specifics, when you know the problem is that the action drags in the second chapter, for example, then you may stop feeling overwhelmed. You start to think that you can cut half a page of dialogue and you don’t have to name every book in your main character’s bookcase. And instead of thinking your manuscript is bad, you can start thinking how great it can be.

I’ve written about this before, but when I started out as a writer, I used to take all criticism. After my first writing course ever I formed a writing group. We were all beginners making our best guesses about what would improve our pals’ stories. I tried whatever was offered, figuring I would learn and I could always go back if the suggestion didn’t work (I saved my old versions even them). This strategy helped, because I did learn. Plus, it desensitized me by taking me out of the realm of hurt feelings. I didn’t have to decide in a vacuum about the validity of a comment. I could try it out and see if it held water.

Of course this goes back to the need for specific criticism. It’s hard to try out a broad suggestion like, “Make it more exciting.”

You can show your revisions to your readers and ask if you’ve addressed their concerns and if new things are bothering them. If you’re in a critique group, you can come back and back with the same pages until you’re satisfied.

I no longer take all the criticism that comes my way, but when I ignore a suggestion I always have a reason. My character wouldn’t do this. Or, this idea doesn’t jibe with the tone of my story. Or, this is factually incorrect. If I’m not sure, I usually try the suggestion.

It may help with your criticism aversion to know that every writer gets criticism. Nobody writes a perfect book. And everybody has to take her share of hurtful criticism, criticism that isn’t well-intentioned. It comes from friends or reviewers in the media or on Amazon.com. We take it, and sometimes we stew for a week or a decade – there was one miserable review of The Two Princesses of Bamarre that I can still quote word for word – but we keep writing.

Finishing a first draft is an achievement worthy of whooping and dancing and shouting from the rooftops. So is finishing a revision. Make the good, useful criticism your friend. Make it a reason for gratitude and celebration. You’re getting help with what you love. Hooray!

Here are three prompts:

∙    Snow White cooks and cleans for the seven dwarves while they’re digging in the mines, but they’re never satisfied with the results. Write about how she deals with their constant criticism. Write several versions for several different Snow Whites, if you like.

∙    Through magical intervention, your main character, Marcia Masters, who yesterday was a ninth grader, is now a teacher and her students are her former teachers reduced to children. Write how her teaching goes over the course of a class or a few days.

∙    Your main character, Michael Monroe, is working on a project with his father. Michael is eager for this, but nothing he does pleases Mr. Monroe. Write the scene.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I have a hard time with criticism too! I find it easiest to have them make notes on my manuscript that I can read later, alone. That way if I DO get mad at the suggestions, I get mad at the notes, not the person who wrote them. Another thing is to be in a good mood when you read them. If you're in a bad mood then it will go even worse.
    I hope you figure it out, 🙂

  2. One rule when I took creative writing was when critiquing someone's work, always start by telling them what you like before you tell them what you don't like. After all, it's just as important to know what's working as to know what isn't. If I show my work to someone and get too depressed about their criticism I sometimes ask `So what did you like?' If they're a nice person, they probably just forgot that you couldn't read their mind to see that they think the parts they're not criticizing are wonderful.

  3. This post is refreshing! I suppose everyone has their own criticism woes:) Thanks to a bad critiquing experience with my English teacher, it took me a long to get to where I could accept criticism again. Thankfully, I was able to start a critique group (that's what we call it even though there are only two of us) with a girl who is very gentle (perhaps too gentle!) and she's really helped me overcome my fear of advice. And I would definitely give one word of caution to those who also suffer with criticism aversion – make sure that the person who is criticising you has no reason to want to hurt your feelings and that he is not a frenemy. As long as he means well, then there is considerably less likelihood of getting your feelings hurt. Good luck, Ella!

  4. I know this won't always be the case, but right now I know my critiquers very well (my two most useful ones are long-standing best friends). Because I've known them forever and know they want me to succeed, I'm comfortable showing them my writing. Showing them has helped me grow a tougher skin. I also know their strengths and weaknesses, so I know which of their comments to take seriously and which to smile at and move on without worrying too much.
    Allowing them to critique my writing has given me more confidence, so now I feel comfortable posting bits and pieces on writing forums for other writers to crit, which has made my skin even tougher. 🙂

    I think it's important to add that general positive criticism, though it feels great, can be as unhelpful as general negative criticism. My younger sister loves everything I write, but as much as her comments make me glow, they don't help me improve. Maybe the best combination is to have one person who loves everything and a few people who can point out problems. That way you get the best of both worlds. 🙂

  5. Criticism – a necessary evil! 🙂 And it's harder to take for some personalities than others.

    Don't forget to ask your critiquers what kind of books they like. If they like tear jerkers and you've written and adventure, be sure they know what kind of book they are starting.

    I want to echo Josiphine. If you've tried oral criticism, try written. If you are getting your help from people who aren't writers, you might try asking a few questions at the end. Such as:

    What kind of person do you think X character is? (This will tell you how well you succeeded at characterization.)
    Did you find your mind wandering while you read? Can you mark the line where you started to lose focus?
    Were you surprised by anything?

    And don't forget….
    What was your favorite part?

  6. I've been reading your blog for over a year now and I absolutely love it! You introduced me to Nanowrimo last year and I completed my first novel. My question is not really a writing question, so I'm sorry if this is too off topic. I'm actually searching for princess books for my younger sister. She has read all of your books and loves them! But now I don't know where to turn until Beloved Elodie comes out. Any suggestions?

  7. @Megan – I'm sure Ms. Levine will have many excellent suggestions for you, but my girls have enjoyed the Frog Princess series by ED Baker, as well as books by Jessica Day George, such as Dragon Slippers, which have some princess themes.

  8. From the website:

    A thousand thank-you's, Gail! I'm still working on accepting criticism (and getting a little better at it, I think:-), but it helps tremendously to hear all your advice, and even to hear that others have the same problem. You, the great Gail Carson Levine, get nervous about critiquing? Now I feel a little bit better;-) I appreciate your advice, and I know it will help:-D

    And I say, Aw, shucks.

  9. More from the website:

    A character in my NaNoWriMo novel has a speech characteristic. When she says the word "you" after saying another word, she pronounces it "ya" and tacks it onto the word, as in "seeya" and "didya". So far I've been typing it "see ya" and "did ya", but that doesn't sound quite right-it doesn't give the right affect. Should I say "didya" and "seeya" even though those aren't words, or should I keep typing "did ya" and "see ya"?

  10. Elizabeth, you're listening to your inner editor… DON'T! During NaNoWriMo the point is to turn your inner editor off and just write.

    You can worry about the "ya" usage once December comes this way. Right now, just write. Good luck!

  11. Gail, I love all of those books too, so it makes me happy to see you suggest them. 🙂

    Another "princess" book (not a typical princess tale) that I like is Princess Academy by Shannon Hale.

  12. @Elizabeth – April is right that NaNoWriMo is all about turning off your inner editor. 🙂 But if it's still causing you to pause every time, you'll feel better if you come to some sort of decision.

    Writing accents is difficult, and one I have thought about. As someone from Texas where people do say "did ya" as in "Did ya see that there cow jump over the fence?" (I say "people" but I do it to! But I don't say "that there cow.") I vote for sticking with "see ya" and "did ya." I think readers will stumble over it less.

  13. Hey I've got a question I would to like hear opinions about. In my NaNoWriMo I've got a turning point,a point where my MC finds out something that changes the story completely.Mine happens early in the story, I would like to know what people have to say on them.

  14. I love this quote, forgot who said it:
    I promise to be my best friend first and my harshest critic second.
    I always make sure I know my critic really well… My best friend does mine and I do hers, and no feelings are ever hurt.
    But I want to join this writing group, where you are encouraged to critique so this is DEFINANTLY going to help me! Thank you!
    Yes, so say what you LIKE before you say what needs help…
    Writing is much easier than when they tell you. I email my friends, so that's so much easier.
    Use smiley faces too! It'll show your tone of voice when you make notes on someone else's work.
    @Agnes- is your question 'Is this okay?' Because I think it SO is. It'll keep readers WANTING to read more- you can't really have plot without turning the story around, so to speak.
    @Elizabeth- it's FINE! Tons of authors write how it sounds. One author, Brigid Lowry, doesn't use any puncuation when one character thinks, which adds tone. It's great, really. If it still bugs you AFTER November, go ahead and edit that.

  15. Megan- I read a pretty interesting book recently. It's called Once Upon a Marigold. I don't remember who it's by. It's an award winner though and it's quite easy to read.

  16. Pretty much anything by Robin McKinley is good, although Deerskin and Sunshine are "adult" books, with disturbing parts. Depending on how strict your definition of "Princess book" is, besides Beauty there are The Hero and the Crown, The Blue Sword, Rose Daughter and Spindle's End.

  17. Oh, and about criticism, I have a writer friend who says about rejection slips "Rejections are trophies. They're proof that you're trying."

    I think criticism is also a trophy- it's proof that you finished a story and were brave enough to share it with someone.

  18. I had a writing professor–a slightly kooky one, I admit–who told us that after a critique session, she liked to end by saying, "Thank you, that was very helpful"…then she'd leave the room and find somewhere to go cry. In a way, one of the biggest things that's helped me deal with criticism is realizing that it's NORMAL to feel devastated.

    At least at first. And then we have to pick up and move on. GREAT advice here on how to do that!

  19. Have you ever found that you enjoyed writing one book more than the other? I absolutely loved writing my last book – I wrote it in a little under six months because I couldn't get myself off the keyboard! Part of that was that I loved my characters, each with their own precious quirks and flaws. But I'm having a much harder time getting in to the one I'm working on now. The characters still seem underdeveloped, despite my efforts, and the pages just seem to drag on and on. Does this happen to anyone else, or is it just me? Should I give up and find another story that excites me, or should I stick it out?

  20. @ Agnes – What kind of advice are you looking for? If you mean what do readers like to see in a turning point, the most important things I can think of at the moment are that the turning point makes an impact, and that the author doesn't forget about the turning point. If you mean what kinds of turning point are there, I can think of physical, where the character actually changes (especially in fairytales) mental or moral, in which the character's mindset or outlook is changed by something (especially in novels) or plot, in which the whole course of events takes an unexpected turn. Of course, I'm sure I'm forgetting many, but those are the ones I can think of at the moment.

  21. for Princess books, I love ED Baker… but especially the Wide Awake Princess. That one is fantastic! Wings, also by ED Baker, is a great fantasy book.
    @Elizabeth– I say, write the word the way it's pronounced. As in The Help, you can distinguish the character by the way she talks/writes, which is like an uneducated black woman in the sixties. Don't flip out about the spell checker (even though I do– it has to be perfect before i can keep writing!!) and just use it the way it sounds. Like April said, you can worry about it in December.
    Also, in my nano novel, I am writing with 4 different POVs. This is hard, because how should I define what events this characters tell about and what event both should and what events this one… etc, etc. A book is boring if they're all telling about the same thing, even from different POVs. Does anyone have some help for that quandary?
    btw, my username on NaNoWriMo (the young writer's program) is The Writeress… feel free to add me as our writing buddy.

  22. I'm really worried that i don't have enough action in my book. I'm not sure if i should change it or not because it might subtract to the story…

    @ Lark- Books that I read with different points of view usually go chapter by chapter, each character telling a different event, but you could also switch around, for instance, you have the event, then have the characters react one by one.
    Hope that helps!

  23. @ Gail – well, I suppose I'll keep working at it, then. Hopefully my next one will be more fun:) Also, I've already read your extremely helpful section in writing magic about developing characters and I've filled out a character questionare for each of my characters, but they still seem sort of flat and Mary-Sue like, especially compared to the ones in my last book. I think part of my problem may be that they don't have lots of quirks and faults, despite my efforts to think up some and apply them. Any ideas on how to make these characters pop?

  24. Ms. Levine, My nine year old is taking part in a writing competition and has advanced from the school to the district round. I used "ambivalent" today and she wanted to know what it means so she can use it in her writing. Then she added "I bet the judges would like it if I used the word 'indignant' too. That's from Ella Enchanted." I asked her how she could remember that word was in Ella, and she said, "Because on the audiobook the reader says it wish such expression!"

    I thought this was interesting from two aspects, that yes you can use big words in books for younger readers and they will infer their meaning (which is a question I think has come up on this blog before.) And also I never would have thought that the *audio* book would be so useful for helping learn and retain vocabulary!

  25. One thing that has helped me deal with criticism is martial arts. From day one, you spend hours upon hours of mental and physical effort, knowing full well the moment you walk in the door, at least three people will look at where you are, and pick you apart.

    They point out your arm is just a bit too high here, you roll your shoulder too far forward, your breathing gets choppy. Or, my favorite; "you've really worked hard on your footwork… but it's actually like this…"

    You get to the point where you learn to love it, even if it stings. I sort of suggest writers take up something like Kung Fu, good philosophy, some good inspiration, and it helps build up a thicker skin for a critique.

    … and if someone is just being completely unhelpful for no reason, you now know how to hurt them. While you may not, it still feels good to know you -could-.

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