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The Art of Taking Critique

Technically, I’ve been criticized—I mean “critiqued”—my entire career. Whether it’s getting feedback from an audience at a play reading, notes from a book editor, or a room rewrite of a television script, my job is to translate opinions into positive changes for whatever project I’m working on. It’s a tricky business because our natural instinct is to assume critique is criticism, and resist it. But learning how to utilize comments about your work may mean the difference between career success and failure. Here are some tips on how to develop the thick yet porous skin you need to navigate critique.

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Column by Ellen Byron, author of debut novel PLANTATION SHUDDERS
(Aug. 2015, Crooked Lane Books). Her book is nominated for an Agatha Best
First Novel as well as a Best Humorous Mystery Lefty Award. BODY ON THE
BAYOU, the second in her Cajun Country Mystery series, launches in September.
TV credits include Wings and Just Shoot Me; she’s written over 200 magazine
articles; published plays include the award-winning Graceland. Follow her on
Twitter and Facebook

1. If different people give you the same note, listen to it. One of the first tenets of critique I learned was to take a good, hard look at any comment you hear from more than one person. This tip may seem to fall under the category of “duh,” but we writers are a stubborn lot—especially if we’ve fallen in love with a particular beat, line, or plot twist. Sorry, but it may have to go bye-bye. As William Faulkner famously said (at least according to Google), “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

(Learn how to start your novel strong.)

2. Don’t write someone else’s story. When I was a naïve young playwright, I had a reading of a play I wrote that was inspired by my relationship with a great-aunt. After the reading, an older and more experienced playwright commented that he liked the play, but “it would be even better if it were about the girl and her father.” Maybe—if he were writing this particular play. But that wasn’t my story. Still, being a newbie, I took his note, rewrote the play his way—and completely lost my connection to it. Such is the danger of taking critique too literally. A writer needs to be pliable enough to accept feedback, yet strong enough to stay true to their vision.

3. Explain, don’t argue. Never begin a sentence with the word “But.” It instantly implies resistance. If someone’s challenging a point that’s important to you, feel free to say something like, “Here’s what I was going for.” Once you’ve explained, you may get an “Oh, now I get it,” or you may get a, “Yeah, still doesn’t work for me.” Whatever the reaction, file it away and move on. If you keep hammering away at your point, you’ve turned explaining into arguing. By the way, when I write for magazines, I don’t even explain. I’m a hired hand, and the editors know their needs far better than I do. Unless a comment involves a potential fact-checking snafu, here are the three things I allow myself to say to an editor: “Okay.” “Sounds good.” “You got it."

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4. Be humble. I’ve seen arrogance kill the career of some great writers. I’ll never forget one playwright who made a triumphant transition to Hollywood—and then disappeared. I asked an executive who knew him why his TV and film career short-circuited. She rolled her eyes and said, “Ugh, he threw a fit every time we wanted to change a word of his stuff.” Accept that there are people who know more than you do. And even if they don’t, you may have to listen to them. As a television writer, I’ve gone through group rewrites where scripts have actually gotten worse. But I’ve also seen scripts get much, much better. Often it’s how you address a note that makes all the difference. Which leads to…

5. Distill the feedback. Sometimes an editor, director or executive will pinpoint something that’s bothering them and then pitch a fix that’s just crazy-bad. Here’s where you must be a critique detective. You need to excavate the core problem that someone is bumping up against and come up with your own fix. Most of the time you’re not expected to take the suggested tweak literally. But if you are, believe me, you’ll hear about.

6. Trust your instincts. This may seem counter to #3 & #4, but it’s not. If you’ve done 1-5, you’ve earned the right to go with your gut. But use those instincts wisely (see playwright-no-longer-working in #4). You have the right to fight for something that you feel strongly about, but pick your battles.

(How can writers compose an exciting Chapter 1?)

When you’re getting notes, feedback, critique—whatever you want to call it—if you feel yourself becoming tense or resentful, take a deep breath and remember that writing is subjective. All of it, from newspaper articles to freeform poetry. If you want a productive career, learn how to take feedback in a way that makes everyone happy—including you.

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