There comes a time in every writer’s career when they need to ask the opinions of others. Be it finding beta readers, advice on their cover, their title, their blurb, or receiving reviews for their published works. There are hundreds of blog posts out there telling you how to offer a critique; we all know there’s a world of difference between critiquing and criticising. But what about the other way around? How do you accept the opinions of others?
We’ve all known people who don’t take criticism well. The writers who ask for opinions, and then tear down anyone who offers one. Some people aren’t looking for advice, they are simply looking for validation. So before you look for advice, ask yourself: are you ready to receive it?
If the answer is ‘yes’, then your next consideration is where to ask:
- Friends and family are an obvious starting point, but there is a big risk that they will be most concerned with sparing your feelings. Being told your work is perfect doesn’t help you; it doesn’t help you improve, it doesn’t help you grow. But if you can trust them to be honest, they can be a great resource. Just be careful advice doesn’t turn into arguments!
- Writing groups. If you’re lucky enough to have a writing group in your area, you have other writers there ready to help you out.
- Book groups can also be a great source of beta readers. They may not be writers themselves, but they are seasoned readers who know what works and what doesn’t.
- Online. Groups, forums, social networks; there are writers gathering everywhere online. Find groups that understand your genre, with writers with varying levels of experience. Those who have been through the process themselves can really help, while new writers can give fresh perspectives untainted by ‘being in the business’.
You are going to get a wide range of opinions, and a lot of advice will contradict what others say. The hardest job you have is sifting through what you will act on, from what you will ignore. Here’s a few pointers:
- Not all advice is good advice. It may be well meaning, but it may not be right for you. It may come from misunderstanding, from inexperience, through misjudgement, or even through jealousy. You don’t need to follow every piece of advice you get.
- There will be trolls. Not everyone out there has your best interests at heart. Some people are simply out to cause trouble, or to start arguments.
- Don’t defend yourself. If people pick your work apart, don’t jump to your own defence. Don’t get angry or upset, don’t take it personally. Never get into arguments. Smile, thank them for their input, and move on. If you need to clarify something, do so politely and with consideration. Bad reputations are easy to get, but very hard to get rid of.
- You can’t please all of the people. You are very unlikely to get unanimous opinions; there will always be people who don’t like your work. That does not mean it’s bad, simply that it’s not for them. In most cases, you’re safe to go with the majority vote.
- Sleep on it. Before responding, following, or ignoring advice, let it sink in. Take your time, and don’t act on impulse or immediate emotion.
- Be wary of outspoken opinions and lone voices. Be wary of people who have nothing positive to say. Be wary of people who don’t explain their opinions, or who give criticism without any suggestions for improvement. Also be wary of people who tell you how it should be done.
- Consider everything that is suggested to you. Even if it seems silly or completely off the mark. Don’t dismiss anything out of hand. There may well be a gem hidden amongst some otherwise unusable advice.
Always act with decorum. The writing and publishing community is very small: you’ll be surprised who knows who, and how quickly reputations can spread. You don’t want to find yourself blacklisted because you had a tantrum online.
- Stand back and, largely, let the discussion happen without you.
- Thank everyone for their input.
- You needn’t tell people whether or not you’re going to take their advice.
- Make your own decisions. At the end of the day, this is your work, and you have to be true to yourself.
- Don’t dwell on criticism. Don’t take it personally or let it dent your confidence. If you need to, re-boost your ego by going to those kind friends and family who will tell you you’re amazing (we all need to hear that from time to time).
There is so much expertise out there, so much talent and creativity. There’s a lot of mutual support, a lot of championing going on. The writing community is, by and large, a wonderfully friendly place. Don’t be scared to ask for feedback, it’s the best way to fulfil your potential as a writer.
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