Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? —Rumi
Offering criticism—even when it is done with utmost love and care—can be a tricky business. Writers are often sensitive creatures and writing, like any creative endeavor, is a vulnerable thing. When you offer a piece of yourself, your thoughts, your perceptions, your emotions, it is easy to hear criticism of the work as criticism of the self. Add to this the toxic mythology of the genius, in which writers have “value” based on their performance in a competitive marketplace, and criticism can feel downright dangerous. It can feel as if imperfect work indicates a “bad writer” and a bad writer is self-indulgent and self-important, the absolute worst sort of wannabe. Given the emotional cost, who on earth would ever want to seek out criticism? Even I, who pride myself on my thick skin, often cringe from criticism like a vampire avoiding a tanning bed.
But feedback is essential to artists because writing is an attempt to communicate. And how can we know if our thoughts, emotions, and ideas are coming across clearly? It isn’t a matter of what we think. We are only doing half of the work. We do the work of placing the words on the page. The second half of the work belongs to the reader, who takes the words and tries to understand. If understanding fails, we can’t hope to change the reaction until we change the initial words.
Feedback is what we need, but also (often) what we fear. Simply knowing this is the first step toward being able to accept feedback with an open, humble heart while still maintaining artistic integrity. The trick is to try to subtract emotion from the equation and view the feedback as objectively as possible.
Yeah...it isn’t, I know. Personally, as an editor, I have given lots of feedback over the years, sometimes in person. I know a lot of editors, and I can tell you something about them--they want to help you. That’s their job. They do not expect or even believe in perfect manuscripts. It’s true that some manuscripts need more work than others, and it is also true that there are some manuscripts that will never be publishable. Every manuscript (except for a finished one) offers opportunities for improvement. That is exciting to editors. They thrive on being able to see the loose plot strand, the dropped character, the moment that doesn’t quite land. They found a problem! They are helping! This attitude is the same for people in your writing group or anyone you ask to read your work with a critical eye. They are looking for places that need improvement and the questions that need answering. That is, whether or not you have said so explicitly, what you are asking them to do for you.
It is important to remember this when Feedback Time comes. If you ask, “Does this dress make my butt look fat?” you should be prepared for the possibility that the answer might be “yes”. And if it is, you must bear in mind that it is the fault of the dress, not your butt. By the same token, when you ask, “Is there anything I could improve about this writing?” the answer might be (almost definitely will be) “yes”. And that means you have to do some more work, not that you are a terrible writer. Not a big deal! More work just means more writing, and you are a writer, after all.
Rumi wrote about the Three Gates for communication. These questions are important when we offer thoughts, but they are also important when we receive them.
Is it true?
There are times when an editor/agent/reader does not read closely. They might complain that something was not explained when it was, in fact, explained. In this case, remember that everyone misses things, and consider that perhaps you should move the placement of the explanation so that it carries more impact. Also, not every reader will “get” your work, and that is okay. You don’t have to change your piece if you don’t really agree with the feedback.
Is it necessary?
Often, readers will offer a suggested change or improvement to the manuscript. This can be helpful...but it can also send you off in the wrong direction. It’s important to ask yourself what the improvement is trying to fix. What is the question or concern? Because the solution might be a different improvement. For example, my novel A Tale of Highly Unusual Magic is told from two points of view. One early reader told me to get rid of the main character Kai. Another told me to get rid of the main character Leila. I knew, though, that for the story I wanted to tell, that I needed both. The solution was not to get rid of either one, but rather to improve them both and invest their storylines with more resonance
Is it kind?
People offering feedback do not always do it in the gentlest possible way. My agent once asked me, in her fabulous Bronx accent), “Why is everyone in this manuscript so damned depressing?” This could, perhaps, have been worded more diplomatically, but it was a true and necessary observation. Sometimes, words offered in good faith do not feel kind. If you feel hurt, ask yourself if you are hurt by the content of the feedback, or by the expression. I also know writers who have been hurt by the fact that the editor did not offer enough praise to counterbalance the criticism. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any praise to offer, just that they failed to offer it. And you may feel hurt by that, but that is about them, not about you or even about the writing. Some editors don’t feel it’s their job to offer praise. If you’re curious whether any moments in the manuscript were working, you can always ask.
These three questions can also help you sort out the kind of readers you want. If the answer to one or more of these questions is “no”, then you might want to consider finding a different reader. Personally, I have come to love my agent’s bluntness (I actually find it hilarious), but it wouldn’t work for everyone and that is okay.
The trick is to take what you need and forget the rest. Your work will only benefit.