Thursday, May 19, 2011

Criticism and Rejection are Hard Teachers

Writing is a hard business. We work for months and years creating something that we love and, in order for it to be seen by more than family members, we have to submit it for critiques and possible rejection. It is a refiner’s fire for sure.

Rejection is difficult to take. I mean, every time I submit a manuscript, the thought runs through my head—what if they don’t like it? And sometimes they don’t. It’s a huge letdown. I wanted them to see the beauty of my characters and story and it’s so easy to feel defensive when they don’t. But I’ve learned over the years, that defensiveness doesn’t help me. In fact, it hinders me from becoming the writer I’m hoping to be.

You see, I’ve come to realize that each criticism is a stepping stone to making me a stronger writer. I know, it sounds sort of cheesy, but it’s true. Yet, even with that realization, it all comes down to whether I can be a good student of constructive criticism and rejection, or if I will refuse to hear what is being taught and hide in my defensiveness.

For example, on the other side of the coin, when I was an editor I had several clients who were resistant to change anything in their manuscripts. They would argue with me until the cows came home about why it didn’t need to be changed and how so and so had done it that way and been published, and it was their favorite part of the whole book and they couldn’t possibly delete that.

At first, I would gently try to tell them my reasons. I would explain things over and over. I talked about how different things were weakening the story and that the changes were needed. And still I met resistance. They weren’t ready to be students of constructive criticism and rejection and, as a result, their writing stayed the same.

So, to every aspiring writer out there I would say---feedback is valuable. Don’t limit yourself by being defensive and resistant to change your manuscript. Make yourself ready to be a good student of constructive criticism and rejection. Your writing will improve as experts, critique groups, beta readers, whoever you have critiquing your work comes back with things like, “this didn’t work for me,” or “you have a plot hole here,” and “I didn’t feel like I was in the story, just that I was reading one.” Take all of that constructive feedback and really look at it. Make changes where necessary. Be brutal to your writing, because in the end, you will love the result. Your writing will be stronger and you, as a writer, will have passed the test.

Constructive criticism and rejection are hard teachers, but once you’ve gone through their refining process, I think you can truly say, “I’m a writer.” And you can definitely say, “I’m a better writer than I was.”


Jordan McCollum said...

You are absolutely right and I love your perspective. It's still a little hard to take criticism and especially rejection sometimes, but all these things give us experience, right?

OTOH, sometimes criticism isn't constructive. I've gotten tons of bad, rude, mean, useless and just plain wrong feedback. I've had people try to rewrite my chapters, changing the characters' voice, stripping out all sensory information, changing the facts of the crime and even killing off my killer. Sometimes it's really easy to tell which critiques are good and which aren't--but sometimes it's hard. (I often have a friend look over the crits for kinder, more impartial feedback.)

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Jordan, you are right, you can be given criticism that isn't constructive at all and serves no purpose. I think, as an author, you have to look at all feedback given and decide what is valuable to you. (Honestly, you are such a great writer, I can't imagine anyone rewriting your work!) But really, you did learn from the criticism that wasn't constructive. You just learned what exactly you needed as an artist and what you didn't. So it was helpful in a non-helpful kind of way! :)

But there are authors who don't seem to put any value on feedback and resist any change. Those are the ones who aren't strengthened as writers because they can't see past the "perfection" of their work. It's those writers that I would encourage to look a little more closely at the feedback they've been given and be open to change.

Debra Erfert said...

I'm with Jordan on the some of the useless feedback. I've seen when a writer will put something as simple as a query letter up for critique in our large online group and by the time its been through a dozen well intentioned hands, it doesn't resemble the original query at all-in design or in voice. It'd been stripped clean of the author's hand. I could tell from her email that she was heartbroken when her ms was rejected. She blamed the query letter and had started over. This time she did not put it up for critiquing. I thought that was a smart move. She'd learned what she needed the first time around.

I went through two complete overhauls of my last manuscript, first to change the character's ages down young enough to fit into the YA genre, (per their suggestions) and then back again when the (rather harsh) critiques told me the plot was totally unbelievable given the ages. I felt like throwing in the keyboard and quitting all together. My feelings had been hurt, and I quit my small group (which I regret now.)

But I did learn, and the manuscript is a hundred times better than it had been before rewriting it that additional two times. I am a better writer than I was back then. I know it!

Human nature makes us resistant to change. That's how ruts are formed.

David G. Woolley said...

Great post! Absolutely terrific. How about a follow up post telling the author what she should focus on when she gets feedback like:

“this didn’t work for me,”


“you have a plot hole here,”


“I didn’t feel like I was in the story, just that I was reading one.”

If a beta reader tells the author that she didn't feel like she was in the story, does that mean the author should work on point of view problems? Or is the interior dialogue weak or obvious or pedestrian? Does it mean that the author isn’t presenting the setting properly or are there a host of minor distractions like spelling, grammar or clich├ęs that need cleaning up. Sometimes all it takes in asking the beta reader for some clarifiction. But a lot of times the reader (and sometimes the editor) doesn't know. They just know that they didn't feel like they were in the story. The feedback may be accurate, but it isn’t specific enough to help the author rewrite. It could be any of a number of issues or a combination of problems. Some easier to resolve than others.

So Julie, do you have a list of some of the most common feedback authors receive? And if you do, would you be willing to present some ideas of what may be eliciting that response form a beta reader, a critique group, or an editor, that will help authors know where to begin rewriting?

You could call it something like: Translating Feedback.


What does all that criticism really mean?


They said what?

I'll be waiting for your follow-up post!

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Debra, I totally love your rut analogy. So true and something I'm still working on.

David, I could do a follow up post on feedback, but I honestly think that First Page Friday is the best way to show authors what I'm talking about and get into specifics.

In case you don't know, every Friday I have a national editor who critiques a first page that's been submitted. And then we can discuss the critique and the entry in the comments section. If anyone has feedback questions, I think it would be great to discuss them there because I know that common feedback issues will pop up frequently. That's my thought. Of course, if it doesn't answer everyone's questions, I would be happy to do a follow up post as you suggest. :)

Thanks for the comments!

Anna said...

This the an area that I haven't felt comfortable with my writing yet. The whole critiquing. Last year I finally showed my writing to a few friends who were impressed with what I had so far.

But I am looking forward to getting into that spot sometime. I've gone through trials and struggled and came out okay. So I know my writing can make it through criticism and I'll come out a better writer. (As long as it's nicely put and not mean criticism.)

Afterall, it is what I am striving for. To be the best writer that I can be.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Anna, I don't think we ever get comfortable with it, and like you said, you came out of previous struggles okay. You can do it. Especially authors like you that are striving to be better. :)

Pk Hrezo said...

Hi, Julie. New follower. This is sage advice. With each rejection, we have to use it as fuel to rethink our stories. I like to have as many beta readers/CPs as I can find and leave myself wide open for any harsh feedback, as long as it's constructive. It's the only way we learn, because agents and editors aren't giving it to us unless they've taken us on as a client.
But it does hurt sometimes. Only thing we can do to help it, is learn everything we can and write some more.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Welcome, Pk! I love your idea of seeing rejection as fuel to rethink our stories. That is such a great way to look at it. I think I'm going to write that one down and put it on a sticky note by my desk. :)

Rebecca Talley said...

Love your blog. Very informative. Criticism is hard to take but I think it also depends on the relationship you have with the critiquer and if you believe he/she is really trying to help you. If you critiqued my work I would take your comments very seriously. If David critiqued my work I would also listen and consider each and every comment. When someone makes a flippant remark on Goodreads or Amazon, then I don't get worked up about it because I don't even know if I could trust that person's judgment. So I think if you value someone's opinion then the criticism is easier to take and you are more willing to listen.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Rebecca, that is so true. You always have to consider the source. Glad you like the blog! :)

Kimberly said...

Fabulous post, Julie! I got my first rejection letter and I'm equal parts moping and dancing. It means I'm getting my stuff out there, and I'm learning, and that's HUGE for a shy girl who's used to hiding in the shadows.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Aw, Kimberly, I'm sorry. But you're right, it does mean you're getting your stuff out there and learning. I can't imagine you as a shy girl though! :)

Kimberly Krey said...

I'm new here, and I loved this post. Couldn't have said it any better! :)

Rebecca Talley said...

Can you put the subscribe feature on here so I can get your posts directly to my inbox? I don't want to miss any of them.

Julie Coulter Bellon said...

Thanks, Kimberly! Welcome.

Rebecca, I'm sort of technologically challenged. I put something in the sidebar that looked like a subscribe thingy. I hope I did it right! :)

S.B.Niccum said...

Even after your book is published, you still get rejections from readers and reviewers! I think you have to take everything in stride, and know that every time you do your best you are growing and improving.
S.B. Niccum
Author Website

Anonymous said...

Many thanks.