Monday, February 3, 2014

On Receiving - and Handling - 'Harsh' Critiques

Getting critiques on your work is tough. Grueling. It almost physically hurts. The query, the 250, the manuscript, the synopsis, etc. that you spend so. much. time. on is now torn apart by someone who read it in a few minutes. Now, your work starts all over again.

But there is one thing I'll always maintain: as long as you're really passionate about writing, getting harsh critiques is a lot LOT better than getting no critiques.

This has been inspired by my 'Become an Agent' contest currently going on right now (by the way, entrants, deadline to submit your votes is Wednesday night 9 p.m. EST!). No, it's not just one person who informed me that the feedback they received was a bit on the tough side. I've had multiple people tell me this. Last year, I think I had only one. That's why, frankly, I'm a bit shocked and even puzzled as to why this problem has sprung up. And that's why I'm writing this post right now.

The responsibility of the critiquer is to be clear and precise in their feedback so their advice isn't hard to understand. They also have a responsibility, not to baby the writer, but to critique with the writer's best interest at heart.

The thing is, as far as I've seen, basically every entrant in this contest gave this type of feedback.

It hurts to get 'harsh' critiques. It hurt for me, too, when I entered the Authoress's Public Slushpile contest (very much like this contest) and got the results.

I'm going to show you guys something that I'm almost embarrassed of. I really, really don't like showing people this but I think it's important for everyone still hurting from a critique to know this story.

Almost two years ago, I entered the Public Slushpile contest thinking my query would get tons and tons of Yes's. And, behold, out of 49 votes, I got only 4 Yes's (and I'm fairly sure those were sympathy Yes's because there were no limits to how many Yes's someone could give out). You want to see the entry? Sure you do. Here it is. I won't even tell you not to cringe.

I'm almost embarrassed by that query but in no way would I ever go back to the future and take it down from the public's eyes. I don't even want to take it down now. I had entered that query after getting over a dozen different eyes on it: finally, critique after critique, getting something I thought was a solid query. I was going to send that query out to agents, for Pete's sake. Read the query. Just read it. It is HORRIBLE.

That contest and the critiques I got left me hurting. I was in shock, I couldn't believe it. I was angry, frustrated, because I had worked so hard on the query. But a few days after I realized just how right everyone of those No's were.

Yes, that contest bruised my ego (more like snapped it in half and threw it in the trash). But because of that contest, I revised and revamped my query into something much, much better (but, eventually, I never sent it out because I started work on a new novel - the one I'm revising right now!). Because of that contest, I realized how stupid I was in thinking I had a good query. I would have gotten dozens of rejections and missed my chance with amazing agents.

Because of what I learned from that contest, I created 'Become an Agent' to give other writers a chance at the same experience I had. I do not exaggerate: that contest may be the most powerful contest I've ever been in (another one would be the Writer's Voice, solely because it's because of that contest that I created this blog in the first place). I desperately wanted to give other writers the same experience I had.

So sure, you may have gotten all No's in this contest, or your query or 250 or manuscript is being torn apart by your critique partners. But if you really, really think about it, would you rather get these critiques and feel bad for a few days, or would you rather be ignorantly happy while sending out horrible queries to agents, getting rejections, and never knowing why?

There's an odd rule: the more a critique seems to hurt, the higher the chance that the critique is spot-on. Don't react to a critique right away; give it at least a day for you to relax and think about it.

This is really tough love on my part, but I say it because critiques might be the only way for you to become the very best writer you can. Don't let your emotions or short-term feelings of happiness come in the way of your talent. I want you to succeed. It's why I made this contest in the first place, for Pete's sake.

But success doesn't mean winning this contest. Success means short-term sadness but long-term success. Be happy you got all No's or mostly No's. Swallow your anger and funnel it towards making your query even stronger. In fact, I think the person who gets the least from this contest is the one who gets all Yes's, which is why I'm (if I get permission) doing an interview with the winner (so the winner gets something). That's why I've been saying over and over that winning isn't the point of this contest (although, by calling it a contest - for lack of a better word - I guess I've invited it upon myself).

This contest is a tough one, I've said it when it started. But, hopefully, it will be a contest you'll remember - and cherish - for a long while to come. All you have to do is forget about trying to win. Try to grow instead. And I do hope you won't hate me or hate my blog after reading this post because I'm not writing this out of spite! (Good gosh, I just realized I have a big fear of people hating me. That's not good for a writer, is it?)

Entrants have until Wednesday 9 p.m. EST to finish up votes!

ALSO: To all entrants!!! If you want to submit a REVISED version of your query and 250, simply include them in a comment to your original post any time after Wednesday 9 p.m. EST. I'll write up a blog post for Thursday putting up a list of all the posts that have revised entries (so people can easily find them). Anyone who wants to can critique the revisions by replying to the comment! Most likely, you'll have to return the favor (so include your post number at the end of your critique).

For entrants: how do you feel about the contest so far? Anything to improve on for next year? How has the feedback been?

For everyone: How do you feel about getting harsh critiques or reviews?


  1. You didn't just sit there and cry - you took the next step after those harsh critiques.
    My theory is would you rather your critique partners tore it apart or a reviewer of the final product? Because that is far worse.

  2. Great post. Thanks for making all of us feel a little better about this arduous process! :)

  3. Let me tell you...from one "no" to the next "no", the critiques stung like venom...for the first hour or 2. But afterwards, I came to appreciate every single one and how right they each were (well, except for one, but I won't go I felt the exact same thing that you stated: I got so much more from those no's than I would've gotten had I gotten all yes's. I went back and reread my query and slashed it up, mostly b/c the critiques highlighted what I had forgotten—that my query was based on my MS BEFORE my major revisions. :: face palm ::

    So, thank YOU for this contest and to all of the critiquers. I'll make sure to post my revision after the contest deadline.

  4. Though the no's stung, they were all right, especially since every single one pointed out the exact same problem. :) I've spent the entire weekend revising thanks to this contest. Confession time: I sent this query out to five agents before discovering this contest. Of course, all no's. Now, I think I know why. Well, the main reason why. So, thank you. THANK YOU! And thanks for sharing your personal journey. I'll be re-posting a revision Wednesday night!

  5. This ain't my first rodeo. Yes I had those ideas of everyone falling madly in love with my query and first 250 (okay, the query, I knew the 250 needed something, but it's always hard to see it), but I've done enough contests to know what really happens--I enter with high hopes, but spent more time nodding my head, agreeing with what people had to say.

    Feedback is priceless. Yes, I'd love to be the query contest beauty queen, but most people find their agents through the slush pile. Contests are one way to really find the weakness in your query. And as terrible as it sounds, learning to take criticism is part of becoming a professional. It's not like Amazon reviewers worry about the feelings of writers as they rate based on price or because the item showed up late.

    I feel like this contest gave me really great feedback. I know what I need to fix in my query (they are such fickle creatures!), and that is priceless. I really--REALLY--appreciate a contest that doesn't have an agent at the end. I spend a long time getting my query ready for prime time, I usually start the query long before the novel is ready.

    I thought it's been really good, so Thank You! Also, thank you so much for letting us post revisions! I love that idea. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

  6. I'll admit, after the first day my heart was palpitating and I had to forbid myself from looking at the entries. This is the first I've looked since Friday. Criticism is just a part of the package. The beauty of writing is that everything is subjective. Someone could hate something that another person loves. All the different opinions were refreshing. All it takes is one person falling in love with your project...

    Thanks, SC. ;)

  7. Thanks for this post - terrific.
    I had that same experience you told, SC Author! I worked so hard on the query and actually thought I had come up with something good.. HAH!!!
    I am received all no's, and it hasn't felt good at all BUT I have been SO GRATEFUL for the comments. For the most part, critiques have been thoughtful, careful reviews of ways to improve.
    One thing that has helped me mitigate potential "sting": the knowledge that some people have a generally harsh speaking/self-expression style. Not everyone is good at diplomacy - and they may not even know that they are coming across in a harsh or even unkind way. So I try not to take it personally. I take the criticism and leave behind the rest, because, after all, that's what matters, right?

    1. Yes. This. Re: self-expression.

      I was always taught to sandwich criticism in between layers of encouragement, and generally my CPs and beta readers are the same. But this is a totally new forum, people are pressed for time, and everyone is, ultimately, different in how they express themselves.

      Spot on!

      Thanks again for hosting, SC.

  8. PS, I do plan to submit my revisions for comment, and look forward to seeing whether I have actually made it better!

  9. I am THRILLED to read how you took a painful situation (all those NO votes!) and turned it into growth. This is exactly what we have to do (and is so much like what happened to me all those years ago when I posted my horribly-horrible first page on Miss Snark's blog), and it's a sign that you've got the chutzpah that it takes to keep going--and to succeed.

    I applaud you! :)

  10. Honestly, I'm fine with it. I think some of the perceived harshness is because of the brevity of the comments, but I don't expect paragraphs on it. We're just asking for impressions--the same thing the agents are probably going on. Anyway. I welcome any and all feedback. The ones I don't agree with, I don't heed. And I also think judging by only 250 words is tough, but it's the name of the game in most contests. Thanks SC for hosting and for your candor. (#17)

  11. It's like I said on Twitter: things like this *will* make one grow a thicker skin. Imagine if all we got was ego-stroking until we were published and the first bad review comes out? "Melty puddles of goo on the floor" come to mind. I really, really appreciate everyone's feedback. When the same issues are repeated several times...clearly, that's a sign! Thank you again, all you readers, and thanks to SC for hosting this awesome contest! So happy I can post a revision too! (#5)

  12. The harshest review I ever received was too ridiculous to care about but it does lower a book's rating on Amazon.
    I don't mind harsh criticism if it's constructive, giving ideas of what could be improved.

  13. Even if it's harsh, as long as it's honest, as you said... better than none at all.