Being Edited, or How to Take Criticism
Let’s start with the obvious: nobody likes it.
Any aspiring author will read plenty of blog posts telling you to suck it up / not be a special snowflake / fall on negative criticism with cries of glee. You should like criticism. Love it. You should be like a kung-fu movie monk, immersing his hand in boiling tar to become stronger. Etc.
That’s just bobbins. Even unjustified criticism can hurt like hell; even trivial throwaway comments can sting for years. Negative criticism feels bad because it’s negative; you shouldn’t feel even worse because you aren’t Superman about it. Take your emotions out (BUT NOT ON TWITTER OKAY), give them an airing to the cat, scream in the bathroom. Face how you feel. Because, all the people telling you to suck it up? They feel just as bad when they get their MS slammed. And if they don’t, if they indeed have asbestos hands for criticism and shrug it off, I’m afraid I question their commitment to their work. I don’t care is a fine thing to say but if you actually don’t care about your book, I’m pretty sure I won’t either.
Negative criticism is a painful and unpleasant necessity. The problem is that as a species, humans tend to believe that painful unpleasantness should be avoided at all costs. Wasp stings hurt like hell, so we kill wasps. That god-awful friend of a friend zeroes in on our every failing: we spend the party on the opposite side of the room. We avoid painful experiences. And thus authors may decide not to have their MS read by anyone other than their mum and a few trusted
sycophants friends (which is a fabulous way to get more negativity than you can shake a stick at when the book publishes). They try to control reviews. And even the most sensible of us often try to deal with negative criticism by persuading ourselves it’s wrong.
It’s human nature. The king surrounds himself with courtiers who assure him that his subjects adore him, even while the mob is hammering at the palace doors. We don’t want to hear this stuff, because it hurts. Unfortunately, you need to face the negatives to improve, and we all know it.
So, a few tips from me in my capacity as an editor who hands out criticism, a writer who has to take it, and a human being who screws up.
Constructive v Negative
People make a big point of how criticism must be constructive. Reviews should always be constructive, apparently. (For the record, this is arrant nonsense. The reviewer is not a post-publication beta reader.) Nobody should say “this is bad”, we are told, they should say “this is how it can be better.”
Well, yes/no. An editor or beta reader who’s just there to sneer is a waste of time (a full blog post on this topic here). But actually, not all readers know how books can be made better. That’s quite a complicated skill: we call that person a development editor. It’s perfectly reasonable to say what’s wrong (“I just felt the hero never got sympathetic”) without identifying which chapters and conversations were the lost opportunities.
And sometimes things are bad. Sometimes the correct editorial response is, “You should cut this chapter”, “You should cut this storyline” or “I’m afraid this MS doesn’t work and we decline to publish.”
Here’s the thing: most people hate giving that out. It is very hard to be the bearer of bad news, particularly because so many people shoot the messenger. (I rejected a book once at work and the author was still blanking me at a conference five years later.)
Some people are just malicious, of course. But sincere well-meaning negative criticism is hard to write and deliver, and it should be considered seriously. If you don’t feel like you can tell the difference any more, ask a writer friend for a second opinion.
The more it hurts, the harder you should look
“If it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working” is bobbins, just ask an anaesthetist. But I am aware that the crit that makes me flinch most is the stuff I was worried about on some level. If you tell me, “I hate your crappy badly written book,” I’ll merely hope you get a disfiguring skin disease. If you say, “The book falls into obvious halves because of the clunking character arc,” I will be up all night rearranging scenes in my head because you’re right. (You bastard.)
“Well, they’ll just have to like it.” (Hint: they won’t.)
It takes a fair bit of nerve to write, and a lot of self belief. You need be true to your story, follow your dream, all that inspirational poster stuff. However, if you conflate that with believing your book is perfect, you will have a problem. The time to tell yourself “haters gonna hate” and sail serenely by the negative reviews is after publication, not at editing stage. Without negative criticism, you won’t get better.
But this is my book!
As an editor, I believe passionately that the book is the author’s: her voice, her choices, her style. However, sometimes it is the author’s badly written or unpublishable book. As an author, I won’t make changes that go against the spirit of my book and the soul of my characters, but you better believe I’ll listen if my editor/readers tell me things that suggest I’m failing in what I was trying to do, or the words I chose to do it.
The edits received in the stoniest silence of all are the ones that cut at the writer’s goodness as a person. This scene seems to me to be verging on rape, and I don’t think you intended that. This comes across as racist. A lot of readers will find this offensive. People struggle to accept that they’ve been hurtful. Authors tend to be high-empathy people and women in particular are socialised to be nice. Most of us don’t want to accept we’ve been crass or prejudiced. And it is human nature to reframe the story in a way that shines a flattering light on our own character. I’m not prejudiced or ignorant: you’re just oversensitive. God, lighten up!
I’ve caused offence with clumsiness, and been called out for it. I did not enjoy receiving that criticism, any more than I expect the complainers enjoyed making it, and it would be a lot easier to reassure myself that I’m a Nice Person and the complainer is oversensitive, rather than accept that I’m not actually the super-considerate person/writer I’d like to think.
But I’m really not. And if I want to be better, as a writer or a person, I have to look hard at painful criticism, not in a defensive spirit but with an open mind. Because denying I was wrong will not help me do better, but listening thoughtfully might.
We all get stuff wrong. There’s nothing wrong with getting it wrong. Just grit your teeth, swear at the cat, and make an effort to get it right next time.
KJ Charles dishes it out as an editor and attempts to take it as a writer. Her latest book is A Fashionable Indulgence, out now from Loveswept.
You never fail to teach me something when I read your blogs KJ. They are as thoroughly enjoyable as your novels. While I’m fairly good at taking good edit, I’ve been known to do my fair share of cat railing.
Cats have to earn their food somehow. (Decapitated mice don’t count.)
I really cherish the editorial suggestions that make me light up and go, “Wow, it really would be fantastic if I shifted that thing.”
Delivering an edit with a tone of camaraderie rather than contentiousness or arrogance is a big bonus.
Editors and writers are on the same side, even if it doesn’t always feel like it, and part of the editor’s job is to keep the author feeling that way. Which is hard if you hate the book, I know…
Leaving comments about clunky characterization or how act two falls apart and drags along–fine. Uncomfortable, finicky, but fine. Leaving comments because the author wrote dubious consent between the MCs when they very clearly didn’t mean to and I have to unpack why this is Probably A Yikes Move? THE WORST. I WOULD NOT WISH THIS TORMENT UPON MY WORST ENEMY, SHOULD I EVER PROCURE ONE (lbr, it will probably be an author I ticked off with a tone-deaf comment).
I admit to loving crit and only feeling its stings occasionally as an author, though. But that’s just because I’m convinced I’m terrible, and someone showing me how to fix it is a huge opportunity.
I love crit. There is nothing at all that I wouldn’t rather hear from an editor while I can still change it, rather than a reviewer after it’s published.
Are there books where you have to say: It is good, almost perfect! But if you want to sell it you have to change it.?
I am not a writer.
Eh, that does come up. Sometimes it’s pure publisher timidity. Sometimes it’s the tyranny of the sales figures. (“We published one book like this and it flopped therefore this will flop.”) Sometimes the market can be resistant. This is IMO where the brave new world of self pub and crowd funding comes into play. Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake was the best book I read last year, and that was crowdfunded because no publisher would take a chance. It ended up I think longlisted for the Booker.