I’ve been participating in a recent discussion about excessively harsh and mean-spirited feedback where, in some cases, the remarks were so nasty that tears were shed and all writing stopped. On occasion, within that harsh crit, there’s a gold nugget of wisdom that might be helpful in rethinking our stories. But it’s hard to find that nugget when it’s buried in vitriol and in the ego of the beta reader/writer who thinks he or she knows it all.

I stopped submitting my work to the Novels-List on IWW in part because I felt that feedback was too disparate and at times nasty. I kept whittling down my beta readers and until I found a rapport with two writers I met in an online class.

As I wrote in Don’t Do This, my last submission was torn to pieces. Not in a nasty way, but enough to leave me discouraged that I haven’t written a word in two months. But what bothered me was that my beta readers offered suggestions they thought would make the story more compelling–not realizing that it becomes the story they want to read (and maybe write) and not one I want to write.

In the Yahoo Group  I belong to and where this discussion started, one writer commented about a beta reader who is negative, but not harsh. Unlike most critters, she doesn’t offer suggestions, but questions why the writer went in a certain direction. This made me think of my own style of giving feedback, and I realized my tendency is to look at the WIP more as a finished book and provide a review, which isn’t valuable because the story is going through numerous revisions.

I like the idea of questioning the writer because it forces us to examine and analyze our character’s motivations, the overall premise, the main conflict, the flow of one scene to the next, the final climax, the resolution, and places where the story meanders away from the main plot. And although I might be questioning all these factors myself, sometimes if the question is framed differently it might lead to an “aha” moment and take me down in a very unexpected, but more satisfying path for both the writer and, ultimately, the reader.


    • I think you have to ask them to look at certain things. Tell them that any questions that come to mind to ask them. Let them know that you’re less concerned about copy-edits at the moment and more concerned with tension, conflict, theme etc.

  • Carol Keane posted this to FB, which is how I got here. The first time I submitted something to Novels-L on IWW, I got such a brutal critique that I was in tears. The critter (the person critiquing 🙂 said I had no business writing fiction because my pacing was terrible, my characters one-dimensional, you get the idea.

    I couldn’t bear to read the email in its entirety, so I archived it out of sight. And I stopped writing. 6-8 months later I went back to that email. The critter suggested I read a lot of books. That was never an issue. I’ve been an obsessive reader all my life. This person also suggested I read books on writing and join the Practice-W group on IWW. I did do these, and then went on to finish the novel (100,000 words).

    While the advice was on target, the means of delivery was terrible. I shudder to think I’d have given up on fiction writing if I’d not been made of stronger stuff.

    Having said that, I found a lot of supportive critiquers (if there’s such a word) on IWW, people who really helped me get the novel to where it is today.

    • Rasana, I’m so happy that you were able to get past the hump of negativity and continue writing, even though you had a huge hump to climb over. I have such a hard time understanding why anyone would do that to someone who is trying to learn and improve. None of us start off writing beautiful sentences or hypnotizing page-turners. Where does this hubris come from?

  • Great post, Rebeca. I agree–an approach based on questions is probably a lot easier to accept and assimilate for the sensitive souls out there rather than a straight-forward “this don’t work for me” approach. It puts the focus back on the submitting writer, makes them ask themselves those questions and see where the answers take them.

    To Rasana’s story above, you asked a question: “where does this hubris come from?” I believe it comes from the same place where all hubris comes from: insecurity and narrow-mindedness. When you work from a place of abundance, when you believe there’s more than enough success and talent to go around (twice), that someone else’s success does not take away from yours, then it’s an easy thing to be generous–you have a sincere desire for that other person to succeed. When, on the other hand, a person is insecure of their own self, when they believe that anyone’s success has an immediate negative impact on any ambitions of their own… Well, then you end up with a “my way or the highway” response. Some people feel threatened by the inherent talent in others.

    There is one important distinction to be made when it comes to critiques. There’s hurtful and there’s sincere. A young and inexperienced writer, especially one who is talented and has received nothing but praise from friends, family and teachers, will be blown away by the slightest criticism of their work, hurtful or sincere. As long as it’s not praise, we don’t want to hear it. I know–I’ve been there. Talent is only 10% of any kind of success as a writer. The 90% is hard work. It amazes me how often a bestselling debut novel is NOT the writer’s first novel. Many new writers approach this “getting published” thing with naive expectations of overnight success, and are then sorely disappointed that no one seems to “get” their work. Those grammar mistakes? They’re *voice*! Those character “arcs” that are more like radio waves? It’s character *complexity*! Those gaping plot holes? It’s not plot-driven!

    As horrible as it is to get a “nasty” critique, I’d encourage every writer, published or not, young or not, experienced or not, to take that word, “nasty”, out of their vocabulary. It’s in the eye of the beholder, after all, and such qualifiers are beneath us. An intelligent writer will discern criticism, taking it into account *as long as it is constructive*. If someone says “I’m confused about the plot”, that’s constructive. “Your writing sucks” is not constructive, but “I’m confused about the plot” does NOT translate to “your writing sucks”. It’s not personal, and if people aren’t getting what you’re trying to convey, there’s probably a reason and we’d do well to set the ego aside and revise with an open mind.

    In the end, it’s not just the critic that suffers from hubris and narrow-mindedness. The writer is not immune either, and in my humble opinion, those are the two main obstacles towards success.

  • Guile, I have no idea taking criticism aimed at helping me be a better writer. Better now, when it can still be fixed, than later, when the readers hate it.

    What I have issues with is personal attacks, of the kind ‘you have no business writing …’

  • And I agree with you 100%, Rasana–those critiques are very demoralizing. But since you can’t avoid nasty people in the world, the green-with-envy types that seek to destroy you before you even start, what I’m saying is Don’t Let It In. Learn to take those critiques as part of being a writer. Yes, there are nasty people out there, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Should it control your life, your eagerness as a writer? That, truly, would be a shame.

    What will happen when those horrible book critics get a hold of one of your books and destroy it on the internet, on the printed page? Or agent after agent that refuses to represent your manuscript? There are so many success stories, seeming straight out of fairytales, about bestselling manuscripts that had to be self-pubbed because no one would take them. Or how about Catch-22? Read David Abrams’ post on that here:


    I’m not defending the “nasty” critters here. All I’m saying is that everyone has something to teach, and being a writer means dealing with criticism that’s not always delivered in the ways we’d like.

  • First to be a writer one needs the skin of an alligator and serious padding for their butt.

    No one should be allowed to discourage a writer, no matter how bad the critique is. Some people are just nasty to begin with and think they know more than they do and like to show it by being nasty.

    When critiquing, I use the sandwich method. Say something positive, what isn’t working for you as a reader, and finish with something positive.

    When trying to find a beta reader, find someone with a personality that you can get along with.