Nobody likes a critic…

…especially writers who are, as I was yesterday, facing one final round of line edits on a manuscript that’s been through four beta readers and two line edits by different people. Taking criticism is hard, which is why I rarely read my own reviews. Reviews are for readers, not authors, and a reader’s criticism comes too late to make a change to the book. I find that deeply frustrating, hence the policy.

But criticism in the early, pre-publication stages is essential, and it’s not something you should simply ignore. The problem is finding critical readers who share your vision. There’s a sometimes fine line between someone who points out flaws in what you’ve done and someone who wishes you’d told a different story and gives you feedback accordingly. Having a thick skin when it comes to listening to criticism is key to telling the difference. It’s also important how someone gives criticism. In one of my previous critique groups, there was a person who positively delighted in telling people what they’d done wrong, laughing like it was funny that they’d made mistakes. It never mattered whether that person’s points were correct; the net effect was humiliating to the writer on the receiving end. Some beta readers do the same thing, but in a vicious, cruel way, trying to tear you down. Neither of these are worth wasting time on. The critique process ought to be uplifting, centered not only on making a manuscript better, but on helping a writer learn and improve her craft.

My own problem with criticism isn’t taking it so much as taking it too well. I have a very bad habit of, when presented with a correction to the text, immediately rethinking everything surrounding that part of the story and believing that the correction is right just because someone else thought so. Not all corrections are good ones. Not all changes are an improvement. Whether because a reader missed something elsewhere, or didn’t understand what you were doing, or simply didn’t know enough about the historical background of the book, corrections can be wrong. While it’s important not to reject comments out of hand, it’s also important to remember that this is your book and you’re the one who’s going to live or die by whatever’s in its pages. Sometimes you really do know best.

I have between four and five beta readers, each of whom brings a different viewpoint to the manuscript. These are people I trust to be both clear and accurate in their comments, even when they’re telling me things I don’t like. I don’t take all their suggestions, though I do consider every one of them. Sometimes a comment on a specific passage leads me to consider the issue more globally; sometimes I can tell one of my readers missed something important and I go back and fix the other thing instead. But I think I’ve been lucky in never having had a beta reader who was a clear mismatch for my book, or who didn’t understand what exactly a beta reader’s supposed to do.

Line edits are different. In the case of the manuscript I was working on yesterday, the two line editors were assigned by my publisher. I’ve met one of them online; I have no idea who the second one was. And I immediately saw a difference between the two. The first could tell what I wanted for this book and was very good about suggesting changes that brought it closer to that ideal. She lacked a knowledge of the historical period I’m writing in, but was aware of her lack of knowledge. In fact, that made the book stronger because she asked questions that someone not familiar with the English Regency period would ask, pointing out places where the story would be opaque to such readers. And she made a lot of changes that made me squirm, but I was forced to admit she was right.

The second one wasn’t nearly so pleasant. Some of his or her changes were good, and one change in particular made me look at the manuscript differently. Unfortunately, this person also introduced errors into the text, made corrections that showed they didn’t know much about the time period, and had a very strange theory of paragraphing. I found myself feeling very hostile toward this unknown person, angry over the errors, angrier (because I have contrarian tendencies) when they were right about something or made a change that was better than what I’d come up with.

I have sole control over the final version. It would have been easy to just reject every one of those edits on the grounds that some of them were bad and I was angry over this person’s presumption. But this is part of criticism too–not letting personal irritation get in the way of making the book better. So I groused a lot about it to my husband, and I accepted the places where that reader was right, and rejected the things that were wrong. And then I moved on.

Write. But don’t write in a vacuum. Someone is going to criticize your writing. It’s so much better to receive that criticism when you’re still in a position to do something about it.