Handling Harsh Critique

This is Part Two of my critique series. (Part one on Giving Negative Feedback is here). So you’ve done a beta swap with a new reader and gotten your critique feedback. But it’s bad. It’s really bad. Not only is it negative, it’s hurtful or accusatory. It feels vicious or personal, like the reader is furious that you forced them to read your manuscript.

Please note that I’m referring to feedback that is harsh but not hate-speech or bigoted. That’s a whole separate issue. This is just for when someone tells you that your main character is nonsensical, you have no grasp of tense or point-of-view, and your grammar is atrocious.

So if you get a hate-filled edit letter, what do you do?

Step 1. Resist the urge to fight back.

[Friends GIF: Rachel clenching fist, Ross holding her back]

Arguing isn’t going to change any of the feedback. Though telling the writer off might make you feel a little better temporarily, this is when it’s time to take the high road. Respond that you received the feedback, thank them for their time, and leave it at that. If needed, mention that you’re not interested in pursuing future critique swaps.

You’re better off washing your hands of them and moving on.

Step 2. Feel what you gotta feel.

[How I Met Your Mother GIF: Robin crying under a desk with wine]

Let yourself be sad, or angry, or disappointed. However, I always give myself a time limit. “Ok, I can mope and cry about this for exactly one day.” Allowing myself the freedom to frump around the house and eat ice cream and sob it out for a night helps the whole experience pass more quickly than spending three days struggling to just ignore it or get over it.

Step 3. Strip out the hurtful tone to find the core of the critique.

[GIF: Panning for gold]

Hand it off to trusted critique partners or friends and ask if they can help sift through it to strip out the personal, accusatory language and decipher the underlying issues. There may still be gold underneath all that muck.

Or if you can handle a reread after the initial feelings have settled, go back with fresh eyes later and pare it down to bare bones. I usually make a bullet list of straightforward things like “didn’t like the main character” or “had issues with pacing in the middle”.

Sometimes this takes a little interpretation. Maybe the feedback “you didn’t know what kind of story you wanted to tell” really means “the plot meandered in act 3” or “the subplots were hard to follow”. Sometimes, buried under all that hatefulness, there is something you can improve.

Step 4. Review the stripped-down notes with an objective eye.

[GIF: Seth Myers taking notes]

Read back over the bullet list and consider the points. I know it’s hard to resist the instinct to say “who does this jerk they think they are” and throw it all out immediately, but it’s worth giving it a fair shake, for your book’s sake if not the reviewer’s.

It’s also entirely possible that you disagree with all of the notes. Your manuscript may not have been the type of book for them. Maybe they went in expecting a fun low-fantasy romp and got something more sprawling and epic instead. The reason the notes are so awful might just be that it’s not their thing. I promise, your absolute favorite book has a scathing one-star review posted somewhere.

If your gut instinct is to disagree with the feedback, this is when you compare the notes to other beta readers. If multiple betas are mentioning the same issue, then it might need to be addressed. But if the hurtful critique is the only one that points out a problem, it might be subjective.

I’ve had entire edit letters that I chose to discard after review, because everything they hated was subjective and would have pushed my story outside the vision I had for it. But I’ve had others that buried one or two gems among the garbage fire, so your mileage may vary.

Step 5. Make revisions, if needed.

[GIF: Kermit the Frog typing]

Swallowing your pride and making changes can be rough. But in the end, it’s your story that matters most. It’s ok to disregard the feedback if you feel they just weren’t the right reader for you, or if it’s an issue where you want to dig in your heels. (I had a beta complain about Cirelle’s bipolar in Cambiare, but that was a non-negotiable point for me).

Either way, you owe it to your manuscript to at least consider the underlying points of the feedback fairly before making that decision.

If there were decent notes buried in the feedback, now it’s time to treat this like any other post-beta revision round. Time to pick the story apart, build it back up, and make it better.

Conclusion

Getting your first scathing feedback is, in some ways, an author rite of passage, so it’s also a minor cause for celebration. You’ve passed through the fire and come out the other side stronger.

Never work with that reviewer again, and find yourself some new critique partners and betas who can give negative notes alongside the positive, without making any of it feel like a personal attack. They’re out there, and they’re worth their weight in gold.

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