Dear Captain Awkward,
I’m a journalist and also like to write short fiction in my free time. I feel weird saying this but I guess it helps with explaining the problem: I’ve gotten pretty good (part of the job) and I’ve done well in contests and such in the past, so I think it’s safe to say I’m becoming a good writer. I love getting critiques because they’re super helpful if given by a knowledgeable person.
Sometimes, however, someone very well meaning but who doesn’t have much experience writing will give me a critique that I know isn’t very good, but I know they meant well– the most recent time this is happening being with my boyfriend.
A couple weeks ago, he asked me if I would like him to critique a story I was working on. I didn’t think it through too much and said I’d love that, but the critique he gave back was really unhelpful and nonsensical at some parts. I love him dearly and he’s a great guy but I know he’s not the best at giving writing critiques. He continues to ask if I need help/want him to critique again. It’s super nice of him! But I know it’s not helpful at all. …but I don’t want to hurt his feelings by saying so.
This has happened with other people in the past as well. My question: how do I gracefully accept a bad critique someone’s given (bad not out of malevolence) and, if they ask, explain why I didn’t change what they said I should change? This is most striking with the boyfriend situation, since I see him all the time and since he reads my writing, he would know that I didn’t listen to his advice. I really don’t want him to feel bad for taking his time out to do something so nice either.
Thanks for giving me an opportunity to natter on about something I care very much about. Insightful critique can be incredibly important in helping an emerging artist shape their work. Hearing an unfiltered audience reaction to the work, insightful or otherwise, can help you see if what you intended is what’s being received. But this is best accomplished with good boundaries and structure.
For example in the early classes at my school, we rely heavily on the Liz Lerman Critical Response Process to create a safe and supportive environment. It goes roughly like this:
1. View the work.
2. The audience is asked to share what they noticed without value judgments. What took your attention? What did you notice about how the project was made – technique, tone, style?
3. The audience is invited to comment on what they liked about the piece. What is working? Did you have a favorite part? Positive feedback is motivating, and it’s helpful to hear comments about the impact of the piece as a whole before digging into the nitty gritty. Also, sometimes the flurry and stress of producing something makes you forget what you like about it. It’s good to be reminded.
4. The artist (who should be prepared with questions) asks the audience how specific elements are working. Was this moment clear and believable? Did this transition make sense? What did you think about x choice? This is where the artist can acknowledge, hey, this is a really early version, I am still working on this a lot so yes, help me shape it, or nah, I’m pretty much set with it but I want to field-test a few things.
5. Discussion of what is not working is optional/voluntary. The audience can offer suggestions or ask questions, which the artist can choose to listen to or not, e.g. “I have a suggestion about what you might do with music, do you want to hear it?” The artist absolutely has the choice to say “Thank you, but no, I’m good.” We do dig into technical aspects and places where the piece might fall short in terms of craft and execution, and in practice almost everybody wants to hear every question or suggestion – especially things that might need improvement – but this framing recognizes that sometimes you aren’t in the right frame of mind to take it in. Maybe you don’t really care what that particular person thinks; not everyone is the right target audience for what you do. Maybe you already know what you want to do to fix it and you don’t need more opinions right now.
Often in classes, we build on Lerman’s method and come up with a shared ethos for how we want critiques to go. Some guidelines that have come out of that:
6. If you are the person exhibiting, there is no apologizing for or explaining work you are screening. Shut up and press play. This is a hard habit to get out of, but it’s important to let the work speak for itself.
7. If you are the person receiving critique, write down everything everyone says. Don’t argue, justify, or explain – just take it all in, take a night off from thinking about it, go home, re-watch the work with the notes in mind, and see which ones help you. If multiple people give you the same note, they are probably onto something. Remember, sometimes a “useless” note that you disagree with strongly is really a useful note, because your instinctive “Nope!” helps you clarify and articulate what you do want. My friend D., who has produced several of my films, probably exists to be the guy in my life who says “We should do it this way!” and for me to say “No, the exact opposite of that!” Letter Writer, maybe this spirit can apply to some of your more “nonsensical” notes from your boyfriend and others?
8. You do not have to take anyone’s notes, including mine/the teacher’s. The transaction is that we the audience are completely honest in our reactions with the understanding that you are the ultimate boss of your art. While suggestions might be about how to make something translate better, we are not trying to help you make work that we like better or the way we would make it, we are trying to help you figure out how to make the work that is what you most wanted to make.
This structure can be time-consuming and takes some getting used to (everyone wants to skip over what they noticed to talk about what they liked/didn’t like), but I think it’s incredibly useful for giving beginners a respectful and constructive structure to refer back to. In the classes where we use it we are teaching people to watch thoughtfully as much as we are teaching them to make anything.
You’re a journalist, so you know this intimately: critiques that come from an editor, a publisher, a producer, or other boss who is hiring your work in some way are different, since they are the buyers and ultimate fate of the work is in their hands. It’s instantly more about results – what will sell, what will be the most commercial and accessible choice, what works best with budget and resources at hand – and not about your personal development as an artist. Showing that you value and can work with the notes of an editor or producer a trade-off you may want to make to keep the work going forward.
In art school and I imagine journalism school, and/or writing groups or art classes, one hope is that weathering so many critiques and revisions will help people gain resilience and perspective in dealing with feedback, so that in the professional world you’ll know when to recognize and adapt when someone gives you a great note and when to stick to and fight for your creative vision. Sometimes the right answer is “Let me try that out in a rewrite and see where it goes” and sometimes the right answer really is “The wall needs to be purple because that’s how I saw it in my dream.” And if purple is a mistake, at least it will be your mistake.
One of your questions was about how to gracefully accept unhelpful critiques. Try: “Thanks for your thoughts, I will think about that!” Acknowledge the kind intent, and leave it there. You don’t owe them any explanation for why you didn’t apply their feedback to your writing, so avoid giving one if you can – the more you explain, the more it all starts to sound negotiable. If someone presses you about it, and if you feel like responding, try “Thanks for reading, but sometimes what I’m going for when I have people read early drafts is more a sense of how they are processing the story than for any specific bit of feedback. You helped me very much with that, but I can’t and don’t take every suggestion I get – otherwise my work would collapse under the weight!” If they keep going, “This is making me very uncomfortable. I’m so grateful for your initial read, but I don’t like feeling like I have to justify my creative decisions now that the piece is finished, so I’m going to end this conversation now.“And then don’t give that person your early work again. If you have to whip this script out, believe me, you are not the one who made it weird.
For the frustrated beta-readers out there, I agree that putting the time into someone’s creative work is a gift, but try to remember that a gift is something you give away. People who can’t let it go, people who get their ego all bound up in how a creator takes or doesn’t take their feedback, people who feel frustrated when they invest time in a project and then the creator doesn’t take their notes (to the detriment of the finished product) (in their opinion), should stop putting themselves in the position of giving feedback to that particular creator, the way I would stop giving you fancy hats if you kept giving them to your goat to eat. “Thanks for asking, but I’d rather wait for the finished product!” is a perfectly reasonable response to awkward requests that seem to set everyone up to fail.
Speaking of which, looking at drafts can be a gift, but it isn’t always a gift, and it’s not such a favor that the creator should abdicate from their own choices and needs. Unsolicited advice about anything is pretty annoying, and one question I’d have for our dear Letter Writer is: Does your boyfriend do something creative or is he trying (gently, it seems, but trying) to glom onto your creative life and then set himself up as an opinion-giver there? He may not be doing it intentionally, but even so, you can nip that right in its teensy little bud. You didn’t ask your boyfriend to do any of this, Letter Writer, and I think you should saddle up and say a clear and direct no to further critiques from him. Wait until the next time he offers, and then tell him: “Thank you so much for giving me your thoughts on my work, it was very nice of you to offer. After thinking about it, though, I’d rather have you read the finished products as a proud boyfriend vs. my shitty first drafts as a critical responder.”
If he asks why – Were my notes not good? Don’t you want me to be involved? Am I not doing you a great favor by taking an interest in your work? – take a breath while you cringe for him and stay strong:
“I just realized that because we are so close, it made it hard for me to evaluate your notes critically. I need to feel free to totally throw away anything that I don’t agree with without worrying that it will hurt your feelings or like I need to justify that choice to you later.”
Here is when he will explain that it won’t hurt his feelings. That’s okay, make it about you.
“Thanks for saying that, but again, this is about what I need and not about what you intend. I love you, and I’d prefer you as my boyfriend than as my beta reader. I make better decisions about my own writing when I don’t have strong feelings attached to the note-giver.”
If he keeps going at this point,
“This? This right now is why I don’t want to get notes from you on drafts. My writing is separate from our relationship, and our relationship needs to be separate from the quality and process of my writing. Crossing the streams isn’t good for me. Let’s drop it, please.” Get him the gift of a beginning creative writing class for the next gifting holiday and let him work out his frustrations there.
His feelings may be hurt, but he’s 100% putting himself in this position by offering a favor that isn’t really a favor. Say no. It will be such a relief.